How to Care for Your New Tattoo

Health Writer

Last week we talked about the proper care for piercings; this week we will discuss how to best care for a tattoo to decrease your risk of infection. While most tattoos never get infected, because the needle breaks your skin, there is a risk. The right care will also make sure your tattoo remains the colors you chose. As with piercings, your tattoo artist should provide you with instructions before you leave the shop. However, the following are some generalized instructions to help you care for your tattoo.

Caring for your tattoo begins before you start the process. Your tattoo artist should be wearing disposable gloves and have sterilized all his equipment before beginning. If he has not taken these precautions, insist he does or find a different artist.

The first few days after you get your tattoo are extremely important. During this time, you should keep it covered. If it is small enough, and in a location that will permit it, your artist may recommend keeping it bandaged during the first two days. If it is large or in a location where a bandage is not possible, your tattoo artist may wrap the area with plastic wrap. Your tattoo can stick to clothing or sheets, making it painful to remove, and remember, during the first 12-24 hours, some of the ink may seep out, staining your clothes or sheets. Keeping it covered during this time will help reduce the tattoo sticking to your clothing or staining it.

Change the bandage or plastic wrap once or twice a day for the first day or two. Your tattoo artist will give you specific instructions on how long you should keep your tattoo covered.

Once you remove the bandage or plastic wrap, you need to keep the tattoo clean. The area will probably still be sore and tender, so it is important to be gentle when cleaning it off. You may also notice some ink or dried blood around the tattoo. This is normal so don't panic. Always wash your hands before touching or washing your tattoo. Use a gently soap and warm water. If showering, make sure the water is not too hot at first. You can slowly turn up the temperature of the water to help open pores and clean the dried blood and ink. Pat the tattoo dry or allow it to air dry.

Wait at least 24 hours before putting moisturizer or ointment on your tattoo. Some tattoo artists recommend using Vaseline, however other artists believe that you should stay away from it because it doesn't help in the healing process, using A & D ointment or Bacitracin instead. Neosporin contains chemicals that may react with your tattoo and is not recommended. You can also purchase special tattoo ointments from some tattoo shops, however, these are often much pricier than other products, such as those already listed. If using a skin moisturizer, make sure it is perfume-free and does not contain aloe or chemical additives. You can probably use regular skin moisturizer starting about one week after you get your tattoo.

Be careful to not use too much moisturizer; use a small amount and make sure there isn't excess as this can cause the ink to run and cause the colors to lose their brightness. You should apply the moisturizer on your new tattoo several times per day for the first few day or until all of the scabs have fallen off.

Your new tattoo will itch as it is healing. Resist the urge to scratch it or rub it. Allow your tattoo to heal and wait for the scabs to fall off naturally. Scratching your tattoo can cause it to become infected. You can apply warm, moist compresses to your tattoo for a few minutes to soften the scabs and help them fall off.

Stay away from immersing your tattoo in water. Swimming pools and hot tubs contain chemicals that can dry or fade your tattoo. If possible, stay away from these types of activities until your tattoo has healed. You want to keep the tattoo dry, other than when you are cleaning it, for several weeks. Some artists suggest covering your tattoo with Vaseline while showering to help keep it from being saturated.

You also want to avoid direct sunlight. This can also cause the colors in your tattoo to fade. Use a sun block of at least 30 SPF to help protect it from the sun.


Interview: Randy Tomkins, Tattoo Artist

"Taking Care of Your New Tattoo," from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting a Tattoo, John Reardon, Penguin Books