Tattoo Aftercare, Why You Need It, Where It Came From, And The Right Way To Do It.
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Is Aftercare Magic?
Aftercare is not a magic potion. It isn’t some mystical thing that heals some consecrated wound on the body. All aftercare is, or at least all it should be is a technique utilized by a TATTOO CLIENT so that their fresh tattoo (wound) stays pliable until it drops its initial scabs.
Tattoo aftercare is not:
- Something that can heal your wound
- Necessary or even valid in some cases
Things to note:
Depending on your race, age, lifestyle, and overall health, your aftercare will be different than it is for someone else. (We will get into that in a second)
First things first (and there are a lot of firsts!), where does the myth of aftercare come from?
Well, to be honest, we don’t see a direct link to much in tattooing and product/brand recognition, but we do see a period in time when aftercare became important – The Mfin ’70s!
During the ’70s, there was a type of tattoo renaissance driven by the biker style that became too pervasive in the ’80s and ’90s. Riding on the back of things like Woodstock, The Rolling Stones, and other counter-culture movements, the biker image was something that mostly white, male, macho buggers wanted to emulate (at least in some way). This isn’t a way to try and devalue or remove the movement (here in the US) of the black-male biker image, but that specific movement was less impactful on the world of tattooing and, in turn, tattooing aftercare than previously stated.
The image and idea of a tattoo were attached to that of freedom, which was oftentimes granted by owning or riding a motorcycle. Without 4 walls and wheels, you could experience freedom. Couple that marketing image with rebellion, which must always go hand-in-hand with freedom (because who in their right mind would want freedom?!)(sarcasm… just in case that didn’t come odd), the typical biker image slowly evolved into a more complex image of masculinity.
Big Bad Bikers and Tattoo Culture of the ’70s.
This has a lot to do with the Hell’s Angels (TM) – yes, they are a trademarked corporation and a socially dynamic brand. There have been movies made, concerts devoted to, and so much news released about this band of devoted, ex-service-people, previously law-abiding motorcycle enthusiasts that have changed the framework of tattooing a lot since their inception.
Before biker iconography, tattoos were oftentimes worn discreetly, easily hidden in more intimate areas by feminine or affluent folk, or were brandished by those who sailed/were in the Navy (western world).
Then, like magic, the ad magicians manufactured an image that worked to sell a whole lot of leather! Additionally, tattoos moved from under the cuff or from being worn by sailors who got them in a distant land to these rebellious folk who rode Harley’s, ran drugs, killed people, and had “freedom.”
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So now that we have a good mental image of who was getting tattoos during that time – let’s get into aftercare!
A funny thing happened around the same time that bikers were becoming a symbol of counter-culture and getting a lot of tattoos… the FDA-approved medicine that became the first-line treatment for tattoos – Neosporin.
How Do These Things Link To Tattoo Aftercare?
Imagine doing a tattoo on a biker. Their sun-damaged skin, glistening with dead cells, dry, baked, tanned, dirty… It is amazing how much the human body can withstand when the image of “being tough” is applied to it!
But, these were the folk who were getting tattoos at the time. And most amazingly, they had issues healing their tattoos. It’s funny because you think, at least nowadays, that baking your tattoo in the sun for 8 hours after it finishes is simply insane… But this was the ’70s, and people were idiotic!
I know this is not the most academic way of putting it, but I want to skip the psychology of the idiot on a bike right now.. not that everyone was an idiot on a bike back then, but the ones that would kill an MFer if they messed up a tattoo are the main focus of this walkthrough on the history of aftercare.
So, tattoos were being done, and they weren’t healing. Tattoo artists, afraid of possibly violent retribution for a crap tattoo, turned to a new, over-the-counter, healing balm – Neosporin.
Neosporin, Aquaphor, and Tattoo Aftercare.
There is an article that came out in the 70s alongside the release of a marketing campaign showing how well Neosporin worked on wounds (which was secondary to its label indications). That was the product many people know as Aquaphor. Oh dear, what a brilliant means of marketing this product! Not only were the medical journals reporting its safety and efficacy, but the product itself was also super cheap to manufacture.
White petroleum, a byproduct of oil production, was available in massive quantities, but there was nowhere to use it. Then, in the ’70s, there was a massive explosion in its use. Many mixtures for use in medicine started popping up. The white petroleum-based medicines were amazing at holding mixtures at various temps, liquified when applied to the body (delivering targeted medicines more efficiently than a mixture in plain water), and required little to no specialized storage. You didn’t need to mix them, and they had an incredible shelf life. This made it easy to roll a massive reproduction line of overly effective antibiotics out of the doctor’s office and into the family home.
These petroleum-based products became a staple for most households when wounds were presented on kinds, old people… whoever had a cut or scrape only needed to toss some Neosporin or Aquaphor on the wound, and everything would be OK!
But, as science is finally digging through these products and showing the reality of their efficacy.
Initial results are showing that their use may not be the best choice for any type of wound but rather only in a place where sterility is necessary.
Onto the process of healing a wound and what products may be best for a tattoo!
What Is Good To Use On A Fresh Tattoo?
When we do a tattoo, especially if done correctly, we damage the epidermis (top layer of the skin) to implant (which also damages) pigment into the top layer of the dermis. The body is then unable to remove the pigment because macrophage interaction with the pigments makes phagocytosis impossible! The macrophages get too heavy (loosely using that phrase) to migrate back into the lower layers of skin to be carried away, back into the lymphatic tissues to be expelled. They end up just sitting there… forever! Along with wound remodeling (which also traps some of the pigment between keratinized calls during the healing process), a tattoo slowly becomes a part of the body. It is an implantation of a foreign substance that results in what we love for years to come (hopefully!
For many years, people would see the wound of a tattoo and attempt interventions to help speed the healing. Remember the bit about bikers? Well, here is where they come back into this whole thing…
Why Did Tattooers Even Start Offering Tattoo Aftercare?
Back in the ’70s, bikers were getting tattoos that just didn’t heal. The tools being used were not as fine as they are now, gloves were not a requirement for a good tattoo, and things like hepatitis weren’t looked at as a possibility. Things were groovy! Unless, of course, you got a tattoo and promptly got a sunburn on the sucker.
So, to combat poor skin heals, people started putting stuff on their wounds. Without a good bit of science to back anything up, brand recognition was the first line of defense against a product’s claims. Marketing lines like “Speeds healing” or “Cuts Heal 3x Faster!” were a panacea for the world and tattooers desperate for better results.
This is where traditional aftercare came into play.
Keep it dry.
Don’t pick it.
Put some Aquaphor or Neosporin on it till it heals.
While this may have worked well when confronted with gnarly skin conditions, the bikes were presented to tattooers; it doesn’t leave a lot of room for people who have, well, healthy skin (sorry, bikers!) Since there weren’t any alternatives, people kept passing this idea down to apprentices, and the same thing happens today.
We have more knowledge about skin types, skin conditions, and wound care than we did 50 years ago (thank god)
Testing Skin Care and How We Found A Better Aftercare Routine.
More recently, we did an experiment testing different aftercare protocols on clients who were willing to take part in it. Most people were totally down to be a part of this experiment, and only a couple of people kept using what they already knew would “work for them.”
To start, we devised a skin profile for each person and combined it with their age, lifestyle, and genetic background. Each of these groups was separated into likes, with about 5 people in each group. The groups consisted of skin ranging from dark to light, old to young, and healthy to unhealthy.
Each group was then given a type of aftercare product chosen through anecdotal evidence and historically proven experience.
Wildly, the results we came up with showed most traditional aftercare products or routines were ineffective, especially when a person’s skin was healthy! The more interventions placed on the skin when it was healthy, the greater likelihood that the skin would heal slower, be more prone to scarring, and fade quicker.
Through all this, we kept thinking back to what the reasons were that some of the products recommended were being used. It all came back to the bikers and mass marketing.
Upon further inspection, where we came up with the repository of new research, we noticed that most of the products sold as safe and cruelty-free were far from it. Reports of things being ineffective, unsafe, and causing long-term complications were more frequent as a Boolean search based on years of publication became more recent. It’s crazy, but if I were to tell someone that Neosporin is used for eyes rather than a cut, they would look at me like I was on fire! Or that the main ingredient in Aquaphor is filtered through BONEMEAL before being put in a plastic container that is NON-BPA free.. once again, I was an alien.
But, we did come up with a protocol for how to take care of your tattoo. It involves some simple questions to be asked to the client and often doesn’t require a stop at the store or counter to buy a new product.
Questions To Ask So You Can Create A Holistic Aftercare Routine.
The first question is:
Does the client have a skincare routine already?
This question is a good start because we can tell how much effort someone already puts into their skin. If someone puts lotions or oils all over their body every day, we can assume there is a level of health and awareness that may not be present in a person who has never and will never put lotion on their skin. We can also try to build their normal daily INTO the aftercare protocols we are setting for them as an individual.
Think of it like this –
If person “A” puts lotion brand “X” all over their skin every day, after a shower, we can assume:
- They aren’t allergic to this product
- They already have this product in great enough quantities to support the initial healing of a tattoo.
- The client is already acclimated to the product, and as such, their microbiome will be at a more-than-likely homeostatic level during the healing of a tattoo (DECREASED chance of opportunistic infection after the procedure)
We also know that if they are already using product “X” on their skin that the time necessary to heal a tattoo wound will be congruent with the time necessary to remove previous products from the skin. Yes, it can take up to 30 days for a skin care product to leave you, and in that time, you are more prone to breakouts, infections from small wounds, and other negative kinds of stuff from just existing in your environment. So, introducing a new product is just crazy!
By suggesting a new skincare product, you are possibly forcing the body to adapt to foreign material, decreasing the efficacy of all things in use and opening the body up to some of the challenges listed above.
So the inclusion of products and daily routine should be included in the aftercare. If there is no current skincare routine to add in or any products that may already be in use (even if it is transitory), we can use the second question to help identify which products are best for their skin.
The second question is:
How would your skin feel in you used product “Y” (new product) or product “X” on your skin 3 times a day, all over your body, for a month?
This question may seem crazy to most people, but just take a second and stop thinking about the tattoo being separate from the rest of your skin. Look at the skin as a whole, a living thing that covers your body.
If the person states that they think their skin would be amazing (mostly middle-aged white men), then tell them to take that to the park and use it as an aftercare routine!
If, like normal people, they say that their skin would be disgusting and their armpits would feel like they are swimming is a disgusting mess, we will start reducing the number of times product “X” or “Y” will be used.
Changing up the type of product to find what works best during questioning is always smart. Use modifiers like:
“What if you put Aquaphor all over your body, top to bottom, 3x a day… Would your skin feel good?”
“How about putting lotion all over your body, top to bottom, 3 times a day… Would that make your skin feel good?”
Start reducing each daily application load until you settle on something that makes their face NOT contort in disgust.
Once you settle into what they feel would be the best for their skin because they know it far better than you do, it’s time to pile all that together and send the client home.
If they need a product that you have on the shelves, and it seems responsible for them to use it, you can sell it.
Be Sure To Get The New Product Tested On Their Skin BEFORE The Tattoo!
It sure would have been better to have them pick it up BEFORE the tattoo!!!!!
If you get a client to walk in and do a consult, take the time to explain aftercare THEN, not later!
You can get them to take a product home and start acclimating their body to the skincare routine while they aren’t healing a wound. This is important! Having a week or two to climatize a client’s skin to an aftercare product is important to skin health after a procedure that creates a wound (like a tattoo). If you can get the skin accustomed to a new product, the microbiome will have adapted and will, in turn, decrease the chances of opportunistic infections settling into the wound. This should increase healing speed and efficacy, which decreases the chances of the skin looking crap once it heals.
Yeah, that is important in a tattoo!!
So, if they need to take a product home before the tattoo, you get the benefit of making the body accustomed to it so it can heal better; you also get the chance to see: IF THEY ARE ALLERGIC TO IT!
(lol… OMG, I am heated about this one today!!)
It just makes sense… right?
Is There A Perfect Tattoo Aftercare Routine?
Yes, there is, and it doesn’t require a brand to make it work. A perfect aftercare routine is one that:
- Takes the individual into account when prescribing the routine. This includes what products to use and how many times a day to use them.
- Includes any routine they already have in it.
- Prepares the client for a new product by being a rational clinician before any darned tattoo is done.
Now that we have a basic routine crafted for the individual, we also need to create a system for the client to check in and give us feedback about the routine and how it works for them!
Make sure you get a phone call, text message, email, smoke signals.. whatever!!! It will put you in a good place to adapt the aftercare as the tattoo heals.
Have a client contact you 2 days after the tattoo and let you know how things are going. Get them to send a picture. Ask them questions.
If anything is going on with the tattoo, you can add or subtract interventions as needed and also check out your work. This is a holistic way to deal with care and allows the artist a chance to learn as they work. They also learn critical thinking and inquiry, health sciences, material sciences, chemistry, psychology, and art! It’s a great start for people just getting into the field and keeping track of their work as it heals, creating a better track record and spaces inside the field to understand where you went wrong, how to fix it, and how to adapt when things go bad.
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