Don't Mess Up Your Fresh Ink: A Guide Through the Three Stages of Healing

Published on July 8, 2016 by Elisha Neubauer

Great, you got that tattoo. You did it! Congratulations.

But, now what?

What do you do once you leave the tattoo shop with your freshly inked piece? The healing process is one of the most important parts of the tattoo experience. If not properly cared for, you can find yourself dealing with some very serious issues—including, but not limited to, infection and loss of color. Nobody wants to find themselves back in the chair getting their tattoo reworked because they didn’t follow simple directions...and nobody wants to face the artist, who takes pride in their work, with a destroyed piece of art.

So how do you care for your new ink? It’s simple. The entire healing process can take anywhere from between three to four weeks, with larger, heavier pieces occasionally taking longer. It’s important to plan ahead when scheduling your tattoo, keeping this time frame in mind. You’ll want to avoid swimming pools, salt water, and heavy exposure to sun for this period, so make sure that you don’t get your art just before heading out on a summer cruise or a beach party weekend. Your artist will most likely give you an aftercare sheet at the end of your session and point you in the direction of the best tattoo aftercare products to use to optimize your healing process. Take this time to read the sheet over before you leave and ask any questions you may have before walking out the door. The artist put his time and effort into your piece and will be more than happy to give you a detailed rundown of how to care for it, as he doesn’t want your tattoo to deteriorate any more than you do. It’s his/her name behind it, after all.

When it comes to the healing process, it can generally be broken down into three stages.

The first stage happens the moment the artist completes your tattoo. When considering this stage, you need to remember that the tattoo was in fact put in place by a series of injections by needle into the skin and therefore should be treated as what it is—an open wound. You need to care for your tattoo as you would any open wound, by cleaning the area several times daily. If you’re utilizing bandages of any sort (this varies by artist and placement. Some suggest bandages, others do not.), you’ll want to change them frequently as you cleanse the area. During this stage of the healing process, it is important to be aware that your tattoo will ooze. Excess ink and clear plasma will leak from the tattoo location for several days. It is important not to touch your tattoo with anything unsterilized during this phase... that includes your hands. Make sure to wash your hands before touching it in any way.

Avoid scented or colored soaps, perfumes or colognes, bug sprays, makeup, sunscreens or anything that you wouldn’t put on a surgical wound. Your tattoo will most likely appear red and swollen for anywhere from a few hours to a few days at this point, so don’t panic. This is normal. It will begin to scab after a few days, and again, this is totally normal. What is important, however, is to remember not to pick, scratch, or pull at the scabbing skin. Use a gentle soap to slough them off, but be careful. You don’t want to disrupt the healing process or cause more damage. If it isn’t ready to come off, don’t pick at it.

Stage two, as with any healing wound, is the itchy phase. Again, totally normal so don’t panic. Whether it’s a tattoo, a piercing, or a surgical wound, healing skin itches; that’s just how it works. You can count on this phase lasting roughly a week—but with anything, every individual is different. This phase may only last a handful of days or could go on for closer to two weeks; we say a week as an average. Allow your body to do its work without worrying about exact timelines. If your tattoo itches, it’s a good sign, so although it may be annoying, it’s a great sign and should be welcomed. Of course, it is vital to ignore said itchy feeling so as not to disturb any of the ink or shape of your tattoo.

As the itching continues, you will notice your skin begin to peel, which can make the itching sensation slightly worse. Still, do not scratch at your tattoo. Using an artist-approved moisturizer, you can reduce the itchiness without causing any damage to the work. Most artists will recommend an antibacterial ointment containing moisturizing properties, such as A&D or Aquaphor. Brand preference varies by artist, but they all accomplish the same thing . . .  they soften the location, thus mitigating the itching and peeling, while the antibacterial qualities will minimize the risk of infection. You may notice an alteration in color at this point in time. No, your tattoo is not fading. Your skin is developing new skin to replace the peeling layer and this newer layer will have a white filmy coloring to it until it settles and absorbs the pigments. Wait it out . . .  your tattoo will be just as vibrant as before in a few days.

The third and final stage of healing will give the impression that your tattoo is fully healed. It is important, although your tattoo appears healed, to continue to cleanse the area several times throughout the day—generally, two to three times should be sufficient. Keep applying your moisturizing ointment so as not to let the tattoo get too dried out during this final stage. You may notice a final layer of healed skin falling off as you apply the moisturizing ointment, but this may not always be the case. As with stage two, it is vital to not peel, scratch, itch, or pull any skin from the area.

Every artist has their own methods to care for a tattoo after application. While many of these methods differ slightly, they all follow the same general set of rules. Be sure to follow these guidelines exactly to avoid any mishaps, damages, or degradation to your new body art. No matter how great your tattoo artist is—poor aftercare can undo all of their great work. Once you leave the shop, the perfection of your ink falls to you.

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