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Tattoo Aftercare and Wound Healing.
I have spent some time rolling around the incredible vastness of the internet, looking up articles on how to take care of your tattoo. There are a variety of protocols or cure-alls that have been touted by artists worldwide. While I love the idea that there is a way for some of us out there to enjoy a healthy tattoo after abiding by the care instructions we receive, there are many pigeonholes related to tattoo care out there.
In short, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to tattoo aftercare. No one product works best for everyone.
There are so many variables that go into taking care of a tattoo: Your skin type, the climate you live in, your daily activities, or the kind of work you do if you pick your scabs or not… We can put an etcetera on that list, but I will take you through the different types of aftercare products. Hopefully, you can figure out what option is best for you and your skin.
Tattoo Aftercare Products and Healing Your Tattoo.
First, let’s dismiss the idea that you are healing your tattoo. You are not healing your tattoo. Your body is. This may sound confusing, but everything that you do to your tattoo can either enhance your body’s ability to heal a tattoo or worsen it. This doesn’t just apply to tattoo aftercare but also to any wound you receive when interacting with your environment.
This is because the human body is highly complex! There are so many things that we can’t see and an invisible world that regulates every part of us trying to keep our bodies healthy. Choosing one product as a cure-all for the entire species tattoo work seems ridiculous when you think about it. So, what can you do to make sure you heal well after getting a tattoo?
First, let’s dispel a few myths.
Wound Healing Myths
Having Your Dog Lick Your Tattoo Is Good Tattoo Aftercare.
I don’t know why I have to write this, but this topic has come up many, many times throughout the years:
Your dog doesn’t have antibiotics in its mouth. Their saliva cannot heal wounds. Having your dog lick your tattoo is a bad idea.
With that is out of the way, let’s go over why having your furry toe-beaned friend lick your wound is a bad idea.
Every mouth out there has bacteria, and dogs are no different. Strains of bacteria known for causing DEATH are evident in the mouths of puppers worldwide. These same strains can be fought with modern antibiotics, but the rates of amputation where wounds infected with these bacteria are more common than you would believe.
While the past has shown us that nearly all animals may lick a wound or two throughout their lives (we are looking at you kittehs out there) and the act of licking a wound may be soothing to our nerves, the proof is in the pudding that mouth germs are harmful.
To make it even more explicit:
- Dog lick bum boo-boo.
- Dog lick tattoo.
- Dog bum boo boo now on the tattoo.
Please do not do this.
Using Butter to Heal a Tattoo Is NOT A Good Idea.
I am talking about that nasty old pad of butter in the dish you probably haven’t cleaned in a month or so. When you aren’t looking, it is covered with flies when you aren’t looking and looks more orange than light yellow.
Butter is claimed by many new-age and old-world healing practitioners to heal wounds. Its use is touted as another cure-all, from burns to cuts, from surgical scars to broken bones. These claims seem to be tied to the fact that butter has fats and oils that are great for the skin when it is not damaged so, why not use it when it is damaged?
While this may be true for healthy skin, butter on a wound will introduce bacteria to that fresh ink. So stay away from the countertop mess you spread on pancakes in the morning.
As an aside, clarified butter and vegetable/fruit butter mixes work well with wound healing. Our focus on saving your skin is on bovine mammary secretions, not your cocoa/shea butter.
Scabs Don’t Mean Your Tattoo Is Healing Well.
If you see scabs in your tattoo, the wound is more severe and may require extra attention to heal correctly.
When a tattoo is done correctly, the epidermis is damaged, and sloughs (Say: “sluffs”) off as the damaged skin is replaced. You should see small flakes of skin or no peeling at all. The whole process of healing a tattoo should look and act more like a slight sunburn. If scabs are forming, you can be sure something else is going on with your tattoo.
On average, scabbing occurs when a tattoo becomes too dry, the procedure results in more severe tissue damage, and you are allergic to a product used during the tattoo.
This article is about aftercare products. Most products are used to moisturize a tattoo. This keeps the wound from drying out and is the easiest way to ensure your tattoo heals correctly only if you do it correctly.
You Shouldn’t Trust Products That Lack Clinical Trial Data.
The US and other countries lack regulation over personal health care products. Yeah, that is a hot button issue, and we apologize if this gets you all riled up. Some regulations are a good thing. (Sorry, my Libertarian friends!)
Medicines and other health-related products go through a process to ensure they are safe for the general population. Other products like tattoo pigments and skincare creams do not.
When a company makes bold claims about reverse aging, or wound healing miracle cures, they are most likely embellishing what their product can do to increase sales. Think about it, you are not healing faster because you applied some magical topical ointment or lotion to your skin. There is ABSOLUTELY no chance in this life that the $45 bottle of magical, salt-infused tattoo cream will imbue your body with healing powers comparable to Wolverine.
Science has shown us that our body has a fantastic ability to heal itself, regardless of our interference. Even if we wish to make things progress faster than they naturally occur by touching our fresh tattoos with unwashed hands, our body can fix most issues. The normal wear and tear of our life can be dealt with. A tattoo can be healed effectively.
Before we get too deep, you can check out our article on how much lotion you should use to heal a fresh tattoo by following this link:
What’s The Default for Caring for a New Tattoo?
In my experience, there is always a default setting for taking care of a tattoo. This occurs with both the artist and the client, who has already taken care of a tattoo.
Clients always remember their first tattoo like it was yesterday. The nostalgia of pain and the process accompany memories of how to tattoo aftercare is approached. Because the first experience is so discrete, our memories become more readily ingrained in our future habits. This process creates a default memory with more significant influence over future situations. It also establishes a minefield where new information must be added to or amended the previously learned knowledge.
When discussing tattoo aftercare with a new client who already has tattoos, I focus on bad habits. These bad habits mainly deal with the types of products they should use or the assumed length of time it takes to heal a tattoo. Other times I spent time listening to clients who are sure that the care regimens they used before are perfect for every wound they will encounter throughout their lives. These habits are hard to break.
To make things easy on a client, I will understand their body before any prescribed notion about how best to care for their body. If possible, I will add a few things I feel may be best for their skin type and complexion. I also ensure every client knows to contact me directly with any questions during the healing process.
Tattoo Artists Are Not Dermatologists.
Every tattoo artist out there knows a few tips or tricks for healing a tattoo. Some tattoo artists go so far as to offer up aftercare to every client that walks through the door only because it is required by the state or county licensing office. Without identifying and accurately diagnosing a client’s skin type, some tattoo clients will suffer from a tattoo aftercare regimen that can hurt them more than help them.
I have personally seen tattoo artists apply a qualifier to all clients healing a tattoo throughout the past two decades.
- “I” did the tattoo, and “I” know how tattoos heal when I do them (on average), so you need to do it this way, or you suck.”
This is not the best way to approach wound care, and I am confident this solipsistic approach hasn’t worked for the many generations’ of tattoos that have been done in the west. I can’t imagine a place where an artist hasn’t had a tattoo come back from what we considered a fantastic session looking like absolute crap. Not being willing or able to understand what is going on with the tattoo healing process leaves tattoo artists egos where they must defend their ability rather than critically examine what has happened.
When this happens, defenses come upon the artist’s side, as well as the client’s. Fights may break out, and distrust is spread throughout the industry.
When it comes to a tattoo that healed poorly due to improper tattoo aftercare, rarely does the situation result that both sides feeling validated.
A quick explanation of what happens when an artist applies a tattoo:
A tattoo is a medical procedure where pigment is permanently inserted into your skin. By creating openings in the skin for the pigment to enter, the body becomes more vulnerable to the possibility of infection. We develop aftercare procedures for clients to follow because the process is collaborative: We artists apply the tattoo to your skin in a way that we (hopefully) understand will limit the possibility of long-lasting damage internally, scarring of the procedure spot as well as decreasing the chances of transmitting an infection.
Sadly, our industry and the media created a blanket procedure that we utilize in the west for taking care of a new tattoo. I fear that many artists have not been given enough knowledge to deal with this aspect of the tattoo process. I fear they are too willing to jump on the cure-all bandwagon when confronted with new products expertly marketed for the industry.
Now that I have effectively called out an entire industry, let’s look at some variables that affect your skin and how it heals.
Healing your tattoo. What Moisture Has to Do With It.
Your skin is the largest organ of your body, and it acts as a barrier to the dangerous, pathogenic environment that surrounds us. While there is significant scientific information about the processes surrounding your body’s natural ability to keep your skin hydrated, we will avoid falling down these rabbit holes. Getting tattooed damages your skin and therefore damages your skin’s natural ability to hydrate itself.
In healthy undamaged skin, the human body naturally hydrates the upper layers of the skin through transepidermal water loss (TEWL). It’s very complex, so for those interested in the many mechanical and chemical processes. TEWL comprises, take a look around the reference section at the bottom of this page. To not shy too far away from the science, here is a brief description of how your body keeps the skin hydrated – Moisture moves through your skin, starting at the bottom layer of connective tissues. It moves up through your dermis to the epidermis, where it is eventually lost due to evaporation.
Regardless of the damages that may occur mechanically, we use moisturizers to increase the skin’s health. It has been shown that what we put on our skin has a lasting effect on the health of our body’s largest organ. If we think about how these products can harm your skin when it isn’t injured, we can imagine what happens when you apply a ” designed ” product to aid in the healing of an area that has been repeatedly stabbed with a needle for hours on end. It can sometimes result in a well-healed tattoo; other times, it can leave you with extended healing time.
pH And Acidity of the Skin.
When measuring the difference between acidic and alkaline conditions, scientists use the pH scale. A pH scale measures how acidic or basic a water-based solution is (a solution is a dissolved mixture of substances. In this case, it is a mixture dissolved in water).
At room temperature, this scale displays lower numbers (left-hand side of the scale) are considered acidic, while those on the opposite (right-hand side) are alkaline. A neutral state, which is neither acidic nor alkaline, is deemed neutral. A neutral pH reading is somewhere around 7.
pH measures the molar concentration (not teeth but a chemistry-based measurement) of free hydrogen ions (hydrogen ions are positively or negatively charged hydrogen atoms- the atoms that have gained or lost electrons) are found in a solution. Here is a video from Crash Course Chemistry that explains it in further detail:
The Acid Mantle
The very top layer of skin (called the Acid Mantle) on an average adult human’s skin has an approximate pH of 5.6-5.8 (averaging 5.7). Still, this number can be affected due to climate, elevation, pollution, nutrition, or products applied to the skin. The acid mantle is fragile but has an incredibly effective way of keeping your body safe from pathogens by forcing adaptation to things that could otherwise cause illness.
The acid mantle is created when secretions from your sebaceous glands mix with sweat and lower the pH on the tissues involved. The body forces bacteria and other pathogens to become “comfortable” in this environment. When we are cut or have an abrasion, the opening in our skin and the blood that accompanies this break are relatively neutral. The change in pH creates an environment where the invading pathogens are not as “comfortable” or less well adapted. This change in pH can kill the invading pathogens before they are able to establish a foothold and cause illness or infection.
Stages Of a Healing Tattoo.
Misconceptions on the first peel of a tattoo.
Most tattoos that I found online are deemed “healed” have only gone through the first (initial) peel. After a sitting, your fresh tattoo goes through a dynamic process of being accepted and settling into your skin. This process ensures permanency and decreases the chances of scarring and infection if taken care of properly. This initial healing process does not equate to what the tattoo will look like in the years to come but only ensures the wearer is less likely to pick up an infection during life’s everyday wear and tear.
I also have run across many articles giving a timeline of months for a tattoo to be through the first peel. While this timeline may be adequate with some artists who do not understand skin function or what happens when you overwork the skin, most first peels should occur within the first 7-10 days, not 4-6 weeks after the procedure.
After the first peel, your tattoo will still look nearly fresh, as the pigment is located relatively high in the dermis layer of your skin. Regardless of your skin health as you age, your skin will become thinner, and with time The pigment that makes up your tattoo will undergo changes in its appearance. Due to this evolution of the artwork, what you see in social media posts or in person as a fresh tattoo is not what the tattoo will look like in 1 month, one year, or one decade.
The Stages of Healing a Tattoo.
The multiple stages of your tattoo’s healing are commonly broken down into three parts.
- The first stage of healing is the first 7 to 10 days after your tattoo has been completed.
- During this time, you will notice the pigment in the skin become less vibrant, swollen, and developing a mild, thin scab over the area that had been tattooed. Macrophages in the body (specialized cells that capture and destroy pathogens) contain the pigment particles introduced during a tattoo procedure. These specialized immune cells “eat” the pigment particles and hold them in place.
- During the initial healing process, your skin may ooze exudate for the first 24-48 hours (Exudate is fluid that leaks out of blood vessels into nearby tissues. The fluid is made of cells, proteins, and solid materials. This substance may ooze from abrasions or areas of inflammation. As you may see after receiving a tattoo.) There may be redness radiating around the edges of the tattoo and a feeling of itchiness or irritation while the tattoo goes through this initial stage of healing. During this stage, most surface healing is done with the tattoo. The scabs that collect on the skin surface should also fall off, and your skin should have a glossy, thin-looking sheen to it.
- The second stage is deeper healing, wherein the dermis rebuilds its structure to support and consolidate the pigment that has been introduced through the tattoo process.
- This process starts as soon as the scabs formed on the upper layers of skin start to fall off naturally and can last anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 months. On average, this settling of the skin and consolidation of pigment lasts around two months.
- The final stage of healing is what we call in the business “settling.”
- During this stage, the skin has adapted to the newly introduced pigment and adjusts the saturation sections as macrophage interaction (dying off and being replaced with newer cells) redistributes the pigment is ways that eases the distributed skin tension. The settling process will cause the pigment to “bleed out” a little and make the tattoo look less focused as time passes. This process is continuous and will affect your tattoo for your lifetime (or the lifetime of the tattoo).
Most Common Tattoo Aftercare Products.
Let’s cover the products used most commonly in aftercare regiments and toss out a few pros/cons with each type-
Lotions creams and gels.
These are the most commonly recommended products for taking care of a fresh tattoo. Emollients are usually made up of lipid (hydrophobic compounds that repel water) and water emulsions that utilize a binding agent to keep them together. These products fill the gaps in your skin, creating a “fuller” stratum corneum layer (the outermost layer of skin) and covers the outer layer of skin to prevent TEWL. This increases the flexibility, fullness, softness, and moisture of the skin. These products are commonly produced with additional products for increased shelf-life and “preformance” enhancements (ease of application, color, medications, natural products, smells, etc.) Lotions are the thinnest of these mixtures. Creams usually have additional ingredients that create a thicker consistency. Gels will liquefy when they contact skin.
Examples – Lubriderm, Cetaphil, Vaseline Intensive Care
- Due to the decreased quantity of oils in lotion, the maximum retained moisture decreases. There is also a more significant effect of excess moisturizer being evaporated, so over moisturizing the skin is less likely to occur with single applications. Given specific climates, lotions are the best bet for the aftercare of a tattoo if the preservatives and additives are considered beneficial for healing of damaged tissues.
- In arid climates, there is a decreased ability of lotions to retain enough moisture in the skin to promote faster healing. You will need to reapply more often which may result in a mixed over-moisturized/under-moisturized situation with the affected area of skin. You may also unknowingly introduce pathogens to an open wound by touching it more often. This can result in a higher incidence of infection.
For larger areas of skin to be covered, there can be an inconsistent level of beneficial moisture applied. Along with the increased amount of damage that increases the amount of moisture lost by the skin, there can be a dehydrating effect that will increase the amount of discarded tissue collected on the surface of the skin (increased scabbing). There are also additives that are more often found in lotions that can cause allergic reactions and with a new tattoo, and when healing a fresh wound, we want to avoid any possible reactions.
Usually an oil or wax-based moisturizer that is applied to the skin. It acts in a way that stops the skin losing moisture due to evaporation by creating a barrier where the skin won’t be able to lose moisture due to TEWL.
Examples – A&D Ointment, Aquaphor
- Less product must be consumed to create a high level of hydration. This is beneficial in moderately temperate climates to hot or arid climates and decreases the amount of product used to ensure proper skin moisture levels. In people who have dry skin or problems like eczema, the oil-based moisturizers will soothe the skin and increase the body’s ability to heal before the tattoo procedure is scheduled.
- In humid climates the skin can become choked with moisture when using ointments which results in excessive scabbing and delayed healing times. If you have oily or combination skin types, ointments can effectively over-moisturize your skin, which in turn can increase the chances of contracting an infection. Using ointments can increase your chances of having acneiform eruptions (pimples) as well as contracting short bouts of contact dermatitis, especially if you have oily, sensitive skin or allergic responses to additives or the base ingredients. Another drawback to using occlusives is that the water content of the skin takes a long time to increase, as the water must be drawn from deeper levels of the skin before an improvement takes place
Substances that attract and hold moisture in the skin. They are commonly used in conjunction with other products to increase skin health.(Honey, propylene glycol, hyaluronic acid). Humectants can be mixed with a simple moisturizer to enhance their effects.
Examples – Manuka honey, glycerol
- If you have naturally dry skin, humectants have been shown to increase the natural moisture levels of the skin when applied correctly and in the correct environments. There are many “all-natural” choices when selecting humectants.
- If used separately, these products underperform clinically developed emollients and occlusives, especially when the relative humidity levels are less than 70% (making them useless in arid climates). There can also be a concern for purity and controls when purchasing what could be considered less than regulated substances from producers.
These products we will classify as those specifically made for healing tattoos. I will not be going out on a limb to give any review with these products. Not only do I wish to not be sued by blasting some of their claims, I also do not wish to sway any person who is currently using a product that is produced specifically for tattoos and having a positive result.
Below is a shortlist of product reactions that I will be adding to as more become available through your submissions.
- Using silicone gel strips or wound coverings like “Second Skin, Teguderm etc..” increases chances of irritation or reaction.
Formulations – An expansion and explanation.
The term “cream” traditionally refers to a product containing more occlusive ingredients, whereas a “lotion” contains primarily humectants.
Modern moisturizers often contain both occlusives and humectants that contribute to the efficacy, but levels of each additive are not uniform among. Understanding the physiology of the skin barrier, and how a disease state or circumstance may contribute to dry skin, impaired barrier function or flaking of the skin can help us choose the best ingredients for a patient. The specific balance and combination of ingredients will help achieve a variety of outcomes depending on the desire of the consumer.
Pay attention to the additives and formulations of any product that you choose to utilize. Take the time to look up ingredients and potential reactions that may be experienced when using the products.
In Conclusion: When in Doubt – Lotions Are the Best Tattoo Aftercare Product.
I admit that I have left out many variables that go into the best course for your tattoo aftercare, but this article is a good introduction for those wanting a more focused aftercare regimen.
In my opinion, using a lotion in most, if not all occasions, makes the most sense. The possible complications that arise from overuse the of humectants or occlusives make e default to that choice. It’s not some paid ideology but experience that has shown time and again that people will attempt to care for their tattoo in a way that doesn’t help it heal.