If you’re anything like me, pop culture has familiarized you with both the tattooing process and the final product, but not so much what happens in between. Naturally, questions about this in-between stage linger: How long does a tattoo take to heal? Is the healing process painful? And what are some signs that a tattoo isn't healing properly? As a dermatologist, I can tell you that these are perfectly normal questions to have. So ahead, I sat down with my board-certified colleague Dr. Liza A. Moore and tattoo artist Adam Makharita to demystify the tattoo healing process.
Meet the Expert
Keep reading to learn about the healing stages of your fresh ink.
Tattoo Healing Stages
In our experience, a normal healing tattoo will go through three broad stages of healing.
Days 1 to 3: Inflammation
It is normal for a tattoo to be red, swollen, and tender for the first 48 to 72 hours. There may also be some oozing of blood and/or ink during this time period. Makharita notes that these symptoms should improve significantly each day. Prolonged symptoms should be evaluated by your tattoo artist and/or a physician.
Days: 4 to 14: Visible Recovery
As the healing process continues, the top layer of skin peels, flakes, scabs, and itches—similar to the response the body makes as it recovers from a sunburn. This is a normal, healthy recovery process. Avoid scratching, rubbing, picking at scabs, and physically removing peeling skin. Doing these things might only cause more injury and prolong the recovery period.
Days 14 to 30: Invisible Recovery
The visible signs noted above have typically resolved by the third week post-procedure, in our experience, however, the tattoo will may remain dull and dark appearing until approximately one month after the tattooing procedure. At the one-month mark, the tattoo may have taken on its permanent vibrant color. Remodeling of the skin underneath the tattoo will continue for three to six months when tattoos are fully healed.
How Long Do Tattoos Take to Heal?
In general, it takes approximately one month from the time of tattooing for a tattoo to take on its permanent form in a young, healthy individual, though as mentioned above, tattoos are considered fully healed around 3 months. However, there are some factors that can influence healing time. For one, tattoos with more saturated color areas may take slightly longer to heal. Makharita explains that saturated pigment requires more needle pricks to deposit ink than finer tattoos. This may create a larger inflammatory response, potentially requiring a longer recovery phase.
Tattoo Healing and Aftercare Tips
Both experts have slightly different post-care instructions, but the core of their routine is the same: The body is capable of healing the wound as long as we don’t get in its way. Makharita emphasizes that improvement should occur daily, and that lack of daily improvement may be a sign of delayed wound healing or infection.
- Use a breathable bandage the first week: Since tattoos create an opening in the skin that allows bacteria entry, Moore recommends covering the tattoo with an adherent, breathable bandage, such as Derm Shield ($35) for the first week. These bandages are meant to protect the wound from infection while allowing it to breathe. She recommends washing the skin with a gentle soap and water and reapplying the bandage daily for the first week. After the first week, the bandage can be removed. However, it’s important to continue to apply a healing ointment on the tattoo until all signs of healing have resolved.
- Cleanse with antibacterial soap: Makharita applies a breathable bandage immediately after tattooing and prefers for clients to leave this initial dressing on for three days. After removing the breathable bandage, Makharita recommends cleansing with antibacterial soap twice a day.
- Break out the healing ointment: After the breathable bandage comes off and you've cleansed with antibacterial soap twice daily for about three days, Makharita recommends slathering the area with Aquaphor Healing Ointment ($10) daily. After the first week of doing this, he recommends clients then transition to daily cleansings and application of a gentle, fragrance-free lotion, such as Eucerin Advanced Repair Lotion ($10).
How to Know If Your Tattoo Isn’t Healing Properly
There are a few tell-tale signs that your tattoo isn't healing properly. Namely, if you're experiencing any redness, puffiness, or itching beyond a few days, consult with your physician. Also, if you notice any fluid or pus oozing from the tattoo, this may be a sign of infection.
The Final Takeaway
The tattoo healing process is fairly straightforward. Swelling, pain, and oozing typically resolve by day three and are followed by itching and peeling for another week, in our experts' experience. Your tattoo may even look darker and duller than expected for the first month. Follow the proper course of care from your dermatologist and/or tattoo artist, as proper care may help protect you from infection and create a better tattoo result.
Should I cover my new tattoo at night?
The first night with your fresh ink, you might want to wrap the area in plastic. (But consult with your tattoo artist for their advice on the matter.) After that, you want to make sure the tattoo is getting as much air as possible, free of coverage.
Can I wear clothes over a new tattoo?
You can definitely wear clothes over your new tattoo (depending on where you’ve been inked, you might have to). Just make sure to opt for loose, natural fabrics like cotton, and avoid tight clothing that could rub against the tattoo.
When can I touch my tattoo?
Be sure to ask your tattoo artist for their specific instructions, but in general, your tattoo should stay under the initial bandages for a least a few hours. During the healing process, you should try to only touch your tattoo when cleaning it—and when cleaning it, make sure you've washed up first. “The most important step would be to clean your hands before you clean your tattoos,” says tattoo artist Tuki Carter. “[I recommend that] you listen to the verbal directions [from your tattooer] first, then refer to the written directions after.”
American Academy of Dermatology Association. Tattoos: 7 unexpected skin reactions and what to do about them.
Cleveland Clinic. What to expect when you get a tattoo. Updated October 2, 2020.
Müller CS, Oertel A, Körner R, Pföhler C, Vogt T. Socio-epidemiologic aspects and cutaneous side effects of permanent tattoos in Germany - tattoos are not restricted to a specific social phenotype. Dermatoendocrinol. 2016;9(1):e1267080. doi:10.1080/19381980.2016.1267080