How to Heal Tattoos Fast: Recovery Times and Aftercare Tips
If you just got a tattoo or are considering getting one, you're probably wondering how long it'll take to heal and if there's anything you can do to speed up the healing process. The truth is, there's a lot of advice out there, and there's no one proven method to heal your tattoo in less than a few weeks. Read on to find out everything you need to know about caring for your new tattoo.
What's the Best Way to Heal a New Tattoo?
It seems like everyone is an expert on healing tattoos—just ask, and they will tell you that they know the best, fastest, and only way to do it.
I'm no expert, but I have a few tattoos (23 right now), and nearly all have healed well. I've gotten quite good at taking care of them over time. I've learned that the secret is to:
- Pay attention to how your skin feels and looks.
- Use good products.
- Be prepared.
Some will tell you to listen to your artist and do whatever they tell you, to the letter. This isn't necessarily the best advice. I know because I've tried it a few times with poor results. Why? Everyone's skin is different, every tattoo is different, and there's no one-size-fits-all aftercare sheet.
Instead, you should listen to your skin and come up with a custom method that's best for you. When you find a product your skin likes, stick with it! Learning how your skin heals best, then improving your personal technique is the secret to fast, safe healing for tattoos big and small.
In this article, I'll share what I've learned about tattoo aftercare and show you my preferred method.
The products are flexible. In fact, I encourage you to try a few products if you're planning on getting more than one tattoo so that you can figure out what's best for your skin. Being attentive to your skin and protecting the new tattoo is most important. Any quality product that is appropriate will work with this method.
How Long Does It Take for a Tattoo to Heal?
Your tattoo should be healed after about 2–3 weeks in terms of appearance. After 4–5 weeks, your skin should look smooth, and there should be no itching. It can take up to 3–4 months for all the layers of skin to heal.
Your artist should have covered up your new tattoo before you left the shop, assuming the area is coverable. Common coverings are:
- saran or plastic wrap,
- surgical dressing pads,
- or non-stick pressure dressings.
There are many schools of thought regarding when you should remove this covering, but the absolute minimum should be two hours. Your new tattoo is an open wound and is susceptible to infection, especially during the first few hours. Airborne bacteria, touching with your hands, or being licked by a pet can all cause problems, some of which can cause permanent damage and may require immediate medical attention.
A new tattoo will weep a clear liquid called blood plasma during the initial healing phase. Generally, the more an area was worked with the machine, the more weeping you will see. It's important to prevent this plasma from drying on the skin as it can contribute to scabbing. Scabs can cause discoloration, scarring, and even total ink loss. They're also uncomfortable and take much longer to heal.
Try the Overnight Method
I like to minimize this risk by keeping the dressing on as long as possible on the first day. My personal recommendation is to leave it on overnight and un-bandage it the following morning. Usually, this is about 8–20 hours. Generally, the weeping has stopped by this point, so scabs are much less likely.
A bonus of sleeping with the tattoo bandaged the first night is no tattoo ink stains on your bedsheets. Sometimes it comes out, but most of the time, the stains are permanent.
How Long Should a New Tattoo Be Wrapped?
There are lots of different opinions on this, but most recommend leaving the wrapping on for several hours after you get your new tattoo. Many prefer sleeping in it overnight. If you're not sure, ask your tattoo artist. You shouldn't wait longer than 24 hours to remove the cover, and you don't need to wrap it again once you've removed the initial wrap.
After You Remove the Covering
Once you've removed your tattoo's covering, which you should do within 24 hours of receiving your tattoo, make sure to wash it with water and antimicrobial soap. Don't cover the tattoo again, but make sure to wash it several times a day and apply a light layer of antibacterial ointment after you wash it. Make sure you let the tattoo dry between washing and applying ointment or lotion. You'll need to repeat this process diligently for several weeks to promote optimal healing.
The Tattoo Healing Process
Your tattoo will heal in two phases, each one about a week long. Here's the basic process I use for healing tattoos of all sizes:
Phase 1: Initial Healing
- Wash your hands well. Remove the bandage and wash the area with a diluted soap mixture and warm water. Make sure the water isn't too hot, and don't scrub the tattoo. Instead, use gentle pressure to remove the "slime" that you'll feel. When all the slime is gone, and your skin feels smooth, not slippery, you're done. Give the tattoo a rinse in cool water and let air dry or pat dry with a paper towel.
- After about 10–15 minutes, apply a thin layer of Aquaphor to the tattoo. A thin layer means that your tattoo will be shiny. Just use a little bit at a time until the whole area is covered evenly. If the product is running onto the adjacent skin as it warms up, you've used too much.
- Re-apply as needed throughout the day, whenever your tattoo stops looking shiny. Do not ever let your tattoo dry out. (I like to carry a tube of Aquaphor with me so I can easily reapply. If your tattoo is covered by clothing, you will need to reapply more often.)
- Before bed, gently wash the tattoo again and air dry. 10–15 minutes later, apply another thin layer.
Phase 2: Between Days 4–7 for Most Tattoos
- When most of your tattoo has peeled, you can switch to an unscented moisturizer with Aquaphor on any un-peeled areas. You can stop washing it morning and night. From now on, once a day or every other day should be sufficient.
- Re-apply moisturizer as needed throughout the day. Again, don't let your skin dry out.
- After about two weeks, it should be completely healed. Use some moisturizer whenever the skin feels dry or tight.
When Do I Know When My Tattoo Has Healed?
Your tattoo is healed when all of the tattoo is smooth and evenly colored—until then, moisturize!
What to Avoid After Getting a Tattoo
For the first two weeks after you get your tattoo, make sure you avoid:
- Hot tubs
- Hot water
- Sun exposure
- Tanning beds
- Sunless tanner
- Scented lotions
- Excessive sweating
In addition, be careful not to
- scratch or pick at your new tattoo,
- pull at peeling skin,
- or touch your tattoo (as much as possible).
Three Steps to Healing Your Tattoo
Step 1: Keep It Clean
It's important to wash your new tattoo with a mild cleanser. You should also make sure to wash your hands before washing your tattoo. Many tattoo artists recommend antibacterial soaps. In my experience, they're unnecessary, and there's plenty of research that indicates they are no more effective at removing microbes and germs than plain soaps.
I have had excellent results with Dr. Bronner's Castile soaps. Castile soap is one of the simplest and most natural cleansers available and has an unbelievable amount of uses.
I recommend washing once a day for the first week. Remember to dilute this product! It's concentrated.
Wash your hands thoroughly any time you plan on touching your new tattoo!
Step 2: Keep It Moisturized
I like Aquaphor because it's cheap, extremely moisturizing, and easy to bring with you. I prefer the tubes versus the larger tubs as it's easier to prevent contamination.
Never allow your tattoo to dry out! Always have Aquaphor, emu oil, or an unscented lotion on hand at all times.
Step 3: After the Tattoo Peels, Switch to a Lighter Moisturizer
You can use just Aquaphor for your entire heal, but it's somewhat heavy, and clothing tends to stick to it. A lightweight, fragrance-free lotion is a great way to finish your healing.
- I usually add in lotion or tattoo cream around day 3 or 4. When the entire tattoo has peeled, I stop using the Aquaphor and use only the lighter moisturizer for another few days until the skin no longer needs additional moisture to feel smooth.
- Be sure to choose something that has no fragrance, essential oils, or sunscreens—Lubriderm, Eucerin, Aveeno, and Cetaphil all offer fragrance-free lotions that will work (just read the ingredients to be sure).
For the best results, keep your skin moist and clean, and never let your tattoo dry out.
Optional: Add Emu Oil to Your Regimen
I've had excellent results with emu oil as a part of the aftercare.
- It's not quite emollient enough for me to use it alone, so I generally use a combination of my fragrance-free moisturizer in the mornings and emu oil throughout the day.
- Emu oil is reported to have properties that allow it to penetrate deep into the skin, and it also contains effective anti-inflammatory properties.
Do you have any tattoos?
Warning: What to Look Out for
If you notice any of the following things during the healing process, please visit your doctor.
- Increased pain
- Red streaks heading away from the area of the tattoo
- Major swelling
- Tattooed area is "goopy"
- Pus: green, yellow, or brown
- Swollen lymph nodes
These are common signs that your tattoo is infected, and you should seek medical attention immediately if you experience any of these symptoms.
Post-Healing Tattoo Care
- For the first two weeks after you get your tattoo, cover it with clothing any time you'll be exposed to the sun. Cloth bandanas work well for hot days.
- After you're healed, it's really important to wear sunscreen on any tattooed skin that you expose to the sun. UV rays are the number one cause of damage. When tattoo pigment absorbs UV rays, it begins to break down. This manifests itself in the blurring of lines, patchy saturation, and changes to color.
Light colors fade the fastest, and black often turns greenish or blue with age. Protect your tattoo throughout your life, and you will always be able to enjoy its beauty instead of wishing you'd taken better care of it when you had the chance.
Frequently Asked Questions About Tattoos
How long should I leave the wrap on my new tattoo?
Keep it covered for the first 2–24 hours after getting your new tattoo. Once you remove the wrap, be sure to wash your tattoo, and don't cover it again.
How often should I wash my tattoo?
Wash your tattoo several times a day with unscented soap.
How often should I moisturize my tattoo?
Moisturize your tattoo with a lightweight, unscented moisturizer after cleansing (several times a day).
How long will it take my tattoo to heal?
Your tattoo can take 2–3 weeks to heal on the surface, but it takes 3–4 months for your tattoo to heal completely.
Is there anything I can do to make my tattoo heal faster?
Other than taking proper care of your tattoo as outlined in this article or described by your tattoo artist, there's no quick and easy way to heal your tattoo. Be diligent about cleansing and moisturizing your tattoo, and avoid everything that can cause infection or fading, and in a few short months, you'll have a beautiful tattoo that will last a lifetime!
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.
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© 2012 Tom Maybrier