Tattoo Aftercare

Now that your tattoo is complete, your tattoo artist should go over aftercare with you. Use this as a refresher or a reminder, but remember that you can call your tattoo artist if you have any specific questions.

First things first. On the way home from the tattoo shop, you’ll need to pick up some lotion for your tattoo. You can also do this before you go in for the tattoo as well. You cannot use just any lotion for your tattoo. You want to avoid colors, dyes, glitter, and especially scents. Scents can really irritate newly tattooed skin; any girl who has used scented lotion on newly shaved legs knows exactly what this feels like. It burns, itches and leads to red bumps and razor burn-like reactions. So, what can you use?

My personal favorite tattoo lotion is called Aquaphor. Every tattoo artist I’ve spoken to recommends this lotion. It’s a Vaseline like texture without being Vaseline, which is bad for tattoos and we’ll get into that later. It absorbs into the skin slowly, allowing for the most moisturization possible. And a little bit of this stuff goes a long way, so a single small pot will last you the entire healing period of your tattoo and beyond.

What other lotions can you use? Since not everyone lives in the same area, or even country, lotion brands are going to vary, so I’ll list as many as I can and hopefully you’ll be able to find at least one in your area. Good lotions for tattoos include: Aquaphor, Eucerine, basic Lubriderm, A&D lotion, and some have even had good luck with basic Aveeno lotion and E45 lotion. Bottom line, you want the most basic, bare necessity lotions you can find. You want lotions with no scents, no colors, no sparkles or glitter, no products that contain Vaseline, petroleum, lanoline, or aloe vera. Even though the tattoo may feel hot and like a sunburn, you don’t want to use aloe vera because it doesn’t get absorbed into the skin well and can actually dry out the skin.

Do not use Vaseline, Neopsorin or Polysproin, Bacitracin, or any other healing ointment. These aren’t absorbed into the skin well and actually trap any bacteria against the tattoo, which can increase your risk of infection.

Some shops will carry a product called Tattoo Goo. I’ve never used it, but have honestly heard conflicting reports about its effectiveness. It usually comes in small tins, so it’s not a good idea for larger tattoos, since you’ll run out quickly and will have to keep rebuying more and more tins. Some say that it’s effective for healing, while others have had issues with it. My cousin was actually allergic to something in Tattoo Goo that made her break out in a rash even getting it on her hands and fingers. Honestly, if your tattoo is small and you want to try it, go for it. I just think it’s a little too expensive for such small volume, usually, and it’s so much easier to just get lotions you can find in a drug store. They’re usually cheaper, much more volume, and you can restock whenever you need. If you run out of Tattoo Goo, you either have to go back to your tattoo artist when the shop is open, which can sometimes be a pain, or just hope that another shop carries it. Of all the various shops I’ve visited, no one has carried it. So there you go.

Once your tattoo is finished, you’re going to want to leave the plastic wrapping on it for no less than 2 hours, and no more than 24 hours. Depending on the time of day you finish your tattoo, you can even sleep with the cover on if you wish. Once you decide to take the wrapper off, you’ll need to rinse your tattoo clean of any leftover ink, lotion, lymph and plasma that may be left over. Stay out of the shower if you can help it. The water pressure is much too harsh for a new tattoo. Just cup your hand, fill it with cool water and very gently run it over the tattoo. Don’t use hot water, and don’t use cold, either. Nice and cool and refreshing will be just fine. Pat it dry with paper towels and let it air dry the rest of the way for about 15 minutes, then apply your first layer of lotion. Most of the time a little goes a long way, you want to apply just enough to make it shiny. Do not rewrap your tattoo for any reason. Believe it or not your tattoo does need to breathe to heal properly. Even though your skin itself doesn’t need to breathe, we’re not amphibians after all, but a new tattoo does need to have fresh air flow over it to allow it to heal properly.

When you do shower, don’t let the water beat directly on the tattoo. Not only is that incredibly painful on a new tattoo, but you don’t want to saturate the tattoo with water because that can cause scabs to drop off prematurely and that can pull ink out of your skin. You can load up on extra lotion before you shower to help create a sort of barrier between your skin and the water, but you also want to wash your tattoo. Some artist say you can use anti-bacterial soap on the tattoo, but my personal preference is to not. Anti-bacterial soaps tend to dry out my skin and make it tight. I’ve even had my hands crack and bleed if I use it too often to wash my hands, I can only imagine what it would do to my tattoos! Just warm water and a soft hand running over the tattoo is fine. DO NOT use a loofa or shower puff or wash cloth, because these things are filthy, harbor bacteria and can scrub off scabs, again, pulling ink out of your tattoo.

You should be applying lotion about 2-3 times a day. Do not over apply. Apply fresh lotion when you wake up, after you shower and before bed at the bare minimum. You can also apply throughout the day if you notice your tattoo getting dry and tight, but only apply in thin layers and with clean hands. Usually, just the 3 times a day is enough.

For the first few days of your tattoo, slight bleeding, plasma weeping and ink-bleeding is normal. Plasma is a clear fluid secreted by your skin, its natural reaction to trauma. It’s the same clear stuff that oozes out after a bad rug-burn. Slight bleeding is normal for the first day or two after the tattoo, and should stop quickly. Ink-bleeding is just excess ink being removed, washed away, and cleared up. This doesn’t mean your skin is rejecting the tattoo ink completely, it’s just basically deciding that it doesn’t need that much and gets rid of the excess. This is normal, so don’t freak out.

Some people can be allergic to tattoo inks. It seems this is most common with red colors and white colors. There’s no way to know if you’ll end up being allergic to tattoo ink until you get tattooed with it. The most common reaction to ink allergies is the ink will be forced from the skin, meaning that you’ll have to get it re-tattooed later on with a slightly different color, a different ink mixture, a different brand, etc., to avoid whatever it was you were allergic to. It also usually manifests as an itchy rash around the area. Don’t scratch it, just double check with your tattoo artist to make sure it is just allergic reactions and not infection, and they’ll direct you on the best course of action from there.

Depending on the location of your tattoo, sleeping and sitting can be difficult and even painful. You want to make sure everything that comes into contact with your tattoo is clean and soft. For bedding, I recommend changing into either old sheets that are still clean, or getting new cheap sheets that you use just for tattoo healing. Tattoo ink can stain, and certain lotions can leave greasy stains on the sheets, and you don’t want that on your good bedding. Most of the time the ink and lotion stains come out in the wash, but sometimes not, so better safe than sorry. Make sure your blankets are newly washed and clean as well. I’d wash them at least every 2-3 days as well, or at least change for a new set. It sounds like a lot of work, but for a healthy tattoo, it’s worth it. You can also wear a clean cotton t-shirt or cotton sweatpants when you sleep to help protect your tattoo from contact with the bedding.

For clothing during the day, wear loose clothes that are soft and comfortable. If you got a thigh tattoo, for example, you don’t want to wear super tight abrasive denim jeans. Wear soft loose cotton sweatpants or pajama pants as often as possible instead. Or wear shorts short enough to expose the tattoo. If your tattoo is on the back of your shoulder, either wear a shirt with a low back like a cami tank top, or just walk around shirtless as much as possible. When you do need to cover it, again, choose something light and soft, like cotton. Common sense and comfort will kind of rule here, so wear what’s comfortable and what works best for you.

As you begin to heal, your tattoo will start to scab and peel. For the love of all that is holy DO NOT PICK THE SCABS. This is one of the worst things you can do to a healing tattoo. Picking the scabs off will pull out chunks of ink, leaving bare patches or uneven color in the tattoo. It also opens up the skin again and can allow infectious bacteria inside. Just keep up with the lotion and within about two or three weeks you should be healed up completely. Even after the scabbing phase is over, the skin itself may still be a little sensitive, almost feeling like a mild sunburn. This is not unheard of and will clear up over more time.

The average healing times for most tattoos is about 2-3 weeks. How you take care of your tattoo, the lotion you choose, and how well you take care of your body and skin can all affect this. Avoid smoking, drinking, and caffeine as much as you can during the healing process. Get lots of rest, drink lots of water, eat healthy. You can take an over the counter multivitamin if you want just to keep all of your vitamins and minerals up to encourage your bodies full healing potential.

Even if you treat your tattoo perfectly, sometimes bare or light patches in the tattoo can still happen. Most artists offer free touchup for at least six months afterward, some offer them for a year, or even a lifetime. If you notice these light patches, just call up your artist, tell them what’s up and set up an appointment for touchups. Treat the new touchup tattoos as you would a new tattoo, and start the healing process over again. Touchups are usually small areas and take a bit less time to heal, in my experience anyway.

The best way to avoid infection is to keep your tattoo clean. Do not over clean if you’re paranoid, because this just leads to prolonged healing, excessive irritation, and can actually damage your tattoo. Basic hygiene and proper lotion application is really all you need. Avoid dirty locations, like pools, hot tubs, saunas, lakes, rivers, oceans, home bathtubs, etc. Don’t let people touch your new tattoo. Make sure any clothes or bedding that come into contact with the tattoo are clean and freshly washed. Don’t pick at or scratch the tattoo, because that opens the skin up and leaves it vulnerable to airborne bacteria.

I personally have never had a tattoo get infected, and I’ve really never met anyone who’s had their tattoo get infected. It can and does happen, but as with most other body modification infections, 99% of all cases are wearer’s fault, not tattooists or piercers fault. Meaning YOU did something that exposed the modification to infectious material that caused it to be infected. Tattoo infection can be recognized by swelling, excessive redness and soreness, pus oozing (pus is green, dark yellow, or “spicy mustard” colored, foul smelling and thick/goopy), and excessive pain. The only way to treat true infection is with doctor prescribed antibiotics. If you honestly believe that your tattoo is infected, go see a doctor, or even your tattoo artist for verification. They’ll be able to tell you the difference between infection and just irritation and will tell you when a doctor visit is needed.

Do not expose your tattoo to extended sunlight at any point during the healing process. Sunlight is a tattoo’s number one enemy once healed. Nothing will fade and distort and fuzzy out your tattoo faster than exposure to UV rays, natural or artificial. This means no sunbathing or tanning for the first few months of your new tattoo. Once it’s fully healed you may show it to the sun, but you MUST wear a sunblock with at least 30 SPF and UVA and UVB protection. Reapply as often as the bottle instructs, and limit sun exposure as much as possible. You shouldn’t have any extended exposure to sunlight for at least the first 3 weeks of a new tattoo. The longer you can go, the better.

Avoid all bodies of water, like pools, hot tubs, lakes, oceans, rivers, saunas, steam baths, home bathtubs, etc. These are all festering cesspools of filth that can damage your tattoo. Soaking in water can also pull ink out of your tattoo as scabs soak off. I read a book once called “Tattoo Machine: Tall Tales, True Stories, and My Life in Ink” by Jeff Johnson, and he described hot tubs as: (paraphrasing) “Ever wonder what that foam in hot tubs is? It’s like an ass, dick and pussy cappuccino.” I haven’t been in a hot tub since reading that, I just can’t get the visual and horror out of my mind. Great read, by the way, I suggest everyone pick this up or borrow it from the library.

Respect your tattoo and your skin. A tattoo is considered an invasive procedure, and it will take more than just a few days to heal up. Leave it alone other than to wash it and apply lotion, don’t pick it, don’t scratch it, don’t touch it, and just leave it alone!

Don’t let other people touch your tattoo. I can’t believe I have to say this, but based on past experience, apparently I do. Do not let other people, with their filthy hands, touch your new open wound. Sure, it does feel odd and weird, but if they want to feel what a new tattoo feels like, they can go get their own and feel up their own for themselves. You have no idea where people’s hands have been, what they’ve touched and you’re now exposing your new, open, very vulnerable wound to those germs, which can very easily cause infection. Gross.

If you have any questions, concerns, or just general curiosity about your new tattoo, never be afraid to give your tattoo artist or the shop in general a call. The only stupid question is the unasked one.


9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Kou
    Dec 14, 2011 @ 20:31:20

    Wonderful article! Very well informed (and that bit about the hot tub cappuccino made me gag(. Now if I may, I’d like to throw in my own two cents.

    I’m in the midst of healing my second tattoo, a chest piece (only linework right now). The soap I use is a goat’s milk soap that is free of dyes and fragrances and it’s quite lovely. I’ll have to grab the package again to tell you what kind it was (lame i know). I strictly use Aveeno Daily Moisturizing lotion. It’s fragrance and dye free and contains oatmeal. :3 I apply it in the morning (or after my morning shower depending on the schedule) and then reapply before bed. It keeps the tattoo nice and moisturized all day.

    My tattoo artist and a well-informed friend both tell me not to apply lotion for the first three days, while it’s really fresh – only to keep it clean and dry. They said to start applying lotion once the skin tightens up a bit and starts scabbing.

    Also for the love of god, I know these bastards itch, but don’t scratch them. Slapping works well enough, and I’ve even been advised to try a fragranced lotion, by the logic that the burning sates the itching (of course, you have to have balls the size of Canada to deal with this, so I’ll pass).

    And there’ve been conflicting advice given to me as far as coverings go. My friend SWEARS by paper towel taped over the tattoo as opposed to Saran wrap (i.e. the work of the devil). Other advice has told me to keep the wrap on for no longer than 4-5 hours. I just kept mine on during the trip back from the shop, as it had decided to bleed and was ridiculously raw. Once I got home and could clean up properly, I removed it. The Saran wrap is really uncomfortable to me, and it hurts when it pulls on the highly-sensitized and pissed off skin it’s sitting on, so I’m game for removing it the second I can. I can imagine the paper towel (or that sterile paper they use for lining the Mayo tray) being much more comfortable – I’d say ask your tattoo artist for it instead, if you prefer.

    Also, thoughts on painkillers? I’ve taken ibuprofen when it’s ridiculously uncomfortable (and when I get to work the day after getting a fresh tattoo), and I’d like to recommend to anyone that if they do take painkillers, read the label and make sure they are not blood-thinners. Ibuprofen has a mild blood-thinning effect, but I haven’t noticed it being a bother. NSAIDs like aspirin and naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn) have stronger blood-thinning effects, enough to warrant a warning against taking them versus blood pressure medications and against taking them if you have an ulcer. I bring this up only as something to think about as far as bleeding with your tattoos (and this applies to piercings as well). If you’re prone to be a bleeder, this may not help things.

    Acetaminophen is a non-NSAID that may help with pain, but not with any kind of inflammation (this may apply more to piercings, I suppose), and can be taken with NSAIDs without messing anything up.

    Uh, sorry about the tl;dr, man. Just trying to be helpful. ^^;

    Keep up the wonderful work, Laura! ❤


  2. Kuri
    Apr 03, 2012 @ 12:29:00

    So, I found your blog via Gaiaonline and I SERIOUSLY wish I read this when I got my first tattoo. My artist told me to go home straight away and put the hottest water I could handle beat straight onto my tattoo in the shower, then the coldest, and – low and behold – the ink started to fall out. Fun. She also didn’t tell me that I shouldn’t use a scrubby thing (I was only 18 then and, therefore, quite retarded about this) so even more of the ink got pulled out.

    Though, I do have a question about the inks. Is it normal for two artists in the same shop to use different inks? After two very bad tattoos (Which I have spoken with you about) from the girl, I went to another guy. While the tattoo from the girl didn’t itch (It just tingled), this guy made my skin itch like all HELL. I almost went off the deep end because it itched so much. Then, the ink actually fell out in a couple places. So is it possible that he used a different ink that my skin reacted differently to??


  3. Kyle Brown
    Jan 05, 2013 @ 23:28:09

    A lot of the care stuff I knew about but the not picking I didn’t. I’ve had two tattoos now and the first one ended up being a train wreck I guess because of the colored dead skin I picked off (because I can’t really describe it as a scab, but I think it’s what you’re talking about.) It’s also good to know that some ink coming up is ok because for both of my tattoos it’s scared the shit out of me. Well worded and helpful article, thank you much.


  4. justice
    Jul 29, 2013 @ 01:34:51

    I’ve had my tattoo for 3 weeks now, can I use scented lotion ? Or no ?


    • Steel and Bone, Horn and Stone
      Aug 01, 2013 @ 14:38:28

      Not as a lotion for the tattoo, no. The problem with scented lotions is they sting and can cause irritation to any open skin (any one who’s shaved their legs then used scented lotion on them knows what this feels like, not awesome). So long as the entire healing process is over, you’re not flaking anymore, not peeling, and the skin is completely healed, you can use scented lotion.


  5. gary
    Aug 13, 2013 @ 14:37:11

    Fantastic article. I have read a few to be sure I am doing it right and I am. Better to use caution than live with regret. I got a half sleeve on my forearm 1 week ago and it is peeling like a sunburn does. I was just about to reach for the scented lotion and after reading I do believe i will go get some unscented stuff. Thanks for taking the time to write it.


  6. Christina
    Sep 26, 2013 @ 08:23:07

    Hi there. I got a foot tattoo on Saturday and its now Thursday night. It became very sore, red, warm and was oozing. I’ve now confirmed it is infected and I’ve started antibiotics. If I look close at my foot, it looks like scarring and very bubbly. Does this fully heal and go away?


    • Steel and Bone, Horn and Stone
      Sep 26, 2013 @ 21:24:20

      There’s really no way to know, unfortunately. Some can heal from tattoo infections as if they never happened, and some have to have the tattoo completely redone. Just take your meds and keep it clean, keep up with aftercare, and hope for the best.


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