THE CARE AND HEALING OF YOUR NEW TATTOO
There is a wide variety of opinions about what is the best aftercare regimen for ensuring the best results for your new Tattoo. Considerations include not only the speed and cleanliness in healing your new Tattoo, but also the method that results in obtaining the best color. Below is my personal advice based on experience here, getting Tattooed and from conversations with many Artists and Enthusiast friends.
A Tattoo normally takes 7 to 10 days to heal. There is no "idiot proof" instructions for the care and healing for a Tattoo, but if you read -- and FOLLOW -- my suggestions below, that you'll have an excellent chance of making sure that your new Tattoo will be the best that it can be!
1. Bandaging youre Freshly Done Tattoo. When your Tattoo Artist has finished applying your Tattoo he or she will typically "wipe" the Tattoo down with green soap, then apply a thin coat of Vaseline or an anti-bacterial ointment, then bandage it. Depending on the size of the Tattoo, this may be done with a simple gauze bandage or multiple bandages and medical tape.
When the area of the body that is being worked on is quite large or some areas of the body that are simply awkward or difficult to bandage with gauze and tape, it has become quite common for Tattoo Artists to cover the freshly done Tattoo with plastic-film wrap, such as Saran wrap.
Over time, I have found this last method to be without question the BEST METHOD for wrapping freshly Tattooed skin. No matter the size or body part Tattooed, many Tattoo Artists (and Enthusiasts) have discovered that plastic-film or wrap is a preferable dressing. It can be easier to affix and wrap the Tattooed area and when removing the dressing hours later the Tattoo will not "stick" to the plastic-film like it will to a gauzy bandage. (One cautionary note -- usually the film-wrap is fixed in place with medical tape - and many individuals are highly-sensitive to the adhesives in the tape. If you find that your skin will blotch and redden with normal medical tape, bring your own hypo-allergenic paper-tape for affixing the bandage when done).
2. YES, a Tattoo is an "open wound" -- and thus subject to the possibility of an infection. But with simple good hygiene (see below) there is no danger of a serious infection. And continuously apply oily, petroleum-based ointments is actually counter-productive to the healing process. They can clog your pores and prevent the skin from "breathing" and generally unnecessarily prolong the healing-time of your new Tattoo. There are also some that believe these oily products "leach" pigment out of the skin, thus contributing to a loss of color and vibrancy in your new Tattoo. By virtue of the Tattooing process itself, you are going to see colored pigment "shed" from your Tattoo during the healing process. The stability of the pigment in your skin, however, depends much more on the technical skill of the Tattoo Artist that applied your Tattoo (depth of needle, not overworking your skin, etc.) and the density of the pigment used (denser inks will result in more insertion of pigment under the skin) than to the healing process itself. But your new Tattoo is actually much less fragile than you think!
Special Note Regarding A&D Ointment: Also a popular topical ointment for healing Tattoos. But be warned: If you are applying this ointment to a very large area that has been Tattooed, it is possible to have an adverse reaction from an overdose where the skin absorbs too much of the active ingredients.
3. How Long Before I Can Remove the Bandage? Naturally, most people want to remove the bandage to show off their new Tattoo right away. But you want to wait at least a few hours. Principally, this is to allow the traumatized skin to heal and the "oozing" (lymphatic fluid and blood) to stop flowing. These fluids may drain and collect in the bandage for an hour or more on a fresh Tattoo.
After 4-6 hours feel free to remove the bandage -- and if your artist has used plastic-film wrap, do not leave the bandage on more than 8 hours! Once you have removed the bandage, clean your new Tattoo well with a mild, non-abrasive soap and warm water. DO NOT SCRUB -- but your Tattoo is not as delicate as you might think either. Clean it well -- massage and remove the excess ink and dried fluid and be sure to remove the residue of any Vaseline, or other ointment that may have been applied. If your Tattoo is larger or in a difficult location on the body, removing the plastic film-wrap can be more easily done by letting it loosen and slip-off while taking a shower.
CAUTION: If you are exposing your Tattoo in the shower, do not let the full force of the shower spray directly onto the newly Tattooed skin. Let the shower spracy run indirectly over your body to wash the Tattoo. You will also find that a lukewarm shower is more comfortable and will not "sting" your new Tattoo. Hot water (and STEAM) opens the skin's pores and can cause greater loss of pigment during the healing process.
HINT: After you have cleaned your Tattoo and before stepping out of the shower, turn the temperature to ice-cold and let the water run indirectly over your new tattoo for 30 to 45 seconds -- this closes the pores and prevents further drainage and in our personal experience feel generally results in better healing, and for a color Tattoo, retention of color pigment. Then gently pat the Tattooed area dry.
NOTE: Do not leave the bandage on TOO LONG! Keeping freshly Tattooed skin wrapped tight for more than 8 hours frequently can lead to skin rashes (localized bacterial infections) and your Tattoo breaking-out all "pimply" -- the bandage should protect the Tattoo only while the natural body fluids drain, then exposure to air is needed for your skin to heal properly. Remember, the purpose of the bandage is principally to collect the seepage of body fluids in the first couple of hours after the Tattoo has been completed. Unless you are engaged in work where there is a great likelihood that dirt, grease and other contaminants may come in direct contact with your new Tattoo, it is not necessary to re-bandage it. And if you do have that type of potential exposure at work, etc., it is better to cover your Tattoo with loose-fitting, protective clothing, rather than a new bandage.
4. Care during the First Week. Care is pretty simple thereafter. You do NOT need to re-bandage the Tattoo!!! In fact, that would simply prolong the healing time -- and risk scabbing and loss of color if you are applying a gauzy type bandage (they tend to "stick" to the skin, and promote the creation of thicker scabbing on the Tattoo). Instead, simply moisturize the Tattoo lightly with a lotion -- no more than 2 or 3 times a day. Far and away the best that we've found for doing so is to use Noxzema face cream. It's very light, water-based and non-pore clogging (many lotions with collagen and aloe clog pores when applied over a fresh Tattoo). Not only that -- it's far cheaper than using other specially prepared, Tattoo-only products which are simply unnecessary (all of which are simply variations on other readily available skin lotions and creams).
It is recommend using Noxzema for the first 2 or 3 days and gently massage a small amount into the Tattoo. IMPORTANT: DO NOT SLATHER YOUR TATTOO WITH ANY CREAMS OR LOTIONS! Doing so will cause the skin to pucker, scab more heavily and almost certainly result in loss of some pigment. It is sufficient to lightly moisturize the skin when it "feels" dry. This will also help prevent itching.
That said -- everybody's skin IS different -- using the above as a guideline, experiment and stick with what works best for you.
Clothing: You will also want to be sure to wear loose-fitting clothing that will not rub against the Tattoo -- especially in the first 2 or 3 days of healing. It is better to keep your freshly Tattooed skin exposed to the air during the healing process if at all possible, and if not, to avoid tight clothing that can "stick" to the Tattoo, or clothing that will cause you to perspire where you have been Tattooed, etc.
DO NOT PICK at your new Tattoo. Ideally, the skin will form an "onion-peel" like a sunburn. Allow this to slough-off naturally while bathing -- and some will dislodge when you gently rub lotion into the Tattoo.
KEEP IT CLEAN! Sure, this is stating the obvious -- but remember -- especially the first day or two, the Tattoo is an OPEN WOUND until a skin barrier is formed again. So -- avoid things like letting your pets lick the freshly Tattooed skin (they will naturally be attracted to the smell). Don't touch your Tattoo yourself if you have not washed your hands. Don't go out and lean your Tattoo on bar and tables surfaces, theatre seats, handrails, etc. -- be conscious that you are still healing.
HINT: When sleeping with your new Tattoo, one way to avoid the freshly Tattooed skin from "sticking" to your bed sheets is to liberally sprinkle baby powder onto them. It will not hurt your Tattoo and will prevent you from sticking to the sheets like you would with a gauze bandage. You may also want to buy a special set of bed linens to use for sleeping during the first few days after you are Tattooed -- and reuse them in the future if you plan on getting more work, of if your Tattoo is of a size that it will only be completed with multiple sessions. A set of black cotton sheets works great when sleeping with a freshly healing Tattoo.
5. Moisturizing: This cannot be over-emphasized -- DO NOT OVER-MOISTURIZE. As indicated above, ointments and petroleum-based products retard the healing process and do not let the skin "breathe". Similarly, slathering your body with lotions on your Tattoo continually will also retard healing, lead to heavier scabbing and potential loss of color from your new Tattoo.
Moistening should be "light" -- a thin coat in the morning, and in the evening. Primarily this will help to prevent itching and help slough off the thin "onion-ell" like skin that forms over a new Tattoo much like a sunburn.
EXCEPTION TO THE RULE -- Difficult to Heal Areas of the Body: Isn't there always one? On occasion, there may be parts of the body where despite your best efforts, you end up with some heavy "scabbing" -- for example, the "crack" where your knee or arm bends. There, the constant, repeated movement of the joint simply makes it very hard not to end up with some scabbing during the healing process. Sometimes this can be painful and perhaps even impede proper healing of your new Tattoo. On those rare occasions when this does happen, we recommend showering to hydrate the area that has scabbed and to apply heavier and more frequent coating of lotion to help it dislodge the scab. This must be done carefully -- picking at the scab and pulling it away before its properly loosened will just result in more scabbing and loss of pigment. But sometimes removing heavy scabbing -- on a joint-area particularly -- results in better healing for the rest of the Tattoo. You may also need to have your Tattoo Artist go back in and touch-up those areas where the color is lighter after healing -- but this is normal for more difficult to heal areas of the body.
6. Scratching and Picking -- DON'T!! Like a bad sunburn, during the healing process you may find that youre Tattoo "itches". We've found this tends to be more intense with heavy color-work, or working on a large area at one sitting and with some colors that seem to be more prone to this than others (reds, purple and magenta) -- but it can be very individualistic. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to deduce that scratching and picking at your Tattoo is bad. RESIST -- picking at the scab that forms over your Tattoo will result in loss of color. Even if your Tattoo does not "scab" (and hopefully it won't or any scabbing will be minimal -- some parts of the body are just going to scab no matter what you do) resist the urge to "peel away" the onion-skin like layer that will form over your Tattoo as it heels. This is natural, and it will come off in the shower or when you bathe.
HINT: A time-tested remedy to relieve the itching should you experience it is simply to "slap" the area that itches repeatedly. Rubbing alcohol or other alcohol based products (Listerine, Bactine and mouthwash) can also temporarily relieve itching.
7. What to AVOID! Once it is healed, there is very little that will really screw up a Tattoo. The one BIG exception is prolonged exposure to UV light, i.e., sunlight and tanning beds.
DURING HEALING AVOID:
Bathing: During the first 48-72 hours, care should be taken while bathing. Soaking in a hot tub is NOT A GOOD IDEA! The hot water will draw impurities (including Tattoo ink pigment) out of your skin. Similarly, a hot shower or a steam-room will have the same effect -- take a lukewarm shower and minimize your time in the shower with a new Tattoo and do not let the shower spray beat on the Tattooed skin directly.
Swimming: Swimming in chlorinated pools and salt-water swimming should be avoided for the first week or so (as should soaking in a Jacuzzi or even your own bathtub at home). While neither pool Chlorine nor salt-water will affect a healed Tattoo, both are sources of bacteria and other impurities that could infect your new Tattoo. But, after the first few days, the surface over the Tattoo (absent scabbing) is relatively impervious and it is OK to swim. If, however, you are scabbing, water will tend to swell the scab, loosen it and perhaps cause some loss of pigment. A much greater danger to your Tattoo is the prolonged exposure to SUNLIGHT that is associated with swimming.
Steam Rooms/Saunas: Again - NOT a good idea while youre new Tattoo is healing. Steam and hot water open the pores of the skin and can result in loss of pigment. But once healed - enjoy! In fact, saunas and steam rooms bring out luminosity and color in the colored skin that you won't see elsewhere.
Sunlight/Tanning: Without question, the single, WORST thing for any Tattoo. While the newer, plasticized tattoo inks appear to better at resisting fading, if you spend lots of time in bright sunlight for work or pleasure, over time your Tattoo will fade (over a lifetime, not a week). To keep them looking their best, try and keep out of direct and prolonged exposure to sunlight. Just use some common sense. Think of your Tattoo as an investment. Only exposure your new Tattoo long periods of sun after it is fully healed and then only with a strong sunscreen applied.
And THINK AHEAD -- if you are a sun-worshipper and arent' going to change, then perhaps you should consider more seriously getting black/grey or Tribal-style work which generally withstands sun exposure much better than color work does. Of course, there's another school of thought -- that "faded" Tattoos become more a "part of you" and take on a "lived-in" patina -- that's a "look" too. Think sun-drenched Harley biker . . .
Tight Clothing: Again, a little bit of extra care in the first 48-72 hours until a good "skin barrier" has formed will promote faster, cleaner healing. It's only common sense that wearing tight fitting or restrictive clothing that rubs or irritates the freshly Tattooed skin is going to lead to scabbing. Additionally, bacteria and other foreign materials embedded in clothing can become a further source of infection for freshly Tattooed skin. And remember -- THINK AHEAD!! -- If you are going to your Tattoo Artist to have your thigh or ass worked on, don't just think you'll wear your jeans home -- bring along a pair of sweatpants or track pants that are loose and breathe that you can wear out of the Tattoo studio.
Pets & Children: Both are a "hotbed" of infectious organisms! If you have dogs or cats (or snakes or lizards . . .), pay particular care not let them lick, "paw" or rub against your fresh Tattoo -- nor should you touch them and then touch your freshly Tattooed skin.
HOT SEX: Got your attention didn't I? Okay -- you've just gotten a great new Tattoo? So what are you going to do -- go out and play rugby? Have a session of hot, aggressive physical sex? Go on vacation to Hawaii? THINK AHEAD!! -- is it wise to get work when shortly thereafter you may expose it to injury that could damage the new work you just paid for? Be prepared to ALLOW THE TIME to give your new Tattoo the time it needs to heal safely and cleanly! Skin to skin contact can cause staph infection.
My personal favorite tattoo aftercare lotion is H2Ocean.