When you get a new tattoo, you sometimes put so much effort into choosing the perfect design and the right artist that you don’t really think about how you’re going to care for your ink once you have it. Then you’re left scrambling trying to find the right product(s), which is when you discover just how overwhelming the list of choices can be.
There are so many different types of tattoo aftercare products on the market now that if you got a free sample of each one, you could probably treat all of your tattoos for the rest of your life. But which products are the best and why are there so many?
Well, the answer to the second part of that is easy: money. Lots of people want to get in on one of the most stable and lucrative businesses in the world, and they all feel that they have an idea that tops the competition. Some claim to take away that fresh tattoo burn, some contain vegan-friendly ingredients, some relieve the itching during the healing process, etc…and there are new products being introduced all the time. And the prices of the products vary, but they tend to run moderate to high.
Just a Few Examples of Aftercare Products on the Market
One of the very first tattoo-specific aftercare products to be introduced was Tattoo Goo, which has now reached such a high marketing level that the products can be found on Wal-Mart store shelves. Since then, many more products have been introduced, giving you more options than shampoo brands! So, how are you supposed to know which product is best for you?
Keepin’ it Real
Let’s be real here for a minute—to tell the truth, none of the specialized products are necessary, just like specialized shampoo isn’t necessary. The goal is to keep your tattoo clean and prevent it from drying out. That’s it. Good ol’ soap and water will get it clean, and a drop of olive oil from your kitchen will moisturize it. There’s no need to get all complicated with it unless you want to!
Why would someone want to use a specialized product if it’s not necessary? We all have specific preferences when it comes to the products we choose, and the variety is there to cater to that range of preferences. If something made with vegan-friendly ingredients is important to you, then by all means buy that product. If you prefer to use something that smells nice, then choose based on fragrance. If you need a product that relieves the uncomfortable symptoms of healing a tattoo, then you can try one of those. But no matter what you use, the end result is going to be the same: your tattoo will heal.
There are also OTC (over-the-counter) products that you can purchase at any department store or pharmacy that have been known to aid in healing tattoos and alleviating some of the discomfort:
Bactine Spray: This is a simple wound wash that also contains Lidocaine, which is a numbing agent that helps relieve the new tattoo burn. It also kills germs, so it has a dual purpose and can be carried in a purse or pocket so that you can always have it handy.
Aquaphor: The most popular ointment used by veteran tattoo collectors for many years with great results. It’s also a great product to have at home for many other uses, too.
Bepanthen: (Europe/UK) For those who live where this product is available, it’s been touted as another favorite by tattoo collectors. Made to heal diaper rash and nipple chafing, it also works wonders on new tattoos.
Too Much of a Good Thing is BAD
The biggest mistake most tattoo novices make is using too much aftercare product, regardless of what it is. Whether it’s a salve, a balm, an ointment, a spray, or a lotion—a little goes a long way; too much will have the opposite effect you want and actually damage your tattoo.
So, my rule of thumb is rub in, blot off. Whatever product you’re using, gently rub a small amount into your tattoo with a fingertip for 15-30 seconds, depending on the size of your tattoo. Then, take a clean tissue or paper towel and gently blot (press the tissue against the tattoo lightly and then remove; do not wipe or rub) your tattoo to remove any excess product. That will ensure you’ve applied only what you need and nothing more.
What Happens as a Tattoo Heals?
Your tattoo will look pretty amazing when you first get it – the colors will be bold, the lines will be sharp, and you’ll be able to actually feel the tattoo when you touch your skin. The first couple of days, it may be sore, pink around the edges, slightly puffy, and possibly even burn a little bit. In rare cases, there could even be some bruising around the tattoo if the skin is very delicate in that area.
After a couple of days, the swelling goes down and the soreness eases up, but a new problem may pop up – scabbing. A professional tattoo executed by an experienced artist shouldn’t scab much, but small amounts can happen even under the best of circumstances. Scabs can become uncomfortable themselves, and they can potentially harbor pus and the beginning stages of an infection. If the scab becomes very painful or starts to ooze out from underneath, it’s important to get it under control before it becomes a serious problem. Applying an antiseptic like Tea Tree Oil can kill whatever bacteria is trying to grow.
The Ugly Stages of Healing
(Picture left – new tattoo, day one. Picture right – same tattoo, day 9)
After about 3-5 days, your tattoo will start to look faded, dry, and just plain ugly. That’s because the skin layer that was punctured in order to pack in the ink has now died. Have you ever seen the dead skin that peels away from a sunburn? Well, your tattoo is pretty much going through the same thing. The dead skin is milky-white in color, so it’s like looking at your tattoo through a dirty window until that dead skin flakes off.
And that flaking off is the next step of healing your tattoo. Dried little pieces of dead skin will start to drop off like bits of dandruff. To avoid unsightly piles of dead skin on your work space, just keep your tattoo moisturized. Then the bits of dead skin will come off in the shower instead of on your desk.
Once all that dead skin is gone, your tattoo will look vibrant again, but it also might feel a little raw and exposed for a couple days while it works on sending new skin cells to protect your ink. The process of growing new skin takes approximately three months, even though your tattoo will probably feel fully healed after a couple of weeks. It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security and accidentally damage your tattoo with sun exposure or physical damage during this delicate period of healing. It’s important that you treat it almost as delicately as you did when it was brand new, with the addition of wearing sunblock.
Step by Step Tattoo Aftercare Instructions
Now that we’ve talked about choosing the right product(s) for healing your tattoo, let’s get down to the actual steps of cleaning and treating your new ink:
If your artist put a standard bandage on your tattoo, you can remove that after about an hour. At that point, there shouldn’t be any more active bleeding.
Wash your hands before touching your tattoo.
Gently wash your tattoo with cool water and mild, liquid soap. It’s important that your water source is clean and free of bacteria, so tap water isn’t always a good option. You can boil water ahead of time and let it cool, or you can buy distilled and/or purified water. You can also use water that has been filtered at home if you have such a device.
Only use your hand to gently cleanse and rinse your tattoo – do not rub or scrub. As you’re washing your tattoo, if you feel a slimy, slippery substance, that’s plasma, sebum and other body fluids; it’s very important to remove all of it before you stop washing. Apply more soap and rinse again if necessary, until you no longer feel the slimy fluids. If you don’t remove it and then it’s allowed to dry, it can form painful scabs on the surface of your tattoo.
After thoroughly rinsing your tattoo with cool, clean water, gently blot it dry with a clean (clean as in not used since it came out of the dryer last) towel, or new paper towel. Just press the towel against your tattoo gently and remove it a few times until it’s satisfactorily dry.
Remove a small amount of product from its container with a clean cotton swab or – if it’s in a tube – squeeze a bit out onto a clean surface. (Don’t just dig in with your finger or apply it directly to your finger, just in case you happen to have bacteria on your skin; you don’t want to transfer that to the entire container and contaminate the lot.) Carefully apply a small amount of product by gently rubbing in a circular motion for 15-30 seconds. Then blot any excess product away with a clean towel or tissue; it shouldn’t be shiny when you’re finished.
The Dos and Don’ts of New Tattoo Care
DON’T use sunscreen or sunblock on a tattoo during the first two weeks of healing. It’s too harsh for the raw and open tissue trying to heal. DO wear clothing over your tattoo during this time to protect it from UV rays.
DON’T go to a tanning booth/bed during the first two weeks – not only are the UV rays damaging to your ink, but the potential for exposure to bacteria and resultant infection is particularly high when you have an open wound.
DO use sunscreen or sunblock after the first two weeks, once all the flaking is gone and it no longer feels tender to the touch.
DON’T soak or swim for the first 2-3 weeks of healing; no baths, no hot tubs, no pools, no lakes or ponds, etc.
DO take showers during the first 2-3 weeks; cleanliness is important! But DON’T allow the shower to spray directly onto your tattoo.
DON’T touch, rub, or apply ointment to your tattoo right after a shower. Give it time to dry and firm back up before touching it.
DON’T use too much ointment when you treat your tattoo; it should never look shiny or wet!
DO enjoy and feel proud of your beautiful tattoo! :)