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How to Take Care of a Tattoo

I have lots of experience taking care of my tattoos—first to heal them and then to keep them looking good.

Tattoo aftercare tips to keep new tattoos from looking old.

Tattoo aftercare tips to keep new tattoos from looking old.

Tattoo Care for Life

You did it! You got a tattoo! You took the inky leap and have something wonderful forever tattooed on your skin to show the world how awesome-tastic you are. But how do you take care of a tattoo? How do you ensure that those hours of pain in the tattoo parlor were not all for nothing?

Believe it or not, tattoos do require ongoing care and maintenance... not tons, but some. Think of your tattoo as a lifetime investment. It's a part of your body now, so if you want your ink to go the distance, you have to put some time and energy into keeping it looking shiny and new.

But fear not, by following these simple tips below your tattoo will stay in tip-top shape for years to come.

This is a fresh tattoo: Notice the swelling! Learn how to keep it looking good.

This is a fresh tattoo: Notice the swelling! Learn how to keep it looking good.

Tattoo Care: The First 24 Hours

The first 24 hours are critical in the care of your tattoo. It is basically an open wound at this point and needs to be treated accordingly. Any artist worth their salt should have sent you home with an aftercare sheet listing specific instructions on how to care for your tattoo during this critical time. However, if for some reason they didn't or you lost it in your ink-induced euphoria, here's a reminder.

Information About New Tattoos

How long should I leave the bandage on my tattoo?

2–4 hours after you get tattooed, remove the dressing if one has been put on. Usually, the dressing consists of plastic wrap or gauze and some tape. The dressing is there to soak up any blood and/or excess ink, but should not be worn long-term. Your tattoo needs air.

Can I touch my new tattoo?

Make sure that no clothing or jewelry, or anything else for that matter, including your fingers, touches it. Do not touch your tattoo while it is healing! It's a wound and you do not want to introduce bacteria into it and risk an infection.

What does a new tattoo feel like?

Pain: When the tattoo-euphoria has lifted, the area might feel like pulverized meat or a hundred bee stings. Ibuprofen may take the edge off, but not entirely.

Heat: Your tattoo also may be throwing off a lot of heat. Don't worry, this is normal and not a sign of infection. It may throw off heat like this for several days as your body is healing. An ice pack will help, but be sure not to get water on your tattoo.

Note: If the heat and pain don't start subsiding after a day or two or increases in this time frame, go to the emergency room, you may have an infection.

Can I wash my new tattoo?

Excessive exposure to water is the enemy of the newly tattooed. On the other hand, you should keep it clean. Scroll down for instructions on how to wash it properly.

What will my tattoo look like right after it's done?

A vibrant, red, and puffy masterpiece covered in slime, ink, and blood. Not so pretty I know, but wait for it... soon your tattoo will be amazing! When it's brand new, the colors of your tattoo will be their brightest. Don't expect them to stay this way. The color will fade slightly by the end of the healing process, but it shouldn't fade so noticeably that you need a touch-up. Some swelling around the tattooed area is normal, as is some redness. Again, this should subside in a few days. If it doesn't and a red line forms, you have a blood infection and will need medical help immediately.

2–4 hours after you get tattooed, remove the dressing if one has been put on.

2–4 hours after you get tattooed, remove the dressing if one has been put on.

How to Wash Your Brand New Tattoo

Wipe off the excess ink, blood, and slime and start the healing process. As I mentioned earlier, your tattoo will be puffy, red and slimy at first, but after you wash it, the slime will disappear and you will be left with red and puffy tattoo goodness. In all honesty, this skin will be incredibly tender so you may have to force yourself to wash your newly tattooed area. It is necessary though, so don't wimp out.

  • 4–6 hours after you have been tattooed, wash with an unscented hypoallergenic soap and a clean, non-fluffy face cloth. (You don't want to leave any lint residue.)
  • Make sure the water isn't hot (keep it as cool as possible) and be as gentle as humanly possible.
  • After this first washing, you should plan to wash your tattoo at least twice a day until it is completely healed.
  • Do not soak your tattoo! Showers are fine, but baths, pools, and hot tubs are big no-nos.

Can I take a shower?

You can take a shower, but using too-hot water and standing directly under the spray is not a good idea as it may be painful. Avoid direct pressure, high heat, and don't let the skin soak underwater.

Will it hurt to wash my new tattoo?

The sensation can range from uncomfortable to quite painful: The level of pain experienced depends on the size of the tattoo, where it is, your personal pain tolerance, and how heavy-handed your tattoo artist was.

I actually enjoy the first wash a lot. The cool water always feels soothing on my stinging flesh and it allows me a good first look at my new ink.

Be sure to use a hypoallergenic, fragrance-free soap.

Be sure to use a hypoallergenic, fragrance-free soap.

Applying Ointment to Your New Tattoo

After you've washed your masterpiece, you will need to apply an ointment or salve of some sort to keep it from getting too dry and to promote healing.

What kind of ointment should I use?

This is somewhat of a hot-button issue for tattoo artists and collectors alike. Some people swear by using a medicated ointment like polysporin to speed up the healing process, while others stick with good old fashioned Vaseline. Still others insist that vitamin E oil or cream is the best option, and most recently people have discovered that non-scented, hydrating creams may work best.

Which salve is best?

No-color and no-scent are a must in choosing your ointment. I have never gone wrong with polysporin, so that's my salve of choice, but the decision is yours. If your artists made a recommendation, follow their aftercare instructions.

How do I apply the ointment?

  • For the first three days, every 6 hours is a good schedule for applying ointment. However, if the tattoo feels dry and tight, don't be afraid to apply ointment more often.
  • Make sure you do not put too much ointment on your tattoo and that you rub it in gently and thoroughly (with clean hands!). Your skin should look slick, but not wet and goopy. Too much ointment can leach the color out of your tattoo, blur the lines, and actually delay the healing process.
  • Be sure to wash your hands before applying the ointment.

Will the ointment hurt?

It will feel quite painful and tender when you rub the ointment into your skin. In fact, this might be the most painful stage, but push through or risk having an even more uncomfortable experience when your tattoo becomes dry and cracked. It's worst during the first 24 hours, the pain should subside after a day or two.

Pro Tips:

Your tattoo will really stick out at this point, what with all that swelling, vibrant ink, and shiny ointment coating. Be careful that things don't stick to it, though. Your ointment-covered tattoo will be a magnet for lint and all kinds of other weird stuff, so think before you lean.

A fresh tattoo with a thin application of ointment

A fresh tattoo with a thin application of ointment

Tattoo Care: Week 1

You will still need to be washing your tattoo at least twice a day during the first week and applying a light coat of ointment as needed. Don't let your tattoo get too dry or too wet.

The Pain and Peel

The first week after you've been tattooed is all about the "pain and peel." Some people don't experience much pain, while others are uncomfortable for an entire week (I certainly was with my elbow tattoo). Location does make a big difference in the pain game. If you don't have much pain, you're lucky, but be advised, no one escapes the peel. That's right: By day three, your skin should start scabbing up in places and peeling in others. Think of it like having the mother of all sunburns.

It's itchy: Can I scratch it?

Yes, it will be itchy and scabby, but do not pick! I know it will be hard to resist, but picking can screw up your tattoo. If the itchiness gets to be too much, slap a clean, cold washcloth. Icing it may help, too.

If you're really concerned about the scabbing, read Is Scabbing Normal on My New Tattoo?

How will it look?

Gross. Seriously, it will be flaky and scabby and you'll think it looks craptacular, but wait for it. Like a caterpillar in a cocoon, your tattoo will emerge like a butterfly and show the world how amazing it really is.

A tattoo in the flaky stage: Resist the urge to pick!

A tattoo in the flaky stage: Resist the urge to pick!

I bet she didn't scratch that itch. Learn how to keep your tattoos this fresh and awesome.

I bet she didn't scratch that itch. Learn how to keep your tattoos this fresh and awesome.

Tattoo Care: The Next Few Weeks (Weeks 2-4)

Is it awesome yet? Well at this stage of the game, your tattoo should be. Now that all the swelling, scabbing, and peeling is behind you, you should have an amazing piece of art adorning your skin.

How will it feel after the first week?

Awesome, because you finally have a rockin' tattoo! The swelling should be completely gone as well as the scabs and peeling. The pain is behind you and only awesome times of showing off your wicked body art lay ahead.

Don't panic if there are a few lingering scabs: Some people just take longer to heal. Do panic if the area around the scab is red and weepy or you see any sign of infection. It is always better to be safe than sorry with your health, so go see your doctor.

How will it look?

Fan-freakin-tastic! Your colors should be vibrant—not as vibrant as the day you got it, though—and your lines should be clear. If you notice any imperfections like breaks in lines or missing spots of color, make note and keep an eye on them closely. A touch-up might be needed.

What if I need a touch-up?

If so, your tattoo artist should give it to you free of charge. Your tattoo is like their business card and they don't want to be associated with shoddy workmanship. Bear in mind that they won't be able to touch up your tattoo for at least a month, but don't wait longer than that to see them, or they won't be as likely to touch it up for free.

A sun-damaged tattoo that will require a touch-up. Don't let this be you.

A sun-damaged tattoo that will require a touch-up. Don't let this be you.

Ongoing Tattoo Care: Common Sense

A tattoo is a lifetime commitment that requires some upkeep and attention on your part. If you survived the healing-and-peeling process of the first few weeks, taking ongoing care should be no big deal. Most of it is common sense. If you know how to take of your skin, then you should know how to take care of your tattoo. And yet common sense always bears repeating, so here it goes:

  1. Avoid the sun: I'm not saying become a vampire, but sun and tattoos don't mix. Exposure fades the colors and blurs the lines. Besides, how will people be able to see your awesome ink if it's competing with your ridiculous tan?
  2. Moisturize: Tattoos are your skin. If you want nice skin, drink lots of water. Dehydrated = scaly and withered. Hydrated = radiant and awesome.
  3. Protect Your Skin: Depending on the location of your tattoo, you'll need to know how to protect it from damage. Whether that means wearing shoes that don't rub against your foot tattoo or breaking out the sunscreen to cover that half sleeve, make choices that protect your investment. When you have to choose between showing off your ink or potentially damaging it, you know what to do.
  4. Get Touch-Ups: If you have a color tattoo, after time, the color will fade. So don't be afraid to shell out a few bucks to get those colors rejuvenated and breathe new life into your tattoo. (If you follow the first three tips, a touch-up might not be necessary.)

Tattoo Awesomeness

Tattoos are awesome! And if you take proper care of them from day one, they will have a lifetime of awesomeness. So no excuses—if you haven't gotten a tattoo yet, it's high time you did, and with these healing tips in hand, it should be smooth sailing. Happy inking!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Catherine Taylor

Comments

Angela on March 11, 2016:

I have been searching for the aftercare there is so much conflicting things going on I've been told to use neosporin I've been told not to ive been told by numerous sites that aquaphor is the best so I used that on my last one and started it on the new one then had someone tell me don't use that use lubriderm I'm so confused it's ridiculous I also veried with my first one and found that the vasaline lotion made me break out not pleasant I've been told only to put it on twice a day to keep from breaking out but both tattoos were in the winter and no way two was doing it so I'm so confused HELP PLEASE

Catherine Taylor (author) from Canada on March 11, 2013:

kidscrafts, thanks so much for reading and commenting even though tattoos are not your thing.

Torrilynn glad you found the tips useful.

ellesvoice thanks so much for chiming in. I am thinking about trying the moisturizer route for my next tattoo.

Elizabeth Hanks from Queen Creek on March 11, 2013:

Great hub! When I got my tattoo, I got it with a friend. He used a medical ointment on his and it ended up sucking a lot of the ink pigments out of his tattoo while it was healing. He ended up going in for a tough up six weeks later. With mine, I only used the medical ointment once or twice before I switched to my regular body lotion, Queen Helene's Cocoa Butter Lotion for body, face and hands. The lotion worked like a CHARM for me! It's not greasy or grimy, but the moisturizing effects last a really long time and it just felt SO good to put on my hot, pissed off skin! Aside from the shotty artwork on one of the eyes, my tattoo still looks brilliant, two years later!

torrilynn on March 09, 2013:

Hi Thundermama,

i think that it is imporant to take care of a tattoo

if you don't then your tattoo could possibly mess up or you

might get an infection. thanks for the hub.

Voted up and shared.

kidscrafts from Ottawa, Canada on March 08, 2013:

I can totally appreciate the art....but not the pain! Some designs are just awesome and beautiful! But I will pass being tattoed.

Very interesting hub! Thank you for all that information!

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