A Step-By-Step Guide to Tattoo Aftercare, According to Experts

For the overall health and healing of your new ink, follow these five important tips.

For those who love tattoos, there’s nothing quite like getting some fresh ink. Whether you’re into small, dainty tattoos or are working on completing a full sleeve of intricate designs, tattoos are artistic forms of self-expression. Even celebrities love them. You can choose to have something super meaningful etched on your body or just decide you want something pretty to look at forever. Obviously, getting a tattoo is a personal choice, and it’s a permanent decision, too. No matter what, you want to make sure your ink stays looking its best for the long haul.

That’s why we spoke to experts about tattoo aftercare. According to Brian Keith Thompson, founder, owner, and CEO of Body Electric Tattoo in West Hollywood, “Tattoo aftercare is important because it’s a permanent change to your body, and you want to make sure it heals properly. This way, you don’t have scarring or pigment fallout or an infection that can change the look of your tattoo.” When you make an investment in some fresh new ink, you really want to take care of it. Here’s how to prioritize the health, healing, and longevity of your tats so they can stay looking rad forever.

How to take care of a new tattoo:

1. Cover it and keep your hands off.

After you get the tattoo and check out the final result, the first thing your tattoo artist will do is put a clean, clear bandage on it. According to Thompson, this seals it, which is important for keeping that newly sensitized area clean and protected from bacteria. “It’s a breathable, waterproof bandage, which usually stays on for about two days,” he says. “You can take it off in the shower or to wash the tattoo—but definitely don’t touch your new tattoo with dirty hands.” This is important, as touching your tattoo right away could easily lead to infection.

Orit Markowitz, M.D., a dermatologist and associate professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai, agrees. She says it’s important to recognize that a new tattoo is a wide-open wound. Because of this, just the act of getting one triggers your immune system to produce white blood cells to protect against potential infection, meaning your body is already going into overdrive to keep the bad stuff out.

“Any time the skin is wounded—which is the case with tattoo treatment—the recommendation is to keep it covered and moist to help with wound healing and ward off bacterial infection,” she tells us. So while we know it may be tempting to touch—especially at first—don’t do it unless your hands are completely clean. 

2. Wash it regularly.

To that point, keeping your fresh tattoo clean is paramount to aid in its healing and longevity. Thompson suggests simply washing it with gentle antibacterial soap and lukewarm water two to three times a day. Be aware that it’s totally normal for the tattoo to ooze small amounts of blood for up to 24 hours, and it may also ooze clear, yellow, or blood-tinged fluid for several days after it’s created. This is normal, but you’re going to want to clean it out on a regular basis to keep the area clean. When you’re done washing it, you can either let the tattoo breathe or re-cover it with a breathable Band-Aid or Telfa dressing material if need be.

tattoo aftercare

3. Apply moisturizer often.

Since we now know that keeping an open wound moist is necessary for its healing, it’s important to be diligent about applying a nonirritating ointment or fragrance-free lotion to the area.

“Plain old Vaseline or Aquaphor covered by the soft part of a Band-Aid is the easiest and most effective wound care,” says. Dr. Markowitz. However, our experts note that there’s no need to overdo it when it comes to creams, ointments, or lotions. Start with a thin layer and simply re-apply when the tattoo starts to itch or scab.

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Keeping it simple with this step is key. “There are all these companies making all these lotions and products that are supposed to help you with the healing, but really your body is going to do all that, and it really doesn’t need help to heal,” says Thompson. “You just need to keep your tattoo clean and moisturized, and that’s about it.”

4. Don’t pick at it!

Like any wound on your skin, the tattoo is going to start to scab after a few days. First, the scabs will be pretty surface-level, but Dan Hunter, a master tattoo artist and founder of Authority Tattoo, tells us that from around day six to day 14 after getting the tattoo, you can expect the scabs to start to get hard and turn into flakes. Obviously, this can be bothersome at first, but Hunter tells us: “Don’t try to pull or pick them or you’ll pull off the ink and leave a scar. Yes, your skin will start to feel itchy during this time, but just apply moisturizer or ointment gently. If the tattoo gets red and swollen, you might have caught an infection,” he says. This is when you should see your tattoo artist or a doctor.

5. Stay out of the sun.

“Do not expose it to sunlight,” says Thompson. “You’ll notice that if you get a new tattoo and you go into the sun, it’s going to be painful. The pain is telling you something. The body doesn’t like it, and the tattoo is not going to like it, so definitely keep it away from the sun.” Remember, a new tattoo is an open wound, so your body is working hard to heal it.

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“UV light or additional trauma can lead to problems in wound healing, putting your skin at risk for scar formation,” says Dr. Markowitz. Even just one to two hours of direct sun exposure can break down the skin and the deposited pigment, effectively fading your ink over time. That clean, intricate design is going to look muddled, fuzzy, and faded if you don’t take care of it in the sun.

Even after the inner layers of the skin beneath your tattoo fully heal—which can take up to a few months, according to Hunter—you’re still going to want to make sure to put extra sunscreen on that area. “To have [your tattoo] looking good for the next 20 years, don’t ever forget sunscreen, because the sun is going to age your tattoo quicker than anything,” Thompson says.

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