Here’s *Exactly* How You Should Take Care of a Tattoo

how to take care of a tattoo
*Exactly* How You Should Take Care of a TattooDesign by Yoora Kim - Getty Images

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Getting a tattoo requires research. You need to look into artists, double (or triple) check salon reviews, know your design (and budget!), and make sure you don’t have any ink allergies. But just as important as prep is the aftercare process, and knowing how to take care of a tattoo is essential to its longevity and appearance, not to mention your skin health.

“Think of taking care of a tattoo like taking care of a canvas painting — the way you preserve it determines how it stays over time,” Richie Bulldog, co-founder of Hustle Butter tattoo care, explains. Fresh ink can take weeks to heal, and there are several products and activities to avoid in the days following your session to ensure your tattoo looks the best and doesn’t get infected.

“The bottom line is if the tattoo is healed properly and the skin is able to accept the pigment, the tattoo stays clearer and more vibrant,” Hustle Butter co-founder Seth Love adds. “Better aftercare = a better outcome.”

After dropping $$$ on new ink, you want to take every possible step to reduce the risk of scarring and infection and ensure that the tat lasts for as long as possible. That’s why we tapped the experts to break down exactly how to take care of a tattoo, both in the short-term and the long term.

How long does it take a tattoo to heal?

The tattoo healing process varies, depending on size, style, and location. But most ink heals within two to four weeks, Bulldog explains. “The longer you can adhere to the after-care process, the better your tattoo will look,” says Dr. Rachel Nazarian, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City.

What should I expect in the tattoo healing process?

Immediately after getting a tattoo, you might experience some soreness or notice redness at the ink site, Dr. Nazarian explains. “Your skin may feel itchy or dry as the healing progresses the first 1 to 2 weeks,” Dr. Azadeh Shirazi, a board-certified dermatologist based in La Jolla, California, adds. But you mustn’t pick scabs or flaking skin in this timeframe. This could lead to permanent scarring or inflammation.

“After that, [the tattooed area] should start to improve daily, looking calmer, less red, and have no pain or tenderness,” Dr. Nazarian says. The length of the healing process differs, depending on the person, so be patient.

“It takes time, but it’s worth it,” Bulldog explains. “If you don’t take the time to heal correctly, you will hurt the artwork in the long run. Short-term pain for long-term gain.” Embrace the healing journey and your tattoo will remain fresh for years to come.

How should I take care of my tattoo in the days following my session?

Your tattoo artist will give you exact instructions for immediate aftercare (i.e. when you can shower and rinse the tattooed area), but in the first few days and weeks after your session, it’s important to follow these general steps.

Keep the area clean and moisturized

A new tattoo is considered an open wound and will be covered with a bandage immediately after your session. Your artist will tell you exactly how long to keep the bandage on, but it’s generally recommended that you leave it in its original wrapping for two to three hours minimum. Once it’s okay to remove the bandage, gently wash the area with fragrance-free soap and lukewarm water.

“Part of the healing process is ensuring your tattoo is clean and remains free of dirt and bacteria,” Bulldog explains. Don’t put too much pressure on the tattooed area and pat the skin to dry, Love advises.

Next, apply a healing ointment — CeraVe, Aquaphor, or Vaseline are all suitable options, Dr. Nazarian and Dr. Shirazi say — and keep the area moisturized. Just make sure any ingredients introduced to the tattooed area are fragrance-free and non-comedogenic, meaning they do not clog pores.

“The skin surface is broken [so] using fragranced products can cause an even greater response from the immune system, and irritate greater than with an intact skin barrier,” Dr. Nazarian explains. “Additionally, comedogenic products can clog pores and create acne, which can disrupt the healing of the tattooed area.” For the next two to three weeks, repeat this cleansing and moisturizing process twice a day, every day.

Avoid soaking in water

Baths, pools, jacuzzis, and oceans are huge no-nos in the weeks after getting a tattoo, Bulldog and Love explain. Again, tattoos are open wounds, and chlorine and salt water can introduce bacteria and other irritants to your vulnerable skin. Plus, it can fade or discolor the fresh ink, so for now, just stick to quick showers.

Stay hydrated

Taking care of your body will help it to heal faster. “Like any other wound, you need to take care of yourself — hydrate, sleep, eat well, and keep the area clean,” Bulldog says. You definitely want to drink water before your tattoo sesh (to steer clear of any queasiness or lightheadedness), and it’s equally as important in the post-care process. Drinking water is key to keeping your body functioning properly and essential in reducing swelling and inflammation. Remember, a tattoo is considered an open wound so it definitely can’t hurt to have an extra glass or two.

Refrain from physical activity and sun exposure

This might be tough to avoid in the summer months and warm climates, but it’s important that you keep out of the sun and stay away from the beach and strenuous activity right after getting a tattoo. “Avoid physical activity and the three ‘Ss’ — sand, sun, and saltwater until the wound is healed,” Bulldog emphasizes.

“Environmental exposure, such as sunlight, can shorten the lifespan of your tattoo and make it fade faster,” Dr. Nazarian adds. If you are out in the sun, protect your tattoo with a bandage or protective clothing — you do not want to use sunscreen until your tattoo is completely healed, as SPF can irritate your skin and discolor your ink.

Avoid harsh ingredients

Just like sun exposure, using ingredients like retinoids, exfoliants, and hydrogen peroxide in the tattooed area can have damaging effects, Dr. Nazarian and Dr. Shirazi say. You should wait until your skin is completely healed before you re-introduce any of these ingredients to your skincare routine. But even after the area is recovered, stick to gentle, non-comedogenic products. Over-exfoliation could make your tattoo fade faster.

How should I take care of my tattoo in the weeks and months following my session?

The length of the healing process varies by person, but it’s typically recommended that you don’t skip these steps in the long-term aftercare process.

Use sunscreen

While it’s best to avoid SPF in the immediate weeks after getting a tattoo, it’s recommended that you always protect your ink once the area is fully healed (usually within four to six weeks, but check with your artist). Sunscreen acts as a barrier to the sun’s strong UV rays, which could cause discoloration or fading of your tattoo’s ink.

Leave! Scabs! Alone!

You’ll probably notice flaking and scabbing around your tattoo in the first few weeks of the healing process, but you must leave the skin alone. “Don’t pick any scabs or scratch at the area,” Dr. Shirazi says. Instead, “allow the skin to heal naturally.”

Scabbing is normal, Love explains and means that the tattoo is healing and new skin is regenerating. “Some spots may take longer to heal than others,” he adds. Picking at the skin can lead to inflammation, redness, permanent scarring, or infection, so although it’s tempting, keep the area moisturized and don’t pick. You don’t want to ruin the artwork.

Keep the tattoo moisturized

Just because your tattoo is completely healed or just about, you should not stop moisturizing the area. Consistent moisture will keep your tattoo looking fresh and prevent fading. During the healing process, you should moisturize the new ink at least twice a day, but post-healing, you could scale back to once or twice a day. Whatever you do, don’t skip the step completely.

“Tattoos are for life, and you need to maintain a healthy routine to keep your tattoos looking and feeling their best,” Bulldog advises.

What should I do if my tattoo looks infected?

Contact your doctor ASAP. “Infection is not common, but still possible,” Dr. Nazarian says. “If the area is tender, painful, or increasingly red — or if any bumps or nodules form on the area — it’s important to contact your physician right away.”

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