The healing process of a tattoo requires a delicate balance of support and proper aftercare in order for the skin to proceed with its own damage control. Understanding the process and how to best care for your new body art will help prevent infection and ensure proper healing.
Healing Process of a Tattoo Explained
Ask five different tattoo artists the best aftercare measures to help a new tattoo heal, and you’ll likely get five marginally different answers. Everyone seems to have a favorite regimen and favorite products to speed the process along. You may even get conflicting advice about what will help or hinder your fresh tattoo from settling in and healing, so you need to have some idea of the ideal conditions needed for skin to renew itself.
Skin Healing 101
When you get a tattoo, your skin is pierced hundreds, if not thousands, of times. This creates a series of minute puncture wounds that need to be cared for and protected if they are to heal without scarring or becoming infected. Wounds heal from the bottom up, and from the edges inward, so you may notice the bottom and edges of the tattoo healing first.
If your tattoo artist has the right touch, your fresh tattoo will likely be dry and relatively clear right after the procedure. However, very shortly you’ll begin to notice a sort of light dew begin to emerge from the tattooed area. This dew is technically called “exudate“, and it is a natural moisturizer that helps your skin to heal itself.
Typically, small dots of red or brown begin to appear in the exudate, and these are bits of blood that become mingled with dead skin cells to form scabs. Scabs have long been thought an important part of any healing process; however, they are not conducive to the healing process of a tattoo. Scabs tend to prolong the healing process because they trap dead skin cells on the surface, and the skin has to work harder to renew. Scabs can also lead to scarring. Remember how your parents used to tell you not to pick at a scab? It’s still good advice. Picking at a dried scab can lead to fresh wounding and eventual scarring. Under the circumstances, it’s far better to prevent a scab from forming in the first place.
Helping Your Tattoo Heal
By keeping your new tattoo clean and taking proper care of it, you have the best chance of avoiding infection and helping it to heal.
According to Tattoo Artist Magazine, it’s important to avoid scabs while allowing your new tattoo to heal. The trick to preventing scabs is to keep the wound moisturized so the healing exudate is better able to carry out its job. The fresh tattoo should be lightly and gently cleansed to assure there are no harmful bacteria present, and then a light coating of ointment should be applied over the ink. Here is where many tattoo devotees deviate on what you should use. Many people prefer to apply an antibiotic ointment to provide a protective layer that seals exudate in and germs out. Antibiotic ointments are indeed useful for about the first four days, but after this they can actually prolong healing.
Some tattoo artists recommend applying petroleum jelly, even though others say that this type of product can leach ink from a fresh tattoo. According an article on tattoo aftercare on Fox News, it’s best to use the antibiotic ointment for the first three to five days while the punctures close, and then follow up with a standard mild ointment such as a moisturizing cream recommended by the tattoo shop.
Medical professionals recommend a triple antibiotic ointment to help prevent and heal skin infections, and this type of ointment can be a good choice for tattoo aftercare. Not only does it have triple antibiotic properties, but it is available over the counter, has a low risk of allergic reactions, and is easier to apply than some other types of ointments (such as A & D ointment for example, which has a thicker consistency and may be painful to apply if not warmed beforehand).
Washing and Disinfecting
Although keeping your fresh tattoo disinfected is definitely part of any aftercare routine, it’s important not to go overboard. Too much washing depletes the exudate, and it can actually dry out your skin and create more flaking and sloughing than you would normally expect.
Washing should probably be kept to about twice a day unless there’s an obvious problem, and only the mildest non-scented soap or antiseptic wash should be used. Always dab the skin, taking care not to scrub. This will help to gently remove scab particles without causing further damage. Pat the tattoo dry with a fresh paper towel and apply your chosen ointment just thick enough to create a barrier without looking like you just frosted a cake.
It’s standard procedure at most tattoo shops to cleanse, moisturize and seal a fresh tattoo with plastic wrap, bandage or wound gel before the client leaves the shop. This is your tattoo artist’s way of ensuring you leave the shop in good condition, and after that you’re basically on your own unless you need follow up advice.
This initial protective seal really only needs to be left on until you reach home. After that, you can remove the plastic, bandage or wound gel, although you may want to leave it in place for a few hours to keep the moisturizer working and keep any dust or dirt away from the sticky surface. Once you remove the seal, observe the area and gently dab away those tiny dark specks that lead to scab formation. Eventually, the specks will stop rising to the surface, and you can re-apply some ointment to protect the area. If that’s not an issue, just keep the tattoo moisturized with the lotion the tattoo artist recommends to you, and keep it clean.
At this point, it’s really only necessary to protect the area with plastic during showers, and overnight to keep the bedding from rubbing and/or adhering to the wound. Make sure you remove the plastic, bandage or wound gel immediately upon showering or rising, and then cleanse the skin and re-apply more ointment.
How Long Does Healing Take?
Initial healing take place in the first four days. During this time, your skin has created fresh cells just below the surface of the dead and damaged ones. Keeping the area moisturized with natural exudate and ointment allows healing to proceed quickly. You should continue to apply ointment for a good seven days; after this you can switch to a general skin moisturizing product, taking care to treat the area gently every time you touch it.
The entire healing process of a tattoo should take about three to four weeks, if you have followed up with proper aftercare as recommended. If you have any doubts about how well your tattoo is healing, either check back with your artist or head straight for your family doctor.