Understanding Tattoo Pain and What to Expect When a Tattoo is Healing.

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Understanding tattoo pain is something every client wants to know when they walk into a shop and ask for some work. Every tattoo is painful, but the level of pain is a subjective experience for the individual getting the tattoo. There are a few things to take into account if you are new to the tattoo world, or thinking about getting a tattoo in a spot that everyone tells you feels bad:

  • It doesn’t take a genius to understand this about tattoo pain: the longer, bigger and more intricate the design is, the more it is going to hurt! This is even more evident when multiple areas of the body are tattooed in one session. 
  • The level of pain in a tattoo can also be increased by the artist’s technique – a “heavy handed artist” is going to make you lay back in contortions as they work their magic while a “light handed artist” makes the day go by like a breeze.
  • If you haven’t slept well, aren’t feeling tip-top, or have extra emotional stress, the tattoo pain will feel worse.
  • Smaller groupings lead to a more sensitive experience while medium groupings are far less painful. (The super-big groupings can also create an even more intense tattoo pain!)
  • Where you get the tattoo will also affect the amount of pain you feel.

So, taking into account that every tattoo is a collaboration, let’s take a look at both what it feels like and how to take care of a new tattoo.

What Does a Tattoo Feel Like?

Tattoos hurt! For real though, the process of getting a tattoo can be a real pain.

While most clients (especially first-time tattoo clients) take the pain of a tattoo into account when choosing placement, the truth of the matter is – You shouldn’t focus on the pain! Instead of focusing on which spot is going to feel worse than another, a client should be focusing on how badly they want that tattoo! In our experience, if you want something badly enough, you will get it.
Owl Tattoo in progress
Many clients do want to know what exactly a tattoo feels like or how much a tattoo may hurt.

Luckily, we are more than able to point out a few possible *feels* you may get from the tattooing experience. Here is a short breakdown of what a tattoo can feel like, as was expressed by our clients over the years:

  • A Sting – People oftentimes compare the pain of a tattoo to a bee sting. These pains are often felt during a smaller sitting tattoo, located on the parts of the body that commonly interact with the environment.
  • A Cat Scratch – Some clients feel like a tattoo is akin to a sloooow scratch from a cat – minus the cat feces that is most definitely embedded into their cats’ claws. Cat scratch feelings are more commonly felt when a tattoo artist is using a rotary machine or is a bit heavy handed in their approach to tattooing. 
  • It Burns!! – These tattoo pains are normally felt in the softer tissues of the body that have little interaction with the world – the inner arm, the fold near the buttocks, the back of the knee, and armpit.
  • I Feel Nothing – This lack of feeling usually occurs around the 30-minute mark and is the result of endorphins kicking up and blocking out the pain. Does this phrase sound kind of like a magical phrase or a straight up lie? We can tell you through personal experience that it is not
    • Endorphins act like opioids in the brain and are really effective at decreasing an individual’s sensitivity to pain but neuroscience of the individual will allow a stronger or weaker interaction with chemicals that fight pain (if you brain is wired in a way that doesn’t utilize the chemicals in a comparable way to people who have extreme pain-fighting chemistry, you are out of luck when relying on the endorphin high).

The sensation of pain can also be broken down into a couple other categories based on the needle groupings being used:

Small needle grouping liners – – Sometimes feels like a knife cutting through wet tissue paper – if that tissue paper is your skin. These needles usually start a tattoo and end up getting a bad rap because, well, everyone remembers the beginning and end of a tattoo (the end is where highlights normally go into the tattoo and most artists use a liner…double trouble). Because most of the tattoo artists I know have a really twisted sense of humor, they will tell you often that they are switching to a liner grouping to watch you squirm!

Mags and Shaders – I have heard people call the shading process during a tattoo anything from the gentle touch of a fly landing on their skin, to something that is worse than giving birth. Really, the pain from a mag shader is usually a reprieve from the crappy feeling liner that starts most tattoos but, as the mag/shader goes over the same patch of skin multiple times, the result is a showdown, a “sandpaper-vs-skin” feeling, where the needle wins every time.

What parts of the body are most painful during a tattoo?

Some areas of the body hurt more than others, and this is most evident based on how long the tattoo is going to run. Even if a tattooed spot is really horrible (on average), if a person has a great pain tolerance, or if the tattoo is a single dot, almost anyone should be able to sit through the procedure.
If the tattoo is on a less-than-horrible spot, most people may not want to sit for 11 hours getting something done. You can get bored, listless, and want to just get the heck out of the chair to see a little daylight before the day has run its course.
Regardless of who you are and what area the tattoo is being done on, having answers is always a good thing. We have an in-depth article about tattoo pain and what parts of the body hurt most. It can be found here:
The Best and Worst Spots to get Tattooed
If you want to skip the big read, here are the top things to take away from the article:

  • The Butt hole, Neck, Face, Armpits, And Knees Are the Worst Spots to Get Tattooed
  • The Average Client Can Benefit from Knowing How They Unwind to Combat Tattoo Pain
  • Man Vs. Woman – Battle of the Sexes and Pain – Women Win.
  • Think Before You Ink – Pain Plays a Part in Tattoo Decisions but you should never sacrifice your wanted design if you think it is going to hurt.

What to Expect After a Tattoo – Tattoo Aftercare Tips and Healing You

A tattoo will be somewhat painful (especially in those sensitive areas) after your appointment. You will be given aftercare instructions for your new tattoo. You will be told that following the instructions given to you is key to healing a tattoo quickly.

In the real world, tattoo artists aren’t equivalent to dermatologists so trusting them implicitly is probably not the best action to take. While we agree they may know how to make a design look really good, most artists are not able to diagnose skin disorders, let alone suggest a treatment for a tattoo wound.

There is a lack of knowledge about caring for a wound (tattoo) after a procedure has been completed. So many factors go into proper care and maintenance of your skin when it is damaged and, regardless of the tattoo artist’s recommendation, you and your doctor know your skin best.

If there are underlying medical conditions, chronic health problems, advanced age or just a change in scenery; your skin will have a difficult time healing a wound and your continued intervention can extend the healing of a tattoo.

The constant intervention by a tattoo client can aggravate a tattoo so much that healing can extend into months versus days. Because this is such a complex thing to think about, we made an article that discusses taking care of your tattoo. It can be found by following this link:

How Much Lotion Should I Use On My New Tattoo?

Dragon Tattoo Coverup On a SHoulder
Here’s a day-by-day breakdown of what you can expect when healing a tattoo:

Day 1

When exposed to the air (after you remove the bandage) your skin will feel like it’s been sunburned. The pain from the tattoo will be exacerbated if you hit it on something, or if a loved one grabs hold of your new tattoo while trying to show their affection through touch.

      • This is a good time to utilize some time-tested methods to fight the discomfort of a fresh tattoo, if you are feeling less-than-normal.
        • Take an Advil or Tylenol if your doctor says it’s ok.
  • If you suffer from a chronic condition that requires you to take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) for extended periods of time, if you suffer from alcoholism or have liver/kidney function issues,  talk to your doctor before getting a tattoo as the time to heal the tattoo and inflammatory effects of the tattoo procedure may lead to an increased heal time, greater chance of infection due to increased heal time, and a much higher chance of granuloma/keloid occurring after a tattoo. (Source – Data suggests that NSAIDs inactivate certain enzymes responsible for wound healing and can increase the inflammatory effects of macrophages when taken at length.)
        • Cold compresses are a great way to bring down swelling and remove some of the heat associated with a new tattoo.
        • Loose fitting clothing is key to making sure the tattoo can breathe and isn’t constricted. The looser the better. (Hooray for sweatpants!)
        • Get a good meal with some carbohydrates to replenish those endorphins you burnt during the procedure.
  • Your tattoo is fresh and has not established scabbing. This means that your tattoo is more susceptible to infection than the surrounding, non-damaged tissues. You should avoid getting the tattoo dirty, holding it in direct sunlight, and avoid soaking the tattoo in tubs, pools, lakes, rivers, or streams.
  • Keep the tattoo clean by giving it a wash after removing the bandage. From here forward, until the tattoo is fully healed, the only thing that should touch your new tattoo is washed hands.
  • Change your bed linens and go to sleep on clean sheets/pillows.
  • Do not let your pet lick your tattoo.

Day 2-3

Your tattoo won’t feel as fresh, and you may experience some new effects once scabbing starts.

(Let’s bold that “RECOMMENDED” and give you the right to do with your body what you and your doctor know to be best. Remember that tattoo shops are a business, and they make money selling you products that have little to no science behind their efficacy.)

  • Your tattoo will start feeling tight due to the scab layer forming. The loose-fitting clothes will feel really good these 2 days!
  • Hairs will start re-growing if they were shaved before the procedure and when they start poking through the scabs, it will itch. Be prepared!
    • To fix the itch of a tattoo – DO NOT USE MORE AFTERCARE PRODUCT! This will increase the itch you feel by over-moisturizing the skin. If your skin is already hydrated, putting more moisturizer on the tattoo to itch it will only make things work. (More on that below)
  • Keeping the tattoo clean is still a major priority. A daily wash with a gentle soap (again, using clean hands), or a couple times a day if you are really dirty/sweaty is a good idea.

arm tattoo

Day 4-10

Scabs should be fully formed during this period of the tattoo healing. Itching should be transient, and the tattoo should be sloughing the light scabs without manual intervention.

  • Any bruising should be nearly healed and less tender to the touch, if you had experienced any during the procedure.
  • The skin that is exposed after the scabs had fallen off should look glossy and possibly feel tight. This is perfectly normal as the upper layer of skin (the epidermis) should be mostly repaired and able to keep you safe from infection. Sadly, the dermis (the middle layer of your skin) isn’t fully healed yet and won’t be for a while depending on how heavy handed the artist was with your tattoo.
  • You will want to keep moisturizing the skin during this period to ensure your skin is fully hydrated – this will encourage healing in the dermis.
  • While the upper layer of skin is sealed enough to keep out infection, the skin underlying the glossy bits is still overly susceptible to the damage of UVA and UVB rays. Using sunscreen over the tattoo is recommended

Day 10 Onwards

The tattoo should be well into or finished with its first peel. Moisturizing the skin and keeping it out of sunlight is still key to the continued health of the damaged skin. Life should be able to return mostly to normal.

Tattoo Itch

The itch of a tattoo is well known to just about every client out there so don’t feel alone if your tattoo is feeling itchy. Itching is a normal part of the healing process as the skin starts to regenerate and repair the tissues that are damaged.
If your tattoo itch is driving you crazy, there are a few reasons as to why this is happening:

    • You may have a sensitivity to the tattoo pigment and your body is reacting to the invasive pigment particles making you feel itchy.
  • If the itch is really painful, you most likely have a more severe reaction to the pigment and should see your doctor to ensure the resulting discomfort is not an infection.
    • If the itch you feel is transient (meaning it only happens randomly throughout the day) don’t fret too much about it. Keep an eye on the tattoo and make sure it looks like it is healing normally. If the tattoo starts to weep, bleed, or becomes raised, red, or irritated, go to your doctor.
    • If you have heavy scabbing and the tattoo is itchy:
      • Your tattoo artist may have been too aggressive with your skin during the procedure and the nerves that run inside your skin will have been damaged. The time to heal the tattoo will be longer than one that was done that resulted in less skin damage. Take care to give your tattoo space to heal properly. 
  • Constantly checking your tattoo while it is healing by touching it is not necessary. The only time you need to touch your tattoo is when your hands are washed, and you are applying aftercare products. Other than that, leave the tattoo alone. (You wouldn’t poke and touch your surgical incision wound, would you?)
    • Heavy scabbing may be the result of a tattoo procedure that took too long for your body to handle, even if it was completed perfectly by the artist. The longer a tattoo procedure goes, the longer it may take to heal your tattoo. The longer the heal, the more likely you are to have itching.
    • Touching your tattoo without washing your hands will introduce pathogens that can cause infection and extend the healing time. The introduced pathogens can make your tattoo itchier.

Want to learn about what is a healed tattoo? Watch this video to learn how to identify a healed tattoo:

How can I Reduce the Pain of a Tattoo?

There aren’t many tips or tricks that will actually help cut tattoo pain for most clients, although knowing what type of tattoo client you are brings up some handy hacks to distract you from the pain of a tattoo.
Check our blip on how to identify what type of tattoo client you are.
Here are a couple other tips to ensure you have the best possible experience after that tattoo procedure is finished:

  • Choosing a licensed artist doesn’t mean much in some states as regulations for licensure do not stand up to the rigors of most health practitioners. Take Washington state for example – You pay the licensing fee, and you are licensed, no questions asked. Instead of looking up licenses, go down to the shop and meet the people there. Ask to see how they do things and look around. Ask questions. If a shop has something to hide, they won’t let you poke around.
  • Think before you ink when you are worried about pain! Our article about tattoo pain can help you identify where the most painful tattoo spots are.
  • Take an over-the-counter pain reliever a half hour before the tattoo if your doctor says it is ok. 
  • Having a good night’s sleep and staying away from brain draining things before the session will help you stand the aggravation of a tattoo needle with grace and dignity. Go for a walk outside and enjoy some fresh air before being stuck inside for the procedure.
  • If you are on your menses, skip the tattoo until a couple days after your cycle. You are already in pain and your body is stressed so don’t add fuel to the fire!
  • Take the time to have a nutritious meal before the tattoo but watch your sugar intake. Complex carbohydrates are good for fuel and pain fighting endorphins, but fast foods and sugar will just put you in a sensitive food coma.
  • Don’t wear white clothes. They will get dirty! In fact, wear something really comfortable and loose to help you relax during the tattoo, and the drive home.
  • Don’t take too many breaks. Taking a longer break will trick your body into thinking that the tattoo session is over, your body will move the healing process along, and the pain you experience once the tattoo restarts will be much more intense than it was before the break.

In Summation

Now that you have a little more information, we hope you have a better understanding of tattoo pain. We think that you are more prepared to take in a longer sitting, don’t you?