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If you’re like me, pop culture has familiarized you with both the tattooing process and the final product, but not so much what happens in-between. 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
Tattoo Healing Stages
A normal healing tattoo will go through three broad stages of healing, which are detailed as follows:
Days 1-3: Inflammation
It is normal for a tattoo to be red, swollen, and tender for the first 48-72 hours. There may also be some oozing of blood and/or ink during this time period. Adam notes that these symptoms should improve significantly each day. Prolonged symptoms should be evaluated by your tattoo artist and/or a physician.
Days: 4-14: 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 sun burn. This is a normal, healthy recovery process. Avoid scratching, rubbing, picking at scabs, and physically removing peeling skin. Doing these things will only cause more injury and prolong the recovery period.
Days 14- 30: Invisible Recovery
The visible signs noted above have typically resolved by the third week post-procedure, however the tattoo will likely remain dull and dark appearing until approximately one month after the tattooing procedure. At the one-month mark, the tattoo has taken on its permanent vibrant color. Remodeling of the skin underneath the tattoo will continue for 3-6 months.
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. However, these factors can influence healing time:
Tattoos with more saturated color areas may take slightly longer to heal. Adam explains that saturated pigment requires more needle pricks to deposit ink than finer tattoos. This creates a larger inflammatory response which requires a longer recovery phase.
For all things, wounds below the level of the heart heal slower. This means that an ankle tattoo will likely take longer to heal than a tattoo of the same size on the arm.
Tattoo Healing Tips
The two 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. Adam emphasizes that improvement should occur daily. Lack of daily improvement may be a sign of delayed wound healing or infection.
- Use a breathable bandage the first week: Since tattoos create opening in the skin that allow bacteria entry, Dr. Moore recommends covering the tattoo with an adherent, breathable bandage, such as Derm Shield, for the first week. These bandages 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 as the openings in the skin has closed. However, it’s important to continue to apply an ointment, such as aquaphor, to the tattoo until all signs of healing have resolved..
- Cleanse with antibacterial soap: Adam 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, Adam recommends cleansing with an antibacterial soap twice a day.
- Break out the Aquaphor: After the breathable bandage comes off and you've cleansed with antibacterial soap twice daily for about three days, Adam recommends slathering the area with Aquaphor 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.
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. Expect your tattoo to 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 protects you from infection and creates a better tattoo result.