How to Help a New Tattoo Heal

Updated October 26, 2022
Female tattoo artist applying protective wrap on finished tattoo

Your tattoo isn't finished the minute you get out of the chair. The healing process requires a delicate balance of support and proper aftercare in order for the skin to repair itself. Complete tattoo healing takes about 3-4 weeks.

It's not until the tattoo is completely healed that you'll finally get to see what your tattoo looks like. Some tattoos might heal perfectly, while others might need another trip to your artist to get some ink touched up. Understanding the tattoo healing process can help prevent infection and ensure proper healing.

A Breakdown of the Tattoo Healing Process

Ask five different tattoo artists the best aftercare measures to help a new tattoo heal, and you'll likely get five slightly 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 tat from settling in and healing. The entire process involves a few steps.

A Wound Is Created

When you get a tat, 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. According to the University of Florida Health, wounds heal from the bottom up, and from the edges inward, so you may notice the bottom and edges of the tattoo healing first.

Moisture Develops

If your tattoo artist has the right touch, your fresh tat 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 process of the body.

Scabbing Begins

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, according to Medline Plus. Scabs have long been thought to be an important part of any healing process; however, they are not conducive to the healing process of a tattoo. So try to prevent them by keeping the tattoo clean and moist.

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, according to the Mayo Clinic and tattoo artists everywhere. Picking at a dried scab can lead to fresh wounding and eventual scarring. So, don't pick if a scab has formed.

How to Help Your Tattoo Heal

You don't want a scar or anything else that messes up your tattoo, right? Then, healing aftercare is vital. 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.

Wash and Disinfect

Although keeping your fresh tat 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 soap or antiseptic wash should be used. Always dab the skin when washing, taking care not to scrub. This will help to gently remove scab particles without causing further damage. Pat the tat 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.

Prevent Scabs

According to Universal Tattoo and Body Piercing, tattoo scabs may or may not appear. The trick to helping to prevent scabs is to keep the wound moisturized, so the healing exudate is better able to carry out its job. The fresh tat should be lightly and gently cleansed to assure there are no harmful bacteria present, and then a light coating of salve should be applied over the ink.

Here is where many tattoo artists deviate on what you should use. Some 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 artists might recommend petroleum jelly, but it can make ink fade, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (ADD).

Use Bandages Cautiously

It's standard procedure at most tattoo shops to cleanse, moisturize, and seal a fresh tat with plastic wrap or a bandage before the client leaves the shop. This is your tat artist's way of ensuring you leave the shop in good condition. This initial protective seal only needs to be left on until you reach home. After a few hours, you can remove the bandage. Unless, your artist has put Saniderm on the tattoo, which can be left on for up to 24 hours.

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 reapply some ointment to protect the area. If that's not an issue, just keep the tat moisturized with the lotion the tattoo artist recommends 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 immediately upon showering or rising, and then cleanse the skin and reapply more ointment.

How Long Does Tattoo Healing Take?

Initial healing takes 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 3-4 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 3-4 weeks if you have followed up with proper aftercare as recommended. If you have any doubts about how well your tat is healing, either check back with your artist or head straight for your family healthcare professional.

How to Help a New Tattoo Heal