Aftercare starts as soon as your tattoo is done.
Cover it up
The artist should apply a thin layer of antibiotic ointment over the tattoo and then cover the area in a bandage or plastic wrap. This covering prevents bacteria from getting into your skin. It also protects the tattoo from rubbing onto your clothes and getting irritated.
Keep the dressing on for as long as your tattoo artist recommends, which may be just a few hours. It’ll help absorb any fluid or excess ink that leaks from the tattoo.
Gently wash the tattoo
After a few hours, you can remove the covering.
First wash your hands with water and soap. Then gently wash the tattoo with warm water and fragrance-free soap. Pat your skin dry with a soft cloth.
Apply a small amount of fragrance-free and alcohol-free moisturizer to the tattoo. You can keep the covering off at this point to let your skin breathe.
Wait for it to heal
While your tattoo heals, you should:
- wear sun-protective clothing whenever you go outside
- call your tattoo artist or doctor if you experience any symptoms of infection or other problems
- cover your tattoo with sunblock until it’s fully healed
- scratch or pick at the tattoo
- wear tight clothing over the tattoo
- go swimming or immerse your body in water (showers are fine)
How quickly you heal depends on the size of your tattoo and how intricate it is. Bigger tattoos will stay red and swollen longer because they cause more trauma to your skin.
You’ll come home from the tattoo studio with a bandage or plastic wrap over your tattoo. After a few hours, you can remove it.
You should ask your artist for specifics about how long to wait. Recommendations will vary and may be based on the type and size of your tattoo. Some tattoo artists suggest that you only keep your tattoo covered for 1 or 2 hours.
Once the covering comes off, you’ll probably notice fluid oozing from the tattoo. This is blood, plasma (the clear part of blood), and some extra ink. It’s normal. Your skin will also be red and sore. It might feel slightly warm to the touch.
With clean hands, wash the tattoo with warm water and a fragrance-free soap. Apply a fragrance-free and alcohol-free moisturizer. Leave the covering off so the tattoo can heal.
Days 2 to 3
By now, your tattoo will have a duller, cloudier appearance. This happens as your skin heals. Scabs will start to form.
Wash your tattoo once or twice a day, and apply a fragrance-free and alcohol-free moisturizer.
When you wash, you might notice some ink running into the sink. This is just excess ink that’s come up through your skin.
Days 4 to 6
The redness should start to fade.
You’ll probably notice some light scabbing over the tattoo. The scabs shouldn’t be as thick as the scabs you get when you cut yourself, but they’ll be raised. Don’t pick at the scabs — this can cause scarring.
Keep washing your tattoo once or twice a day. Apply a fragrance-free and alcohol-free moisturizer.
Days 6 to 14
The scabs have hardened and will begin to flake off.
Don’t pick at them or try to pull them off. Let them come off naturally. Otherwise, you could pull out the ink and leave scars.
At this point, your skin may feel very itchy. Gently rub on a fragrance-free and alcohol-free moisturizer several times a day to relieve the itch.
If your tattoo is still red and swollen at this point, you might have an infection. Go back to your tattoo artist or see a doctor.
Days 15 to 30
In this last stage of healing, most of the big flakes will be gone and the scabs should be going away. You might still see some dead skin, but it should eventually clear up too.
The tattooed area might still look dry and dull. Keep moisturizing until the skin looks hydrated again.
By the second or third week, the outer layers of skin should’ve healed. It may take 3 to 4 months for the lower layers to completely heal.
By the end of your third month, the tattoo should look as bright and vivid as the artist intended.
If you’re sensitive to the ink your artist used, you may develop a red, itchy skin reaction at the site. According to a 2019 studyTrusted Source, red dyes are the most likely to cause an allergic reaction.
Damage from the needle or from picking at the tattoo can cause your body to produce scar tissue. Scars can be permanent.
Once your tattoo has healed, you move into maintenance mode. Though you don’t have to specifically care for it after 3 or 4 months, there are things you can do to prevent the ink from degrading.
Tips for long-term tattoo aftercare
- Keep it clean. Wash your skin daily with a gentle, fragrance-free soap.
- Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water to keep your skin moisturized.
- Watch what you wear. Wear SPF clothing so the sun won’t fade your tattoo.
Avoid scratchy fabrics, such as wool, which can damage the art.
- Avoid excess weight gain or loss. Changes in weight could stretch out or distort the tattoo.