Tattoo aftercare contradictions are an industry norm. In fact, each studio has its own best practices for healing body art. Some tattoo aftercare sheets recommended washing with an antibacterial soap, treating with antibacterial ointment for three to five days, and then following it up with a moisturizing body lotion. Others will tell you that antibacterial ointment is a "no-no" and to just keep the tattoo clean and use a little cream. And then the old-school artists advise against using any ointments or lotions at all, as they are vehicles for bacteria and can cause infection and scabbing. Admittedly, it can be quite confusing. So with all the varying opinions out there, how do you really know who's giving the best advice?
The Evolution of Ointment for Tattoo Care
Petroleum jelly was once the most widely used tattoo aftercare product. It's highly available, inexpensive, and just plain gets the job done. However, modern artists advise against using petroleum-based products because not only do they drain the color from a tattoo, but also their non-porous makeup prevents air from reaching the wound and allowing it to heal.
Then along came the over-the-counter triple antibiotic ointment, Neosporin ($18). It contains healing ingredients that fight infection and it doesn't alter the tattoo's color like the petroleum jelly alternative. But after a few years of recommended use, people complained of allergic reactions that resulted in tiny red bumps on the infected area. Once the red bumps disappeared, along with them, they took the tattoo's ink, leaving the customer with a spotted design.
Next came Bacitracin ($8) for its promising advantages over Neosporin. Fewer people reacted to this product and the coloring results remained beautiful. Even to this day, Bacitracin is one of the most highly recommended products—yet it has its failings. Customers still report allergic reactions to this ointment (though fewer than Neosporin), and Bacitracin can also result in what artists call a "weeping tattoo"—a tattoo that leaks a small amount of ink from the wound, even after several days of healing.
So it appears that some people don't jive with antibacterial ointments.
Modern Healing Advice
A&D ointment ($12)—mostly prescribed for diaper rash—tops the list of recommended tattoo aftercare topicals. A&D contains both Vitamin A and D (hence the name) to treat abrasions and minor wounds. It also keeps the skin supple and naturally protects it from outside organisms. A&D's one downfall is that it will not prevent infection due to its lack of antibacterial properties. But healthy individuals need not worry—a clean tattoo is a healthy tattoo and infection-fighting ointments are really just more of a precaution than a necessity.
Almost all artists recommend using a moisturizing lotion after letting your tattoo heal for a few days. Some actually advise using nothing but lotion from day one. But this is where it gets tricky, as different brands of moisturizers contain different ingredients, some which can harm your new tattoo or cause a reaction. Look at the ingredients list and stay away from lotions that contain lanolin (a natural oil that comes from sheep's wool), if you're allergic to wool. Steer clear of unpurified bee's wax, which can clog pores, contain contaminants, and suffocate your healing skin. And dyes and fragrances are an all-around bad idea for putting on an open wound anyway.
A generally safe bet for tattoo aftercare lotions are botanical-based creams and salves (look for ones with healing comfrey root) found at your local health food store.
Lastly, specially made tattoo aftercare products, like Tattoo Goo ($7) are popping up like weeds. Some artists highly recommended them and some say they're a waste of money. But these newfangled creams do more than just heal your tattoo—a few contain sunblock and pain reducers—so it's impossible to know what to choose. Check to see if your local artist carries a preferable product before purchasing something random online.
When it comes right down to it, following the recommendations of your local studio is always best. After all, they're the professionals. If you're susceptible to allergic reactions, have your tattoo artist provide a few alternatives for you. Discontinue use immediately if you experience problems with any skincare product. And don't be stingy when it comes to buying an expensive cream. Your tattoo will last you a lifetime, especially if you take good care of it.