You now have a fresh piece of artwork forever etched into your skin. For the next few weeks it will be up to you to help your tattoo heal properly. The first step is to listen to your tattoo artist and the care instructions given to you by your artist. Every artist has their own preferred method of taking care of a fresh tattoo, but in general the procedures all share the same basics. In the following paragraphs I will tell you the procedures and try to explain them so you understand the why and not just the how.
1) If bandaged, remove bandage after 2 hours*
The purpose of the bandage is two-fold. The first is to prevent the blood from getting all over your clothes. The second is to create a barrier between the fresh tattoo, which should be considered an open wound, and any bacteria within the vicinity of the tattoo. Ideally, a tattoo should be allowed to get plenty of fresh air, as it helps the clotting process. Obviously, some parts of the body can not be bandaged easily.
In general when it comes to bandages there are two schools of learning. Many old timers (and those who learned from them) use a folded paper towel or gauze bandage. The others use a non-stick bandage like plastic wrap (the kind you wrap food in) or adhesive non-stick pads. In my experience the plastic wrap is preferred over the others in most cases. Here’s why;
- Paper towels and regular gauze pads – A new tattoo is an open wound and your body is defending itself against infections while it is trying to repair the damage to the skin. This is primarily done by your body’s white cells, which help fight infection, and platelets, which help blood to clot and seal the wound. As your blood clots it will adhere to anything that it makes contact with, including clothing and bandages. If left on too long there is a risk that the clotting process will adhere to the bandage. When you remove the bandage the resulting pulling away may take not only the clotting blood and skin tissue but some of the ink as well. These type of bandages should NOT be left on for extended periods of time.
- Non-stick bandages vs. plastic wrap – There are few advantages to using plastic wrap over standard non-stick bandages, the first being visibility. With your new tattoo comes all the standard curiosity associated with it. All your friends will want to see it. The plastic wrap allows you to show off that new tattoo without needing to remove the bandage and increasing the chances of infection. Secondly it is a non-porous film that is not only non-stick but also leak proof (if tapped properly) keeping blood in and away from your clothes. Thirdly it is large enough that it will properly cover any size tattoo. Many standard sized bandages can be too small and not cover the entire tattoo. Lastly, it is available in every home. You don’t need to visit the pharmacy to buy any bandages.One drawback to the plastic wrap is that it also retains body heat. Too much heat causes the skin to start sweating and the resulting high moisture content is not good for prolonged time periods. As for the two hour limit… this is a generalization since most people stop bleeding or oozing from a wound within two hours, if not sooner.
- *Surgical bandage – In recent years there has been an increase in the use of specialty surgical bandages. These are specially designed, self adhesive, clear, breathable films that have proven to speed healing times considerably. Not all shops have them as the product is still fairly expensive, but these films are designed to stay on for up to 24 hours. From experience, you will need to remove the bandage in the shower as it can get messy from the buildup of fluids under the bandage. Unlike regular plastic wrap, these films are designed to allow oxygen to penetrate through the membrane while sealing off the fluids.
Once the tattoo has stopped bleeding, you really don’t need the bandage. If you don’t need to touch it, it’s preferred that the bandage be left on until you can get to step two. The only caution is with paper towel or gauze bandages. Do not leave these bandages on too long or you risk the chance of having it stick to your tattoo, causing damage when it’s time to remove the bandage. For some heavy bleeders I have used both the paper towel with plastic wrap over it. A heavy coating of ointment should be used with the paper towel bandage if it is to remain on for any length of time.
2) Wash with warm water and mild soap. Do not re-bandage tattoo
When you remove the bandage the tattoo area should be cleaned with cool to tepid water and a mild antibacterial soap such as Dial Antibacterial or a similar product. Any dried blood should be carefully washed off (do not scrub) and the area dried off with a clean paper towel. Do not use your bathroom’s cloth towel as it contains bacteria.
For the most part you will not need to rebandage after this point. There are only a few times when you will need to cover the tattoo. The most critical one being just before bedtime. Since many tattoos are done later in the day or well into the night, your new tattoo may still be oozing when it comes time for bed. What usually oozes is your platelets as they try to repair the skin. If you find you are still oozing, definitely cover the tattoo with a piece of plastic before hitting the sheets. You want to avoid having your tattoo stick to your sheets while you’re sleeping.
While your tattoo is healing you will also need to cover it during any work in which you’re in an environment where there is a risk of your tattoo becoming infected. Any dirty work such as construction, welding, asbestos removal, ditch digging, spray painting, etc. If in doubt whether the tattoo should be covered it is safe to assume that it should.
Lastly, the other time will be if your tattoo will have prolonged exposure to water. A quick shower won’t do it, but a soak in a tub will (or if you take unusually long showers like I do). If your tattoo is going to be in water for any extended amount of time seal it with a liberal coat of ointment and cover it with plastic wrap and tape all the sides tightly.
3) Apply a thin coat of ointment. Repeat three to four times a day
The type of ointment recommended for use on a fresh tattoo varies from shop to shop or even from artist to artist. If your artist recommends a particular product it is usually due to experience with good results with that product. The problem here lies in the simple fact that what may work for me may not work for you. For example; an artist I once worked with recommended Bacitracin, a common enough ointment, to all his clients. Unknown to him (or his client) the client was allergic to the ointment the reaction caused the area around the tattoo to become red, irritated and pimply looking after two days of use. Yes, things like this can happen and it’s not really the artist’s fault. On the other hand, the client was never told that this type of reaction was a possibility. With this in mind, the best solution is to understand that a fresh tattoo is an open wound and the ointment is a medicine.
I also warn my clients from using products that contain lanolin or petroleum jelly as these two products have been known to leach ink out of the skin as it heals. Unfortunately most ointments use petroleum as a carrier and is a chief ingredient in the manufacturing. Don’t oversaturate the skin with ointment. It is not needed and does more damage than good. A thin, conservative coat is all it needs.
As with all medication, caution should be followed and all warnings and instructions read and followed. If you find you are having a reaction to a particular product, stop using that product immediately and either consult your physician or a knowledgeable pharmacist.
Here are a few products that have proven to be effective in helping to heal a tattoo;
- A+D Ointment
- Triple Antibiotic Ointment – Bacitracin, Neomycin
- Hydrocortisone Acetate Cream
- Preparation H
- Lubriderm with Aloe
As the tattoo heals it will form a scab over the surface of the tattoo. It may look like a regular scab as seen on a scraped knee or it may look like flaky white skin. However it looks, the tattoo should be kept fairly well moisturized without keeping it wet. What this means is that as the tattoo heals a small amount of ointment should be used that will work into the skin without leaving a greasy or slick feel. The skin on and around the tattoo should be moist, not dry or tight. The scab should also feel moist but avoid it getting soft and wet feeling. This will only prolong the healing process.
4) Do not pick at scabs or dried skin while tattoo is healing
As a tattoo heals it may become itchy and you might get an uncontrollable urge to scratch at it to alleviate the discomfort. Don’t. A scab is your body’s natural way of healing itself. However it may look like, a scab is still attached to the underlying skin. By picking or scratching at it there is the potential of it tearing away from your skin pulling skin tissue and the underlying ink along with it. If itching does occur it is usually a good indication that the skin is dry. Applying a thin coat of ointment will help alleviate the discomfort.
If you need to wash the tattoo, never use anything other than your hand to clean it. This includes washcloths, sponges and paper or cloth towels. Use warm water and a mild antibacterial soap. If there are any loose flakes you can remove them using a gentle brushing action with your fingertips. Avoid the temptation to ‘help’ the flaking along by brushing roughly.
5) Your tattoo should heal within two weeks
Different people have different physiology. With this in mind you should understand that you may heal quicker or slower. Some tattoos require a lot more work to be done to the skin. The more damage your skin receives, the longer it may need to heal. I want to point out here that people with higher blood pressure will tend to bleed more, increasing the chances of ‘bleeding’ out some of the ink. Most shops allow for this by offering free touch-ups. Should you notice any light spots after your tattoo has healed completely, let the shop know about it so they can take care of the situation. However long it takes for your tattoo to heal, keep applying the ointment. After three to four days you can switch from ointment to a regular moisturizing cream, so long as your skin is healing properly. Remember that this tattoo will be with you forever. Don’t start off by short cutting the healing process.
6) Keep tattoo away from sun and other irritants
We all know what the sun can do to colors. Whether its your dull red car after ten years or that painted sign fading on the shop downtown. Direct sunlight bleaches colors. The same is true for the colors in your skin. The easiest way to help prolong the colors in your tattoo, even if it’s just shades of black, is to keep it out of the sun. If you must go out and sport your tattoo at the beach or outside on your job, use a sunblock. There are many products on the market today that have SPF ratings strong enough to keep those harmful UV rays from dulling your tattoo. Select an SPF of 30 or better and apply it to your tattoo whenever you go out into the sun. If you don’t use sunblock for your entire body, make sure you carefully cover only the tattoo. You wouldn’t want any embarrassing un-tanned patches of skin framing your tattoo.
Likewise, keep the tattoo away from irritants such as harsh cleansers or chemicals. Avoid constricting or irritating clothing. Any clothing that rubs over the tattoo will damage the tattoo over time.