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Bad Aftercare Advice: The Truth About Tattoo & Piercing Products

Updated on July 2, 2017
Katy Preen profile image

I'm tattooed, pierced & modified. My body art is a part of me, and so I have a lot of experience of the healing process!

Back in my day...

I had my first tattoo done when I was 20 years old, and that was, um, quite a while back. 15 years in fact. That tattoo still looks ok, a little faded but still in good shape. I had it done at a very traditional (and a little intimidating) parlour in my hometown at the seaside. I was new to the world of body art, so I didn't know what to expect. I'm not sure if their aftercare practices were normal for that time, but every artist I've spoken with since thinks that their recommendations were a terrible idea!

After they completed the tattoo, they covered it with a large piece of thick gauze held on with zinc oxide tape, and they recommended that I use Savlon (a British antiseptic cream brand) on it a few times a day. Now, Savlon is soothing and has a lovely, smooth texture, but I've been informed that while it's good for healing conventional injuries, it is not good for tattoos. However, it didn't seem to do any harm, and Savlon is useful if you're unlucky enough to get a (mild) infection in a piercing or tattoo.

Cleanliness, hygiene, and damage limitation is key when dealing with infected body mods. And for those, you need good advice on products.

Some of My Ink

The Truth About Controversial Aftercare Products

Product
Is It Really Good for Aftercare?
Savlon (a British antiseptic cream brand)
No. While it's good for healing conventional injuries, it is not ideal for tattoos.
Preparation H haemorrhoid cream
No. It used to be good for healing tattoos but they changed the ingredients.
Bepanthen nappy (diaper) cream
Maybe not. I liked it but this product is no longer recommended (some experienced healing complications).
White petroleum (petroleum jelly)
Has its pros and cons (see below).
Clingfilm (aka saran wrap)
A controversial product, but necessary for sleeping during the first couple of nights with a large stomach tattoo.
SPF sun lotion
Yes! Slap on the SPF 50+, your skin and your ink will thank you for it.
Any scented product
A no-no. Use unscented until you're done healing.
Sea salt
Nope. Ordinary table salt will do just fine.
Read on to see my personal recommendations below.

Urban Legend or Peculiar Truth?

Everyone used to say that the best product for protecting a healing tattoo was Preparation H haemorrhoid cream. It was a standing joke that if someone had piles, they could go to the chemist and pretend to have a new tattoo. Honestly, I'd be mortified buying it for my tattoo and have the cashier thinking I've got piles, but maybe I'm a delicate flower. Of course, if you had a tattoo and haemorrhoids, you'd be getting a bargain!

I asked a tattooist about this, and they told me that it was actually true, but that the manufacturers changed the ingredients, making it no longer suitable as a tattoo cream.

Nappy Cream—Great If You've Got a Tattoo on Your Bum, I Suppose

The next iteration of this was Bepanthen nappy cream, which was recommended by a few artists that I knew. It has a smooth and slightly sticky consistency, which wasn't great, but apparently it did the business for tattoo healing. In fact, the tattoos that I acquired when my children were babies (see what I said above about multi-use products?) are all still beautiful and bright to this day. Maybe there was something in it. Sadly, this product is no longer recommended after some people found that it was causing poor healing in a red, blotchy pattern. Maybe they changed the formulation as well, or maybe it was bad luck. Even so, I'm not taking my chances.

A Legitimate Tattoo Aftercare Product

After about 10 years of getting myself inked, I visited a tattooist who recommended a few products: I liked the sound of H2Ocean the best. So I gave it a try, and loved it. When I get my enormous stomach piece finished in a few weeks, I'll be purchasing more of this, and I know it'll last beyond this one tattoo. It comes in a small 2 ounce bottle and is a white foam that you squirt on your finger and then apply to the tattoo. I love it for the following reasons:

  • You don't need very much of it. A tiny blob covers a big area. And once it's on, you can feel that a thin layer is enough.
  • You really get your money's worth. One of those 2 oz. bottles got me through four or five decent-sized tattoos.
  • Because it is pressurised and comes out as a foam, it is cool on to the skin, which has an additional soothing effect.
  • It's not sticky or greasy, and it soaks into the skin easily (this is better for its moisturising properties than for protection, but you should always keep your healing tattoos away from sun, moisture, and dirt anyway, and covered if possible).

It's marketed as a natural tattoo aftercare product. I'm honestly not bothered whether my skincare is synthetic or made from the tears of mayflies collected in a lily pad, but it seems to do what it's supposed to, and that is something that I definitely do care about. Apparently it contains "essential vitamins and minerals," and it also has some sea kelp and sea salt in it, which is ok I guess. I'm not sure about the virtues of using sea salt (more on this below), but it certainly isn't a bad thing (it's just not an exceptionally good thing, that's all).

Even More of My Art

Another Controversial Choice

When I had my most recent tattoo, the artist supplied me with a small sachet of a product called "Vitamins A&D Ointment." Not sure what slathering my skin with vitamins A&D is going to do for it; maybe I won't get rickets in my epidermis or something. I used some of it at the start of the healing process, but then reverted to my trusty H2Ocean. Why was that? Well, I had a look at the ingredients on the back and it said the following:

Active Ingredient (in each gram): White Petroleum 93.5%

This is used extensively by tattoo parlours—it's such a versatile product. The artist will probably cover your tattoo with a thin layer of white petroleum prior to wrapping it in clingfilm and send you home. It's great for protecting delicate and damaged skin (like a fresh tattoo), but it has its downsides. It doesn't soak into the skin well (or at all), and it's mega-greasy and sticky. It is a barrier cream, after all. But if you have a tattoo in a sensitive area, it can be good for the early days. It can also help with the care of large tattoos while you sleep (when I started with the large stomach piece mentioned above, the artist recommended that I wrap it in clingfilm at night for the first couple of days—this was essential advice, it kept it nice and safe. You move in your sleep more than you would think!).

A Bit of Personal Experience

Quite recently, I had a tattoo completed while overseas on a business trip (don't ask me why I do these things), and on my way back to the hotel I realised that I had no aftercare products with me. Disaster! I wanted to keep it moisturised and clean, so I took my chances on a tube of the most delicate thing I could find at the airport pharmacy. That happened to be Nivea Refreshingly Soft Moisturising Cream with jojoba oil & vitamin E (what is it with multivitamins in skincare?!), which came in a handy 75ml tube (I think you can take that size on board aircraft now, but I'm not sure. I've flown a few times where they've insisted upon having no liquids in bottles larger than 50ml in hand luggage).

Nivea is well-known for its no-nonsense products (jojoba notwithstanding) and creating formulas for sensitive skin, so I figured it couldn't go too wrong. Turns out it was a suitable choice. The cream is soft and soothing, and glides on just perfect. When the tattoo is at the early scabby stages, the cream's consistency allows you to gently moisturise it without knocking any of the scabs off. It doesn't sink in as quickly as my beloved H2Ocean, but it does eventually, and it smells gorgeous as well (is that what the jojoba's for? Who knows.).

I would recommend that you're cautious with this at first—it is a scented product and you could have a reaction to it, which is not great for your tattoo. However, Nivea also make the unscented E45 cream, which is suitable for most people (it's recommended for everyone from babies to the elderly, and is especially good for sore and dry skin).

My Left Arm

Something a Bit Fancy

The Body Shop's Shea Body Butter. So this one is best used once your tattoo is completely healed, and as a general moisturiser to keep your skin soft and bright to show off your tattoos in their full beauty. I don't think it would be a good idea to use it during the healing stages, because it's perfumed and makes no claims of its suitability for sensitive skin. (The Body Shop trades on its "natural" image, but that doesn't mean Nature always knows best. You wouldn't rub a stinging nettle on your damaged skin, would you? And yet they're one of Nature's favourites!) It is one of my go-to general moisturisers, especially the plain Shea Butter version—it smells great and reminds me of cookie dough, what a shame it's not edible. It's lovely and gooey, and a pleasure to work into the skin (but unblemished, healed skin).

I Am a Human Canvas

Sun's Out, Guns Out

But only with a high SPF sun lotion! Sunburn is bad for you anyway—it hurts, makes your skin peel, and increases your risk for skin cancer. Unsurprisingly, it is also bad news for tattoos. The skin damage and exposure to intense UV light will cause the ink to spread out and fade. Only a little at a time, so that it's not noticeable on each single occasion, but over the years it will be obviously damaged. Tattoos lose their lustre and sharpness as we age, but sun exposure just accelerates the process. Slap on the SPF 50+, your skin and your ink will thank you for it. And please, please, please don't use a sunbed. If you want to darken your skin, get a big tattoo instead!

Caring for Piercings

Piercings also need a bit of love, especially during the healing stage. The healing period varies depending on whereabouts it is on the body and how an individual's body heals. Some people are natural pincushions, but others have problems with wounds that won't heal and metalwork that migrates. A good and experienced piercer should advise you on what will work best and help you choose a placement that will settle and heal the most effectively. Sometimes things do go wrong, and I cover that below.

The best thing you can do for any piercing is to simply bathe it in a weak salt solution twice a day, until it is fully healed (this can take a long time; see the table below for more details). And that's it. Don't put any creams on it, make sure clothing doesn't snag on it, and DON'T PICK AT IT. Leave it alone, and let your body do its work.

And that is where another bugbear of mine lies. There is a fashion at the moment for using sea salt when ordinary table salt will do just fine. For piercings, in cooking, in your bathtub, whatever. But guess what? Sea salt is marketed as being natural and wholesome, but it's less pure than the cheapo table salt you can buy for 40p per kilo. If you have a saline drip or eye bath in hospital, do the nurses source the finest dead sea salt, collected by nuns using pots made of the shiniest quartz? Do they balls.

  1. It's regular sodium chloride, and that's all you need. It only needs to be a weak solution, so mix 1/4 teaspoon salt in a large cup of warm water, and bathe the area using a cotton wool ball. Make sure you get it nice and soaked, and that the water is reaching the edges of the wound so that it gets to where it needs to heal.
  2. You should gently brush away any pus and scabs (it sounds lovely, doesn't it? It's an occupational hazard of the pierced, I'm afraid) and the area should be left clean when you're done.
  3. If it's sore, you'll have to be extra gentle, but at least make sure you are getting the area wet, even if it's painful to pass a cotton swab over it (it shouldn't be that painful after the first day, no matter what / where it is).
  4. Leave the immediate area to dry naturally, but obviously mop up any spillages!

Healing Times for Common Piercings

Piercing
Healing Time
Earlobes
6-8 weeks
Ear Cartilage
6 months-1 year
Eyebrow
6-8 weeks
Nostril
6 months-1 year
Septum
6-8 weeks
Bridge
8-10 weeks
Tongue
4 weeks
Lip/Labret
6-8 weeks
Beauty Mark
6-8 weeks
Cheek
6 months-1 year
Male Nipples
4-6 months
Female Nipples
6 months-1 year
Navels
6 months-1 year
Surface Piercings
6 months-1 year
Surface Anchors
2-6 months
Prince Albert
6-8 weeks
Reverse PA
4-6 months
Frenum
6-8 weeks
Scrotum
6-8 weeks
Guiche
8-10 weeks
Dydoe
8-12 weeks
Foreskin
8-10 weeks
Ampallang/Apadravya
4-8 months
Inner Labia
4-6 weeks
Outer Labia
3-6 months
Clitoral Hood
4-6 weeks
Fourchette
6-8 weeks
Triangle
8-12 weeks
Christina
6-9 months
Clitoris
4-6 weeks
Princess Albertina
4-6 weeks
Data reproduced from https://www.infinitebody.com/body_piercing_aftercare/healing-times/

I Have Piercings, Too!

When Things Go Wrong

A skilled & reputable tattooist or piercer will do their utmost to ensure that their working practices are clean, safe, and high quality. They should leave your skin in a condition primed for a long-lasting result. They should also advise you on proper aftercare, and you should follow that regimen.

But even with all of these things being just right, things can still go wrong. Infections can just happen, or you may have an accident and damage a tattoo or piercing. Firstly, don't panic—chances are that the problem can be put right, but you're going to need to have a little more patience. You will need to heal from the infection as well as from the original work, and you may need to return to the studio for remedial work.

Infected tattoos are generally worse than infected piercings, and you should see your doctor if this happens, as you may need antibiotics. Generally, if a tattoo is infected, you will know about it, as it will become oozy (with lymph) and stinky. It could also become scabby and bloody. There's no harm in checking with the artist responsible before seeing your GP—while they are not doctors, they will have had basic medical training particular to their speciality. And just like a doctor, they will have seen it all before.

Infected piercings quite often clear up with a little more thorough aftercare, but if they don't, speak with the piercer and/or your GP. The immediate treatment for an infected piercing is to clean it, and keep it clean. Bathe it in a weak salt solution, three times a day instead of the usual two, allow it to dry, apply a small amount of an antiseptic cream with a cotton bud, and cover it with a loose gauze dressing if possible.

Sometimes piercings migrate, with or without an infection. The best thing in this case is to return to the studio where you had it done, and see what they think is the best solution. It may be a case of allowing the piercing to settle where it is, or they may advise you to remove it and re-pierce the area when it is fully healed. There's no way of knowing which until you seek their advice because all bodies, and all piercings, are different.

An Update: New Piercing!

Yet more metal in my face.
Yet more metal in my face.

My New Medusa Piercing

I'd been toying with the idea of getting a Medusa (philtrum) piercing for a while, but I was concerned about how it would sit in my mouth and whether it might catch on the "web" bit where the gum attaches to the top lip (the part where you could have a "smiley" piercing). But I decided that it would look great, and so I discussed my concerns with my piercer.

A medusa piercing is actually positioned so that the flat base of the labret stud is angled downward to follow the contours of the lip. This means it won't catch on that webby bit of skin unless you have a particularly unusual mouth! The rear of the stud finishes just high enough to present a fairly low risk of catching your teeth on it while biting. However, it does come into contact with my teeth and gums, probably because the piercing jewellery used is extra long—it was pierced with a 1.2mm bar, at a length of 12mm. The piercer said that it could likely be sized down to an 8mm bar once healed, but he uses 12mm bars to start with because pierced lips can swell up a lot. The day after I had it pierced, my mouth had something of a "bee-stung" look about it.

It's been a week since it was pierced, and while the swelling has mostly subsided, I know that things can change during the healing process. This piercing should be ready for a shorter bar in three weeks from now (4 weeks total), so I will need to be patient with the longer bar. When I smile, the bar tickles the underside of my nose, which feels quite odd, but tolerable.

This piercing is quite care-intensive. Obviously, twice-daily tooth brushing keeps your mouth clean(ish), but the piercing itself needs extra attention. On the outside of the lip, it produces a reasonable amount of lymph, and because I move my mouth a lot (talking, eating, singing, yelling, all that), it's a little uncomfortable where it crusts up on my skin (mmmm nice!). So it needs regular cleaning. I'm using a cotton bud to wipe saline solution around it (it's quite a small area, so a swab is a bit too big), both on the outside and the inside of the lip. For the first 48 hours, the inside of my lip was quite sore, as the swelling seemed to squeeze the flat base of the labret into the inside surface of my lip. During these early days, I tried to keep it as moist as possible by getting my tongue in between my lip and the bar, which also relieved the pressure on it. Now, I myself have said not to fiddle with healing piercings, so I wouldn't advise this for anyone thinking of getting an oral piercing, but I couldn't help myself, and it doesn't seem to have had any ill-effects. It definitely hurts less, and as far as I can tell, is healing ok.

I thought that this piercing might hurt more than the lower lip, and I feel that it did, but that could be because I'd built it up so much in my head that it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. But I do know that there are a lot of nerves concentrated in that area, so maybe I was right. Either way, it's not that bad, and it only hurts for a few seconds. Be brave!

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© 2017 Katy Preen

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