Congratulations, you just got your first tattoo. While you took care choosing what image or words will start you on your inked journey, your artist also took care to cover up your new tattoo. They did this for a very good reason—to keep air-born bacteria from invading your wound. Yes, your new tattoo is undoubtedly awesome, but it's also still a wound. Open flesh is a breeding ground for bacteria and infection, and that means you need to leave the bandage on the first day.
Hopefully, your tattoo artist walked you through how to properly care for your skin and your new tattoo as it heals. But, perhaps you were somewhat tuned out, just relieved to have survived the procedure, and missed most of the instructions you received. Now, you notice your tattoo seems to be oozing or leaking a clear fluid. What does this mean? What should you do? Fear not. We turned to two dermatologists to get all the best advice for healthy tattoo aftercare and learn what leaking fluids mean and if you should be concerned.
Worried about whether your new tattoo is healing well? Read on for complete tattoo aftercare advice, what leaking fluids indicate, and when to seek medical care for your tattoo.
Meet the Expert
- Scott Paviol, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Paviol Dermatology, part of Piedmont HealthCare.
- Geeta Patel, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of River Oaks Dermatology in Houston, Texas.
How Does a Tattoo Heal?
“After getting a tattoo, the skin is very sensitive because the needling process essentially creates numerous tiny puncture injuries,” explains Paviol. “This causes the body to initiate an inflammatory healing response that causes swelling, redness, and immune cells to be recruited to the area to heal.“ Macrophages, one of the primary white blood cells that comprise the body’s “clean-up crew,” arrive at the site of the tattoo in an effort to remove the new ink. “One reason that tattoos fade over time is because macrophages slowly work to remove the ink that is placed there,” says Paviol. They also cause some swelling. “It is normal to have some swelling for the first two to three days, as that is a normal response to skin trauma by our bodies,” he notes. “It is also normal to have some oozing of clear, yellow, or blood-tinged fluids for several days after a tattoo.” Paviol says these responses should steadily subside over time, however, if you are still experiencing more redness, swelling, or pain after two or three days, you may need to have the area evaluated.
Patel says it’s not uncommon for tattoos to itch and flake during the first and second week as they start to heal. “It is important not to scratch it. You can also put an ice pack over the bandage to numb the itch.” She adds that in weeks two to four, your tattoo will begin to peel. “This skin is sloughing off as the body’s natural response to what it perceives as injury. The tattoo will not fade away with peeling.”
What Should Tattoo Aftercare Involve?
“With any procedure, I always stress that people should protect their investment,” shares Paviol. “You’re spending money and time when you get a tattoo, so you need to do everything you can to make sure it looks great for a long time, and you don’t have issues with infection or prolonged inflammation—so pay attention to the aftercare!”
Paviol says that at first, your new tattoo should always be covered by petrolatum (Vaseline) and a bandage. “This creates a semi-occlusive environment, which deprives your tissue of oxygen and tricks your body into sending more blood and healing signals to the damaged tissue,” he explains. “After 24 hours, remove the bandage and gently wash the area with antimicrobial soap and water and pat the area dry.” Paviol says it’s important not to scrub the area of the tattoo when you’re washing it. And, twice a day, you should cover the area with a layer of Vaseline or Aquaphor to keep the semi-occlusive environment intact and maximize wound healing.
You should continue this care process—gently washing the area twice a day with soap and water and gently patting it dry before reapplying the antibacterial/Vaseline ointment—for two to four weeks. “It is normal if your new tattoo develops small scabs,” shares Paviol. “Be sure never pick at it or scratch it, as this increases the chances of introducing bacteria to the area and developing an infection.”
Paviol shared the following essential care considerations that should be followed over the first 2-4 weeks after getting your tattoo:
- Avoid wearing clothes that will stick to your tattoo.
- Avoid swimming and direct sunlight because UV light slows wound healing and can cause the ink to fade. “If you do go in the sun, I recommend covering it up with a bandage or SPF clothing,” Paviol says. “If you can't do that, find an umbrella and cover the area with a zinc-based sunscreen.” Patel adds, “When you’re in the sun, protect your tattoo by applying a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or more. Apply the sunscreen 15 minutes before you go outside and reapply at least every two hours.”
- Avoid hot showers because they will dehydrate your skin can cause the ink to fade.
What Is This Leakage?
For the first three or four days, your new tattoo will ooze a little bit of plasma discharge. If it's leaking a clear fluid, it's likely not pus and thus probably not infected. Paviol says that when trauma occurs in the skin (like getting ink injected via needles), the body sends signals in the form of cytokines, which cause increased vascular permeability. “This results in increased plasma in the tissue and swelling to help the tissue heal and may cause the area to ‘weep,’” he says. “This is a normal part of the process of healing.”
Patel says the weeping fluid “will leak out and try and harden into a scab.” She adds, “Your body is recognizing an open wound and trying to close it off with white blood cells and lymph.”
What If It's Been a Few Days?
However, if it's been more than three or four days and you're still noticing a lot of leaking, you might be putting too much ointment on your tattoo. Certain ointments tend to cause more leakage in some people than others. As long as the fluid still seems clear and the tattoo doesn’t feel hot or look red, don't panic. Just ease up on whatever ointment you're using. You should only be adding a tiny amount of ointment, barely enough to give your tattoo a bit of a shine. This is a situation where "less is more." A good way to test the strength of the application is to see if your skin feels wet after an application. If it does, you're using way too much ointment.
If decreasing the amount doesn't help, you need to stop the ointment altogether, switch to another product, or just keep your tattoo clean and forego the ointment for a few days and then switch to a lotion.
When to Seek Medical Help
It doesn't happen often, but there's always the risk of infection any time needles are involved. “You should seek medical care if you start to see increased redness, pain, fever, or pustules in the area,” advises Paviol. “These can be signs of infection, and the area may need to be cultured to see if bacteria is present and if you need to be put on an antibiotic.” Patel adds that two other signs that indicate the need for medical attention are “discharge from the tattoo that has a yellowish hue” and “lesions within the tattoo.” If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, do not try to treat things at home on your own. You should see a doctor immediately, whether you visit your GP, an emergency room, or your nearest urgent care walk-in facility.
Cleveland Clinic. What to expect when you get a tattoo. Updated October 2, 2020.