It feels like tattoos have been everywhere these past couple of years (literally, everyone and their mother seems to have one). The spike in popularity makes sense, too—more precise needles have made it even easier to get fine lines and super-detailed designs, and nowadays, tattoos are more customizable than ever before. You basically have complete control over the look, shape, and size of your design—something that couldn't really be said 20 or 30 years ago. But before you run out and go get inked, you definitely need to know all of the do's and don'ts that are a part of your tattoo's aftercare.
IDK if you've heard, but tattoos are 100 percent permanent. As in, on your body forever. That means you can't ignore the aftercare process during the healing stage (and, you know, all the years that follow). If you do, your cute tiny tat could end up blurred out or infected or your watercolor design could look flat and faded. So to help you avoid any pain (and/or a future laser-removal appointment), I spoke with Erin Raeman, co-owner of Supersweet Tattoos, and Johnny Dagger, LA-based tattoo artist, to get all of the ins and outs of tattoo aftercare.
What should you not do after getting a tattoo?
Let's first chat about what you should avoid before getting your tattoo. “Don’t drink before your appointment—unless you want to end up with an inflamed tattoo,” says Dagger. Drinking pre-tattoo can cause intense bleeding and it can mess with the quality of your tat, so don't even think about pre-gaming your appointment. What you can do, though, is exfoliate and moisturize your skin for the weeks leading up to your tattoo, he says—it'll help the ink penetrate your skin better, making it easier for the artist to get clean, sharp lines.
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Okay, back to aftercare. According to Raeman, the number one thing you want to avoid during the healing process is soaking it in any way, shape, or form—even in the shower. “You want to make sure you keep your showers quick, and that you try and keep your new tattoo out of any direct stream of water for the first two weeks,” she says.
When you’re standing in the shower, your pores are opening because of the heat and steam, says Raeman. This makes it harder for your skin to hold on to the ink and it can eff with the healing process. (Pro tip: If you can't quit your long showers during the healing process, Raeman says you can put a big glob of Aquaphor over your tat before hopping into the shower to create a barrier between the water and your tattoo. But still, no soaking.)
Heads up that all pore-opening activities should be skipped during those first few weeks, says Dagger. That means that you’re going to have to hit pause on any outdoors-y activities and take a break from your at-home workouts. Oh, and no intense sun exposure either, adds Dagger, since UV rays can break down your tattoo’s structure, causing it to fade.
Also know that during the healing process, your tattoo might get itchy—like, really itchy—but Raeman warns against picking or scratching. If you need some relief, you can tap it with your fingers, just like you would a mosquito bite.
How long should I keep my tattoo covered?
Right after the needle’s done buzzing, your artist will wrap a covering over your tattoo to protect it from bacteria and irritation. The type of covering you get depends on your tattoo artist's preference—Raeman uses regular saran wrap for her clients, and she recommends that you leave it on for around three hours.
Dagger opts for a covering called "second skin." It’s a clear sticker that stays on your tattoo for about three days and keeps everything (including water and sweat) off-site. After the three days, you can take it off and live your life.
How do you know if your tattoo is healing properly?
Don’t freak, but your tattoo is going to look pretty gross at first. “In the first couple of days of healing, it’s normal to experience flaking, peeling, and a little bit of irritation,” says Raeman. According to Dagger, the fine-line tattoos you see all over your feed heal pretty quickly—up to around two weeks max, he says, since there’s less trauma to the skin. “With non-fine line tattoos, the healing process can take about two to three weeks,” says Dagger. And unless you get a tattoo on the side of your finger, where the skin is a bit more delicate and prone to friction, your ink is going to heal at the same rate, no matter where it lives.
You do want to freak out a bit if your new tattoo starts to get super red, inflamed, and veiny—that means it’s probably infected, says Raeman. While infections are rare, they do happen, so don’t ignore your aftercare. And if you think you may be experiencing any form of infection, give your tattoo artist and/or your dermatologist a quick call.
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When should you start using lotion on your new tattoo?
You want to start moisturizing your new ink from the moment you take the bandage off. Both Raeman and Dagger recommend using an unscented lotion, like Lubriderm, on your tattoo. Anything with fragrance could irritate your ink and keep it from healing properly.
And lotion isn’t the only product you should use on your tattoo. You’ll want to keep the area clean with a gentle cleanser, says Dagger. Don’t use anything abrasive on your ink (sorry, loofahs and gritty scrubs). Raeman says that you should use your fingertips to wash your tattoo gently and then pat it dry with some clean paper towels before you go in with your lotion.
You know how you should be wearing SPF 30 or higher on your face every single day? Yeah, you should also be applying it to your tattoos—even after the healing stage, says both Raeman and Dagger. (UV rays can lead to fading, remember?)
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Can you overdo it when it comes to tattoo aftercare?
Yup—too much of anything is never great, right? You want to avoid going overboard with the ointments and excessive washing. If you do too much, you’ll start to notice the perimeter of your tattoo getting red and irritated, says Raeman. Basically, you want to show your tattoo love without smothering it.
The final verdict
Taking care of your tattoos, both during and after the healing process, isn't too hard—it's just like taking care of your skin. Cleansing, moisturizing, and applying SPF will help make sure that your tattoos stay nice and clean over time. And even though your tattoos will inevitably change a bit as the years go on—just like your skin—maintaining a routine will keep your ink in tip-top shape.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.