Tattoo aftercare starts in the tattoo shop. Once the tattoo is done, the artist will apply a thin layer of tattoo jelly or moisturizer over the entire tattooed area. They will then cover the area completely with plastic wrap or a bandage.
As tempting as it can be to remove the protective cover to look at the tattoo, the bandage or plastic wrap should stay on for at least a few hours after the process. The length of time will depend on the size and location of the tattoo.
This covering protects the open skin from bacteria, sunlight, and from rubbing against clothing.
The first wash
After a few hours it is safe to remove the bandage and wash the tattoo.
After thorough hand-washing, a person can gently wash the tattoo with hypoallergenic soap and warm water using their fingers.
The moisturizer on the skin will come off, and the tattoo may appear as if it is oozing ink or a thick, sticky substance. This reaction is not usually a cause for concern, as it is just the excess fluid and ink from the tattoo process.
After washing, a person should pat the skin with a clean paper towel and allow it to air-dry for up to an hour. When the area is completely dry, they can apply a thin layer of moisturizer to the tattoo, but leave it uncovered to allow the skin to breathe.
For the first couple of days, the tattooed skin may feel warm to the touch and have a reddish appearance.
A person should avoid submerging the tattoo in water or getting the tattoo wet during the first 3–6 weeks, except for when washing it.
A person can continue using the washing technique above throughout the first week when needed. How often washing is necessary will vary depending on a person's activity levels and environment.
Someone who is sitting in an air-conditioned office all day may only need to wash the tattoo once a day. But someone who is working in a hot or dirty environment and sweating may need to wash the tattoo every few hours.
It is best to wash the tattoo with clean fingers only and not a cloth or towel, which may irritate the skin and prematurely remove any scabs that may have formed.
Scabs will often form in the first few days, and ink may still come up through the skin and need to be washed away. It is important not to pick the scabs or scratch the skin.
Any redness or mild swelling usually goes away near the end of the first week.
Around the beginning of the second week, the scabs will start to flake off. It is important to be especially gentle with washing and moisturizing during this week, as it is easy to tear away scabs and damage the tattoo.
The skin is likely to feel very itchy during this week, but it must not be scratched. Additional moisturizer may help relieve the itch. Using a moisturizer that is kept in the refrigerator may also soothe itchy or irritated skin.
If necessary, an over-the-counter product, such as Benadryl, may be taken by mouth to help relieve the itching.
Week three and beyond
The final stage of healing can be slow but requires patience. Most of the larger scabs will have flaked and fallen away by now. Small scabs and bits of dead skin may appear, but these will also clear up as the healing process continues.
Scabs and flaking skin can cause the area to look dry and dull. Applying moisturizer, and protecting the tattoo from the sun, will help with these issues.
The outer layers of skin should completely heal by the end of week three. The inner layers of skin can take longer to heal but require much less care.
The chance of infection is reduced once the outer layers of skin have healed, as there is no open wound for bacteria to infect.
Moisturizing regularly in the months following the tattoo will help keep it looking bright and clear. Protecting the tattoo from the sun with clothing while it is healing, and applying sunscreen after it has healed, is especially important in the first few months.