How Long Does a Tattoo Take to Heal? The 3 Healing Stages

Updated October 10, 2022
Tattoo artist at work

Getting a tattoo is truly the highlight of the entire inking process. But you're not finished once you walk out of the shop door. You're just at the beginning of the healing process. You've still got weeks to go as your new art heals and changes.

So how long does a tattoo take to heal? The basic healing process will likely last anywhere from three to four weeks, and you'll need to take special care of your new body art during this time to ensure it looks its best once that healing has finished. Understanding the healing stages of tattoos gives you a better idea of what to expect in the days and weeks to come.

Tattoo Healing Stage One: 3-7 Days

This initial stage of healing begins right after your tattoo is finished. At this point, you can consider the area an open wound, and you'll need to treat it accordingly. According to John Hopkins Medicine, the processes of repair begins immediately after an injury. So, although your new tattoo is very sensitive, your body is already working to heal the skin. Your artist will gently wash the area and bandage it to protect it from bacteria.

Bleeding and Weeping

It is recommended you keep the area covered for 2-12 hours, If you allow the bandage to soak up too much fluid, it may wind up sticking to your skin, and this is definitely not good for the healing process.

Inflammation

Red Fresh Tattoo

Many people describe a fresh tattoo as feeling similar to a sunburn. The area tends to sting a bit, and it can look red and become a little raised or swollen. Inflammation is a natural part of the healing process.

You'll begin to form scabs over the area, and you shouldn't attempt to remove them. Just gently hand wash the area once or twice a day with a very mild soap, pat dry with a fresh paper towel, and gently dab on a light amount of the moisturizing aftercare lotion your artist recommends.

Tips for Healing in Stage One

Although people tend to heal at different rates, the first healing stage of a tattoo usually lasts anywhere from 3-7 days long as an infection doesn't set in.

  • If the bandage sticks when you try to remove it, thoroughly wet the gauze with warm sterile water to loosen any dried blood or fluid. Then peel the bandage gently away from the tat.
  • Wash the tattoo thoroughly after removing the bandage to remove any weeping or blood.
  • Get the most from your moisturizer by lightly patting your washed tattoo with a clean towel and allowing it to air-dry for about 10 minutes. This provides a better surface for the aftercare lotion. Then apply a light film of the aftercare moisturizer with the third and fourth fingers of your hand.
  • For a tat in an awkward-to-reach spot, be sure the friend you enlist to help you clean and moisturize it with clean, sterile hands.

Tattoo Healing Stage Two: Days 7-14

Tattoo in healing process

The second stage of healing is the growth and rebuilding stage, according to John Hopkins. It also brings the onset of itching. At this point:

  • The scabs are well formed and probably just beginning to flake off - a process that will continue for about a week.
  • The skin around the tattoo may become a bit dry.
  • Most people experience some peeling, just as they would with a sunburn.

Scabbing and Tenderness

Scabs can be thin and whitish, or pick up some ink and be the colors of the tattoo. This is normal. So is a slight pinkish color and tenderness when the scabs start to fall off. The aftercare lotion prevents the tender new skin from becoming tight and dry. Treat the area as you would any healing scrape or cut, and you'll minimize discomfort and avoid scarring.

Itching (But Don't Scratch)

Although different tattoo artists have different aftercare methods, aftercare instructions typically recommend avoiding peeling the skin. Just allow it to slough off naturally and avoid scratching your tattoo.

Scratching can cause damage and ultimately spoil the look of your tattoo by the time healing is complete. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), keeping the wound moist can help with itching and scar formation. Therefore, it can be helpful to apply lotion.

Tips for Healing in Stage Two

Cold packs (applied only over a layer of fabric, not in direct contact with the skin) and lotion can help bring relief to irritated, itchy tattoos. Expect this healing stage to last about one week as well.

  • Sweating can irritate a scabbing tattoo, so avoid strenuous, sweaty activity if your tat is sensitive.
  • Scratching off or peeling scabs will pull the color out of your tattoo. Think of the premature fade to your fabulous ink when you are tempted to pick at an itchy or messy-looking scab.
  • Cover that tattoo when out in the sun for 3 weeks. According to the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, you don't want to apply sunscreen to a tattoo until it's fully healed.

Tattoo Healing Stage Three: Weeks 2-3

Thin flaky layer over tattoo

Stage three brings the final healing of the area. Since healing depends on the size, location, and complexity of the tattoo, as well as your own body's recovery speed, the exact timing varies.

Scabs Fall Off

If you've followed proper aftercare, by this point, most or all of the scabs have fallen away from your tattoo, although the area may still be slightly dry and mildly tender. You may notice that your ink no longer looks as vibrant as it did when it was first finished, and this is natural.

Seeing Your Tattoo

There is typically still a layer of dead skin over the tattoo that obscures it a bit, but once that layer naturally sloughs away, you'll see what your new tattoo really looks like. If you've managed to avoid infection and scratching, it probably looks great.

Tips for Healing in Stage Three

It's important to avoid submerging your tattoo for at least two weeks. Therefore, you might want to stick to showers during this stage.

  • Continue to moisturize the area and protect it from prolonged exposure to the sun.
  • Do not clean or sterilize the tattoo area with alcohol or hydrogen peroxide. After the scabs come off, the skin is still too tender for harsh disinfectants, and the tattoo can still be damaged.

Healed Tattoo: Weeks 3-6

Your tattoo is healed, typically within three to six weeks, when the scabs and rough skin naturally peel or flake off and the new skin feels smooth again. Your skin seems back to normal, although with the addition of some significant art.

You might be tempted to abandon your babying and moisturizing protocol; however, the tat still needs delicate treatment. You'll also want to apply sunblock to your tattoo to prevent fading. Even though you no longer have an open wound, excessive rubbing, soaking, sun exposure, stretching, or abrasion can re-injure the sensitive area or disturb the careful lines of the artwork.

Safety Tips While Your Tattoo Heals

While your tattoo is healing, you'll want to take special care of your skin, and that means there are some things to avoid.

  • Apply a thin layer or ointment to avoid moisture getting trapped under the ointment.
  • Avoid swimming. Chlorine can leach color and dry out the still tender skin around your tat.
  • Don't soak in the tub. This can allow bacteria to penetrate the unhealed needle wounds.
  • Avoid exposing your new tattoo to direct sunlight. This can lead to fading, and you could easily burn the unhealed skin.
  • Don't pick at your scabs or scratch/rub your tat.

Most tattoos heal without incident if you follow the aftercare protocol. But some symptoms are cause for concern, and you should stay alert for anything out of the ordinary.

The ADD lists several factors that could be signs of an infection and warrant contacting your healthcare provider.

  • Redness around the area that lasts beyond a few days
  • Excessive drainage or soreness
  • Extreme tenderness that doesn't ease up

If the tattoo develops swelling, a burning sensation, or any kind of rash, or if you develop a fever, you could have an infection, and that should be treated immediately. At the first sign, that normal redness darkens and radiates in streaks out from the tattoo site, see a healthcare provider who can make a diagnosis.

Pus oozing from the site is, likewise, a sign of serious infection. Some people are allergic to the inks, especially reds, so an abnormal amount of irritation or swelling around one or more colors could indicate an allergy.

Overall, the healing stages of tattoos stretch out over a three to four-week period, and taking special care of your tat during this time is essential to preserve the wonderful work your tattoo artist has created. If you experience any symptoms that seem out of the ordinary, contact your artist right away. Although they aren't a healthcare provider, tattoo artists are very familiar with the signs of normal healing versus the signs of a burgeoning infection.

If your artist believes you have an infection, you'll be given directions about how to care for the area topically, as well as be cautioned to visit your healthcare provider or dermatologist if the situation warrants it.

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How Long Does a Tattoo Take to Heal? The 3 Healing Stages