A new tattoo always looks its best immediately after you walk out of the studio. The artist may even have rubbed in a lotion that makes your new ink shine. As yet, your skin is only raw, and not yet showing the trauma it just went through.
The moment you step out of that studio door, your body begins healing itself. A healing tattoo will start to change over the first few days. Read on about what to expect.
The entire healing process can take up to four to six weeks. Your new tattoo will begin to develop a light, flaky skin or a thicker scab over its top. This is usually accompanied by severe itching around the tattooed area. It is normal for your tattoo to be intensely itchy while your skin is repairing itself.
What to Do About Tattoo Scabs
Keep your skin clean and don't pick! Follow your tattoo artist's aftercare advice. After a couple of weeks, your scabs should begin to disappear or fall off by themselves.
Should You Pick Them Off?
If you try to rush the healing process by picking at your scabs, you may also pick off some of your new ink and find yourself left with interruptions or discolorations in your tattoo design.
If you have developed large scabs, you need to look after them correctly and help them heal. Scabs must not be knocked, picked, or scratched off.
The way you care for scabs during this time can make the difference between a good tattoo and a faded and damaged tattoo. Scabs that evolve from slight flaking to colossal-sized scabs urgently require your care.
What Contributes to Scabbing on a Tattoo?
- Blood and plasma drying on your tattoo.
- Incorrect aftercare procedures.
- Developing infection.
- Reaction to tattoo ink.
- Excessive application of aftercare lotions and creams.
- If your artist was heavy-handed or repeatedly passed over a particular area of your tattoo, they may have inadvertently caused excessive damage to your skin.
Whatever the size of the scabs you have on your tattoo, they need your care and attention. Beware: Poor aftercare and heavy scabbing can do major damage.
The Healing Process
Is scabbing normal on a new tattoo?
Light, minor scabs and peeling, flaky skin are normal on a healing tattoo. Your freshly done tattoo will go through various stages of healing:
- The first of these stages is the drying and sealing of your wound (your tattoo).
- One to three hours after you finish your session, your new tattoo will begin to secrete a yellowish, crystallized liquid called plasma. There is a direct link between scabbing (particularly scabs that are thick and layered in appearance) and plasma. This fluid, once it comes in contact with the air around you, begins to form scabs.
- Plasma and fluid continue to be secreted and can build large layered scabs over a short period of time.
So basically, the dehydrated, crusty mass growing on your new tattoo is coagulated blood, plasma, and some excess ink, all dried by the air. Minor scabbing is a normal and healthy part of your healing process.
What does scabbing mean?
Your scabs say a lot about the health of your tattoo. If it is minor, it is nothing to worry about. But when a tattoo is showing symptoms of being infected, or a yellow-and-green ooze begins to develop or pool within the scab—this is when you must go to the doctor.
How to Avoid Scabs
Considering that some minor flaking of the skin is a natural and required part of the healing process, air drying of the skin is essential. Scabs need to dry, crumble, and fall off naturally. If your tattoo has developed scabs, and those scabs come off too soon, it could potentially cause fading of color, patchiness, blended lines, or missing elements of your design.
Why Wrap Your Tattoo?
In many countries, the law states a new tattoo must be covered and secured before a client leaves the studio. This is typically done with cling film or muslin cloth.
Wrapping a tattoo is done to:
- Protect it from rubbing and injuries.
- Protect your clothing.
- Stop dust and microbes from entering the fresh wound.
- Limit the air reaching the new tattoo so that it doesn't dry and form scabs too quickly.
Wrapping your tattoo with cling film can be a risk. Cling film does not allow your skin to breathe and creates a warm environment that bacteria love to breed in. If you only have cling film, use it for the shortest length of time possible. Thoroughly wash off all the fluid and ooze that has formed within the plastic wrap.
How to Prevent Scabs From Forming:
- Instead of sitting for an epic amount of time, schedule more sessions for shorter time frames so you're not over-working your skin and causing extra damage.
- Follow strict infection-control practices while being tattooed and immediately afterward to avoid infections.
- Wash your hands thoroughly before doing any aftercare.
- Do not remove the plastic or cloth cover applied by the artist until you can wash your tattoo in a clean place.
- Use an anti-bacterial foam to wash and gently clean the plasma and blood completely off.
Signs of Tattoo Infection
- An infected tattoo may have a green and yellowish crust or slimy area.
- You may also see red streaks or experience shooting pain.
- Excessive swelling and fever are signs of infection.
If you suspect an infection, see your doctor immediately, not your tattoo artist. Tattoo artists are not medical professionals. If you delay seeing a doctor, the infection will have extra time to develop.
Aftercare for Scabbing on a Tattoo
For scabs to heal, they need to dry out so they can crumble and fall off naturally.
For the non-scabbed sections of your tattoo to continue healing, they will need to have aftercare cream rubbed into them.
Aftercare Cream and Your Scabs
- Do not apply aftercare lotions or creams to the scab itself; this is crucial.
- Go around your scab when applying aftercare creams to the rest of your healing tattoo.
- Do not pick or scratch off scabs of any size, as this removes ink that should otherwise gradually leach back into the skin.
Tattoo Aftercare Products: Quick Reference Guide
Antibacterial tattoo foam wash
To clean the skin
Tattoo balm or cream
To soothe and assist with healing
To moisturise and aid healing
How to Remove Large Scabs
If three weeks pass and you still have heavy scabs stuck to your tattoo, you can start taking some assertive action to assist the removal of the more stubborn scabs.
When your scab starts lifting and crumbling, be extremely careful when performing any aftercare procedures or doing anything. This is when you must protect the scab the most, particularly from things that may pull or knock off the hanging or lifting sections of the scab: clothing that binds or people who bump into you in crowds. Wrapping your tattoo in a hygienic bandage can help protect your scabs from being ripped off.
Practical Tips for Removing Large Scabs
Some of the methods described below come with some risk and may be controversial in the tattoo community. Remember that there is a risk of losing ink every time you lose scab, so removing scabs should only be considered long after the initial healing period is over and only if they are causing you distress. Have personal discretion when following the below options.
- Wash your tattoo like you normally would in the shower. Let the warm water flow over the scabs for a few minutes. Gently pat dry with a clean towel. Your scabs will start shrinking and then begin peeling naturally as they dry out again. Repeat each time you would normally have a shower.
- When a scab is very thick, lay a clean wet cloth over your scabs for no more than two to three minutes while showering. The scab will soak up a bit of water, and as it dries, the edges of the scab will start to lift.
- When dealing with scabs that just won't crumble and fall off themselves, you can try this as a last resort. After you lay your face washer over the scab and the scab is reasonably waterlogged, you want to very gently, with a cupped palm full of antibacterial wash or soap, roll your hand over the scab whilst the warm water is still running. This will help the edges start to lift away, but it must be done gradually and very gently.
Important note: This last process, in particular, is quite risky. Only do it in small, repetitive lots and no more than twice a day. This option is a last resort and is done at your own discretion as there's a high risk of damage to your tattoo. Unfortunately, that damage may have already been done by the heavy scabbing process.
Always pat dry with a clean, hygienic towel. Do not rub or agitate the scab with a towel or a face washer at any point.
All the above suggestions are recommended to be performed in small, gentle, repetitive lots. Excessive friction to remove scabs could damage your tattoo.
- Is My New Tattoo Infected? What Should I Do about it?
Your new tattoo doesn't feel right and you're concerned you may have an infection. Learn the symptoms of an infected tattoo and find out how to deal with it.
- Should I Wrap My New Tattoo and For How Long?
Find out about wrapping your new tattoo. What should you use, when should you do it and for how long.
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.
Scott on July 16, 2019:
Red bumps on my arm after a tattoo. Is this normal
Karen on January 17, 2017:
What is the best cream to put over my tattoo
Stacey from New Zealand on April 06, 2015:
Good article. Most of my tattoos have been very minimal to no scabbing at all. A couple of them had pretty yucky scabbing and one was on my foot so as you mentioned, it got kicked by someone outside and yeah..damaged tattoo now.
Thing is, depending on how bad the damage is, your free touch up from your tattooist should take care of it :)