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Beauty

How to care for a new tattoo

Keep that fresh ink looking good!

Someone getting a tattoo Credit: GettyImages / nycshooter

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I recently got my first tattoo. Leading up to it, I was so focused on the design and making sure it looked just the way I wanted it to. But when the day came, I realized I wasn’t prepared at all for the healing process, which must be handled properly to ensure the tattoo looks its best for as long as possible—after all, tattoos are forever. During the actual tattooing process, it didn’t hurt nearly as much as I expected it to. But once it was all said and done and I had this beautiful piece of art on my leg, I realized I had no idea what to do next.

How long does it take for a tattoo to heal?

Two tattoos side by side
Credit: Reviewed / Melissa Rorech

On the left is my tattoo the day I got it, while on the right is the same tattoo a month later.

My tattoo artist, Kaylee Specht of Bridgewater, Massachusetts, says, “Tattoos don’t fully heal for a week or two. Everyone heals differently, so just listen to your body.”

However, the entire healing process could take longer, says tattooist Ian Haight of Portland, Oregon. “[It depends] on the person and whether or not the artist overworked the skin,” he says. “In which case, there could be scabbing, scarring, or take several more weeks to fully smooth out.”

For me, after about a month, I began to forget my tattoo was even there until I’d look down, catch a glimpse, and exclaim, “I have a tattoo!” Here’s what I did over those weeks to ensure my tattoo healed well—and what you can do to make the most of your fresh ink.

Week 1: Keep your fresh tattoo covered

A Tattoo Artist Cleaning a fresh tattoo
Credit: GettyImages / Ilya Ginzburg

While you're in the shop, ask your artist how you should be caring for your tattoo when you get home and take notes so you don't forget!

While I was still in the shop, my tattoo artist took care of everything once the tattoo was finished. I didn’t think to pay much attention to how she did it. Once the area was cleaned and a thin, see-through bandage was placed over it, I was handed another one and told to change it out after a day, then to leave that new one on for a week. Another option is Ultraderm, “which is an adhesive you leave on for a few days and is waterproof,” says Ryan Chmura, a tattooist based in Toronto. “But some [artists] just use Saran Wrap.”

Something I noticed during my first week that concerned me a lot was how much my tattoo’s ink appeared to be leaking onto the bandage. Sometimes it even forms an ink sack under the bandage and stays there until it’s removed. This is a common issue that happens as your body tries to push out excess ink and is nothing to worry about, Specht assured me.

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The most important part of the healing process is the first two to five days. “It’s during this time that the skin will seal itself and stop weeping fluids,” says Haight. “After that, the layers of skin that were perforated will discard the damaged tissues by drying up and flaking off to make room for fresh, new skin.”

During that first week, I was able to shower with the bandage on, but when it came to peeling it off, it felt like I was scraping off a layer of my skin. It was easier to do it in the shower—which is, in fact, the recommended way of getting the bandage off—but the barely warm water on the fresh tattoo felt scorching hot.

When replacing your bandage with the new one, I would recommend getting a second person to help you—especially if your tattoo is large or in a hard-to-reach area. The last thing you want is to put it on wrong and have to deal with a bandage that’s half hanging off of you for a week.

Weeks 2 to 3: Keep your new tattoo clean

A woman washing her tattoo in the shower
Credit: GettyImages/FG Trade

Once your bandage is off, make sure to wash your tattoo with antibacterial soap twice a day for 2 weeks, followed by lotion!

After that week was up, my tattoo artist instructed that I take the bandage off and wash the tattoo with an unscented, antibacterial soap and warm water twice a day for two weeks, followed by lathering it up with an unscented lotion. Seemed simple enough… but when it was time to suds up with soap, I found a lot of colored bits of skin washing away with each scrub. Plus, it hurt to touch at first. A little discomfort and color loss is normal, though, so don’t freak if you have the same experience. You can always get a touch-up from the artist—typically free of charge, though every artist is different, so you might want to ask first.

During this time, you want to avoid things rubbing up against the fresh tattoo, so wear loose-fitting, breathable clothing. “Everything that touches your fresh tattoo should be clean,” says Toronto-based artist Jennifer Ilett. “That means hands, clothing, bedsheets, towels, etc.” And most importantly, avoid direct sun exposure for the first 2 to 3 weeks—but “do not apply sunscreen directly to the fresh tattoo, just try to keep it covered with clothing,” Ilett says.

Week 4: Quell the itch (but do not scratch!)

a tattoo that's been taken care of improperly and scratched at
Credit: GettyImages / anilbolukbas

If you scratch at your healing tattoo, it can form scars that ruin it!

Soon the colored skin bits disappeared and the pain subsided, but the itchiness began. I had this urge to scratch my tattoo constantly although I knew I shouldn’t, as it could affect the healing process. “With it being a fresh wound, scratching can remove scabs that may form during healing and scar the tattoo, removing the ink as well,” Specht says. “Even if it isn’t scabbed, scratching can still cause scarring that ultimately ruins the tattoo.”

“Different artists have different healing methodologies, but I apply an unscented moisturizer like Aquaphor after it's dried off from that initial cleaning,” Chmura says. “Although some people prefer to wait one or two days before applying moisturizer.” You can also buy specially formulated aftercare balms that your artist may recommend, but some classics are Hustle Butter and H2ocean.

Week 5 and beyond: Don’t slack on your longer-term care

Putting sunblock on tattoo
Credit: GettyImages / Rawpixel

To keep your tattoo looking good for years after you got it, make sure to apply sunblock and moisturize frequently!

One of the biggest issues I’ve had since I got my tattoo is dry skin—I can even see the skin cracking in a few spots. But this is my bad for slacking on lotion—just a simple unscented Lubriderm or hand cream is fine. Explains Chmura: “The idea is to not let your tattoo dry out. If it does, it's no big deal—you just end up doing what is called a ‘dry heal’ which just tends to take a bit longer. The other risk with a dry heal is, as a tattoo is flaking, you risk the chance of ripping out the scabs which will take the ink with it!” Bottom line: Moisturizer is your best friend.

A couple more risks to avoid when your tat is healing: any swimming activities. “You’re basically healing a wound, and need to treat it as such!” Specht says. “You don’t want to introduce any bacteria to the area, or any possible sun damage that could ruin the healing process.”

Along those lines, you’ll also want to avoid direct contact with pets: “Pet fur, dander, and saliva can cause infections to fresh tattoos,” Ilett says. If your tattoo gets sweaty or licked by a pet, wash it immediately with clean hands and fragrance-free soap.

Finally, to keep your ink looking as fresh as the day you got it, always use sunscreen, once the skin is healed. “Sun damage can fade a tattoo and make it not last as well over time,” Specht says. Try to keep your ink out of direct sunlight as much as possible, but don’t be afraid of the sun once it heals—just slather it (and the rest of your skin) with SPF.

Haight sums the care process up nicely: “Aftercare is pretty simple if you have quality work done by a legit, licensed professional. Choose your tattooer wisely and don’t bargain hunt,” she says. “Take their aftercare instructions seriously and if you feel like you need more information, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask.”

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