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Tattoo aftercare is science as work. Good aftercare can make a difference in the life of a tattoo. Not only can it decrease the chances of infection, but it also increases the chances a client will be happy with the finished product. Most tattoo shops I have visited online or in-person have taken a blanket approach to tattoo aftercare. Here is an example:
- Keep it clean.
- Don’t pick the tattoo.
- Apply lotion or ointment to the tattoo whenever it is dry.
- Don’t soak in tubs or go swimming till it’s done peeling.
The example of tattoo aftercare above generalizes the process and should be avoided.
We know if we look around us that everyone is different. Every person alive has unique skin, lifestyles, habits… Everything that makes us one-of-a-kind. So why do tattoo shops across the globe offer only a single tattoo aftercare recommendation? It’s because the artists have no idea what aftercare really is, or why it is essential for the tattoo.
Join me as we cover what tattoo aftercare is, why it is essential, and offer you a bit of guidance as to how best to take care of your new tattoo.
What Is Tattoo Aftercare?
Tattoo aftercare is what a person does after a tattoo to care for the tattoo. Yes, I know that is like the most kindergarten-esq description of what you are dealing with, but, in my defense, I think we should start from the bottom and work our way up. Tattoo aftercare is necessary because tattooing imparts trauma to the skin. Needles striking the skin break apart its outer layer (the epidermis), which keeps us safe from infection. The epidermis is fantastic at its job. It ensures that things outside our skin don’t enter the body and take up residence. Because when they do, people get sick. That is why if you get a cut, step on a nail, or get a tattoo; you open yourself up to infection, and care needs to be taken to keep you healthy.
What To Do Before Prescribing Tattoo Aftercare Products?
When an artist prescribes aftercare for you, they decide how best to aid your skin in the healing process after a tattoo. Usually, an artist will recommend a lotion, cream, or oil-based product that you apply to your skin while your tattoo heals. Ideally, any recommended product should be readily available from a local chemist/drug store, cost-effective, and hopefully used by a client previously. One thing to make sure of before starting any tattoo aftercare is the person getting the tattoo lets the artist know if they already have a skincare routine. Tattoo artists should assess skin health, coupled with relevant medical histories, before deciding what products should be used on the client’s skin. Ingredients should be discussed with a client to ensure no allergies or reactions will occur with use.
Please keep in mind:
All tattoo aftercare does is ensure a level of skin health that allows the body to heal effectively. The products used do not heal your tattoo. Your body does that naturally.
You can read more about how often you should take care of your tattoo by reading our article:
So, What Is Tattoo Aftercare Actually Doing?
Tattoo aftercare products are used to influence your skin’s microbiome and impart moisture to the wounded area, keeping it supple enough to flex and move. The frequency of use should be determined by accounting for environmental, physical, and lifestyle stresses. When done by an experienced tattoo artist, a completed tattoo will have less trauma than one done by someone inexperienced. A long time in the chair will also increase skin trauma. In both cases, amendments to traditional aftercare routines need to be made.
Tattoo Aftercare FAQ?
Tattoo aftercare needs to be created holistically for each client. Ask yourself a few questions before committing to any form of tattoo aftercare:
How traumatized is your skin?
- If you see a lot of blood or are in a lot of pain, your skin may be overworked. This means you may need additional interventions to care for the wound.
- If your skin doesn’t look very swollen or red and you feel little pain, you may be good enough to heal with little to no intervention.
- The less stress imparted on your skin, the less likely you need a complex aftercare routine. In some cases, you may not need to take care of your tattoo at all!
How was the tattoo covered before leaving the tattoo shop?
- If you were covered with plastic wrap, remove it immediately. Plastic wrap is not an effective bandage and can increase your chances of picking up an infection.
- Plastic wrap is unable to exchange gasses that your skin exhausts and it holds moisture that your body produces after a tattoo against the skin. This all is bad. If you must leave on plastic wrap, do it only until you are in a safe space to take it off.
- If you had a transparent dressing applied to your skin, you need to remove it as soon as possible. Transparent dressings were not designed to heal tattoos, regardless of what they say on their packages. Transparent bandages were designed to cover non-productive wounds. Tattoos are known as productive wounds, meaning they weep fluid which collects under the bandage – which is bad. (There are a few products that can absorb fluids for use in productive wounds, but they aren’t used normally in tattooing due to their cost)
- If you do choose to leave these products on, watch out for any burning, itching, or soreness on the covered area. This is a symptom of being sensitive to the adhesive.
- If you had a cloth based or absorbent dressing applied, leave the dressing on for 4-6 hours and then remove in the shower. If it is late in the day, sleep with the bandage on and remove it in the morning.
How does the tattoo feel after removing the bandage?
- If the tattoo is throbbing, hot to the touch, or bleeding: extra interventions will be needed to ensure a quality heal.
- Overly traumatized skin is more prone to infection. If symptoms above continue for more than 36 hours, a doctor should be consulted.
- If the tattoo has zero swelling, no blood/exudate collected on its surface, and isn’t tender to the touch, little to no aftercare is required.
Should I stop my existing skin care routine?
- If you have a skincare routine, you need to keep doing it. Small cohort studies have shown that lotions and other skincare products persist in the skin. Changing the products used can alter the microbiome, increasing the chances of infection and scarring. Changes can also delay the time required to heal.
Can you touch your tattoo?
- Every time you touch your tattoo, you add the germs from your hands onto the tattoo wound. If you need to touch your tattoo, wash your hands first.
Is there anything I can do if my tattoo is itchy, or I like to pick scabs?
- Use an ice pack to cool the site of the infection. Apply a towel-wrapped ice pack for 10 minutes, then remove for 5. You can repeat this as necessary to deal with the itch.
- We have an article that talks about peeling and itchiness. You can read it here: Why Does My Tattoo Peel?
- You can also apply a hot compress to the tattoo site for no more than 3 seconds to alleviate the itch. Be sure to test how hot the water is on the inside of your wrist before soaking a towel for your tattoo.
- If your tattoo is mostly healed (around 85% of the scabs/sloughing has fallen off), you can take a bath and soak the last bits of skin stuck to the tattoo. Do not do this if you see actual scabs.
- If the tattoo is constantly itchy, you may have an allergy/sensitivity to the pigment. If taking an antihistamine reduces the itchy/discomfort of the tattoo, you can assume you have a problem. Talk to your doctor before using any OTC medications.
What Should I Do If I Am In Pain?
- Talk to your doctor about using NSAIDs to alleviate pain.
- Gentle exercise can help your body. Science shows that as little as 20 minutes of light activity can reduce inflammation, which in turn should reduce your pain levels.
- You can also try the tricks listed above for an itchy tattoo if, and only if, the tattoo isn’t actively weeping blood or plasma. Once again, check with your doctor before preforming any interventions.
How do i know when my new tattoo is healed?
- When all the skin/scabs have fallen off, and the skin looks like the skin around it (minus the new tattoo, of course), you should be good to resume any normal activities.
- If you need to ask yourself this question, your tattoo is probably not fully healed. Wait an addition 3-7 days before resuming activities.
Additional Reading and the Extra Stuff
We also have a YouTube channel that breaks down commonly asked tattoo questions.
You can find it by following this link:
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