Whether you’ve just gotten your first tattoo or have two complete sleeves, you may have noticed that the skin around your new ink begins to flake and peel off during the healing process. It can be alarming to see chunks of pigment pull away from its permanent placement on your skin, but don’t fret—the peeling of tattoos is not only normal, it’s a sign that your new ink is properly healing.
So why exactly do tattoos peel, and is there any way to avoid it? Read on to find out everything you need to know on how to care for a peeling tattoo.
Why is My Tattoo Peeling?
When your tattoo starts peeling, don’t panic. Instead, be grateful that it’s undergoing the healing process correctly. Peeling occurs in a healing tattoo because the needles used during the tattooing process break and penetrate the topmost layers of skin, causing trauma to the skin barrier which then creates a wound. As a completely natural healing response, your body creates a thin scab over the wound (aka the tattoo) that then naturally peels or flakes off to reveal a fresh layer of healed skin. And while it may be tempting to pick at the dead skin, it’s important to let your body go through the process as naturally as possible.
“If there is some scabbing or flaking, we advise clients not to pick and to allow the scab or dry skin to come off on its own,” says Shaughnessy Otsuji, owner of Studio Sashiko. “Picking at your tattoo during the peeling stage can result in it appearing patchy, distorted, and dull once healed.”
When Does a Tattoo Begin Peeling?
Tattoo peeling happens so fast that you can basically see the beginning of the process. Once you uncover your new tattoo, you may notice that it looks a bit “dull.” This isn’t an indication of anything wrong; in fact, it means your ink is healing correctly. That dull layer is actually made up of the dead skin cells that accumulated on the top of your tattoo (or the same ones that are getting ready to peel away from the fresh layers of skin underneath).
You should also expect to be able to actually see the peeling on a fresh tat by the end of the first week. However, everyone’s body heals differently, so it’s not a bad sign to see peeling happen later. If it happens earlier, though, you may want to talk to your artist, as bits of pigment could actually be pulled from the tattoo and ruin the overall look.
What if My Tattoo Isn't Peeling?
As normal as it is for them to peel, it’s just as natural for them to not peel. Everyone’s skin heals in its own unique way, so you may see tattoo peeling at a later time or not at all. In fact, dry and normal skin types tend to peel more, while oilier skin may actually peel less.
The actual process of getting the tattoo may also contribute to whether or not your skin peels. Going to an artist who uses a shallower depth of needle penetration, or one who creates more fine line work, may mean less or no peeling. The actual type of tattoo you get will play a part as well, i.e. whether you go for traditional tattooing or cosmetic tattooing like eyebrow microblading or permanent makeup.
“In general, cosmetic tattoos don’t cause the same trauma to the skin that traditional body tattoos do,” says Otsuji.
Other Tattoo Side Effects
Peeling isn’t the only side effect you’ll notice if your tattoo is properly healing. You should expect to see some redness around the placement site for a day or so after getting it done, as well as some slight itchiness and minor inflammation caused by the skin trauma of the tattooing needles. However, if either of these symptoms extends past the placement site of the tattoo, it might be a sign of improper healing, so keep an eye on it.
Other side effects that may be cause for concern during the healing process include a sudden rash or large patches of redness, both of which could indicate an allergic reaction to the tattoo pigments. Extreme itchiness is another sign that something could be wrong, such as inflammation or an infection. Do your best not to scratch the area if it's itchy, as it could actually make the condition worse.
And while peeling is a sign of a healthy tattoo, excess peeling could actually signal the opposite. If you notice it in conjunction with excess swelling or redness, it could indicate an allergic reaction, the beginning of an infection, or triggered skin conditions. If you notice any of these uncommon side effects, contact a medical professional immediately to ensure you minimize damage to both your tattoo and your health.
One of the most important aftercare steps happens right after your tattoo is done: covering it to keep the freshly tattooed area clean. Check with your artist about how long they suggest keeping the bandage or wrap on, as well as how they generally suggest best caring for your new ink.
The best part about tattoo aftercare is that it’s a simple routine to be followed exactly the same way every day until your ink heals. First, be sure to wash the fresh tat roughly twice a day with antibacterial unscented soap to keep it clean from any gunk buildup or bacteria. To keep it from cracking due to being dried out, make sure to moisturize your ink after each wash and a few times throughout the day. Plus, another great benefit of using healing lotion is that it will help keep tattoo peeling at a minimum.
Other than that, it’s important to keep in mind a few activities to stay away from during the tattoo healing process: this includes keeping your tattoo out of the sun until it’s fully healed (and then making sure to always wear sunscreen after), avoiding any activity that would wet your ink like swimming, bathing, sweating, and not wearing any tight clothing. It may sound like a lot to remember, but as long as you remember to wash your tattoo and give it its space to heal, it’ll turn out exactly as you want it to.
Rahimi IA, Eberhard I, Kasten E. TATTOOS: What Do People Really Know About the Medical Risks of Body Ink? J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2018 Mar;11(3):30-35.