I have spent some time rolling around the great vastness of the internet looking up different articles on how to take care of your tattoo. There are a variety of protocols that have been put forth by artists and regulators but none of the methods I had found were focused on the individual. For the most part, all aftercare solutions have been rolled into a single process – Don’t pick it and keep it wet.
This idea of tattoo care is blatantly wrong (apart from picking the tattoo).
There are so many variables that go into taking care of a tattoo: Your skin type, the climate that you live in, your daily activities, or the type of work you do if you pick your scabs or not… We can put an etcetera on that list but, I am going to take a poke at how you should pick apart aftercare products. Hopefully, you can figure out what is the most viable option for you and your skin.
Tattoo Aftercare And Healing Your Tattoo
First, let’s dismiss the idea that you are healing your tattoo. You are not healing your tattoo. You are not making it go faster by applying some magical topical ointment or lotion to your skin. There is no chance in this life that the $45 bottle of magical, salt-infused tattoo cream will magically imbue your body with healing powers comparable to Wolverine. I am sad to point it out but, it did make me feel kind of happy at the same time.
What science has shown us is that our body has an amazing ability to heal itself, regardless of our interference and wish to make things progress faster than they naturally occur. Our bodies are amazing machines and without proper knowledge or planning, our efforts to speed things up can result in annoyance, or at times, catastrophe.
Caring For Your New Tattoo – The Default Setting
In my experience, there is always a default for taking care of a tattoo. This occurs with both the artist as well as the client.
Clients will always remember their first tattoo like it was yesterday. With the nostalgia of pain and process comes the memories of how to tattoo aftercare is to be approached. Because the first experience is so discreetly unique, our memories of it become more readily ingrained in our habits. This process creates a default memory that will have a greater than presence in future accounts. It also creates a minefield where new information must be added to or amend the previously learned knowledge. This topic should probably be torn into as it is massively interesting to me but, as this topic has already been laser-focused on tattoo aftercare products, I will walk away from it for now.
I am focused on the bad habits with types of products or a timeline for the care regimens which are hard to break. The easiest way to combat this is to make it apparent that we have a shortage of knowledge surrounding this subject. Knowing that we can move forward developing new techniques that will increase the positive outcomes artists experience globally we can improve the user experience and hopefully make tattoo aftercare more targeted to the user. We as an industry need to have a more comprehensive care routine for our clients, hence the efforts to write this article.
The artist is not always right
As artists, we all know a few tips and tricks when healing a tattoo. Some of us go so far as to toss a proverbial tattoo aftercare blanket on every client that walks through the door. We apply a universal qualifier to all clients healing a tattoo – “I” did the tattoo and “I” know how tattoos heal when I do them (on average) and you need to do it this way or you suck.
This solipsistic approach has worked for years, but I can’t imagine a place where an artist hasn’t had a tattoo come back from what we considered a fantastic session looking like absolute crap. When this happens, defenses come upon the artist’s side, as well as the client’s. When it comes to tattoo aftercare, rarely does the situation result in a way that both sides feel validated.
A quick explanation of what happens when an artist applies a tattoo
A tattoo is a medical procedure where pigment is permanently inserted into your skin. By creating openings in the skin for the pigment to enter, the body becomes more vulnerable to the possibility of infection. We develop aftercare procedures for clients to follow because the process is collaborative: We artists apply the tattoo to your skin in a way that we (hopefully) understand will limit the possibility of long-lasting damage internally, scarring of the procedure spot as well as decreasing the chances of transmitting an infection.
Sadly, our industry and the media created a blanket procedure that we utilize globally for taking care of a new tattoo. I fear that many artists have not thought critically about what they are being sold when confronted with new products “designed” for healing broken skin.
Now that I have effectively called out an entire industry, let’s take a look at some variables that affect your skin and how it heals.
Healing your tattoo
Your skin is the largest organ of your body and it acts as a barrier to the dangerous, pathogenic environment that surrounds us. While there is significant scientific information about the processes surrounding your body’s natural ability to keep your skin hydrated, we will avoid falling down these rabbit holes. Getting tattooed damages your skin and therefore damages your skin’s natural ability to hydrate itself.
In healthy undamaged skin, the human body naturally hydrates the upper layers of the skin through transepidermal water loss (TEWL). It’s very complex, so for those interested in the many mechanical and chemical processes TEWL is comprised of, take a look around the reference section at the bottom of this page. To not shy too far away from the science, here is a brief description of how your body keeps the skin hydrated – Moisture moves through your skin starting at the bottom, or the part that is nearest to your internals. It moves up through your dermis to the epidermis where it is eventually lost due to evaporation.
Regardless of the damages that may occur mechanically, we use moisturizers to increase the health of the skin. It has been shown that what we put on our skin has a lasting effect on the health of our body’s largest organ. If we think about how these products can harm your skin when it isn’t injured, you can imagine what happens when you apply a product that is “designed” to aid in the healing of an area that has been repeatedly stabbed with a needle for hours on end. At times it can result in a well-healed tattoo, other times it can leave you with extended healing time.
pH And Acidity Of The Skin
When measuring the difference between acidic conditions and alkaline conditions, scientists use a scale called the pH scale. A pH scale is a measurement of how acidic or basic a solution that is water-based is (a solution is a dissolved mixture of substances. In this case it is a mixture dissolved in water).
At room temperature, this scale displays numbers that are lower (left-hand side of the scale) are considered acidic, while those on the opposite (right-hand side) are alkaline. A neutral state, which is neither acidic or alkaline is considered neutral. A neutral pH reading is somewhere around 7.
pH measures the molar concentration (not teeth but a chemistry-based measurement) of free hydrogen ions (hydrogen ions are positively or negatively charged hydrogen atoms- the atoms that have gained or lost electrons) are found in a solution. Here is a video from Crash Course Chemistry that explains it in further detail:
The Acid Mantle
The very top layer of skin (called the Acid Mantle) on an average adult human’s skin has an approximate pH of 5.6-5.8 (averaging 5.7) but this number can be affected due to climate, elevation, pollution, nutrition or products which are applied to the skin. The acid mantle is very thin but has an incredibly effective way of keeping your body safe from pathogens by forcing adaptation to things that could otherwise cause illness.
The acid mantle is created when secretions from your sebaceous glands mix with sweat and lower the pH on the tissues involved. By doing this the body forces bacteria and other pathogens to become “comfortable” in this environment. When we are cut or have an abrasion, the opening in our skin and the blood that accompanies this break are relatively neutral, the change in pH creates an environment where the invading pathogens are not as “comfortable”, or less well adapted. This change in pH can actually kill the invading pathogens before they are able to establish a foothold and cause illness or infection.
Misconceptions on the first peel of a tattoo
Most tattoos that I found online, that are deemed “healed”, have only gone through the first (initial) peel. After a sitting, your fresh tattoo goes through a dynamic process of being accepted and settling into your skin. This process ensures permanency and if taken care of properly, decreases the chances of scarring and infection. This initial healing process does not equate what the tattoo will look like in the years to come but only ensures the wearer is less likely to pick up an infection during life’s normal wear and tear.
I also have run across many articles giving a timeline of months for a tattoo to be through the first peel. While this timeline may be adequate with some artists who do not understand skin function or what happens when you overwork the skin, most first peels should occur within the first 7-10 days, not 4-6 weeks after the procedure.
After the first peel, your tattoo will still look nearly fresh, as the pigment is located relatively high in the dermis layer of your skin. Regardless of your skin health as you age, your skin will become thinner and with time The pigment that makes up your tattoo will undergo changes in its appearance. Due to this evolution of the artwork, what you see in social media posts or in person as a fresh tattoo is not what the tattoo will end up looking like in 1 month, 1 year, or in 1 decade.
The Stages of Healing a Tattoo
There multiple stages to the healing of your tattoo that are commonly broken down into 3 parts.
- The first stage of healing is the first 7 to 10 days after your tattoo has been completed. During this time you will notice the pigment in the skin become less vibrant, be swollen and start to develop a mild, thin scab over the area that had been tattooed. Macrophages in the body (specialized cells that capture and destroy pathogens) contain the pigment particles introduced during a tattoo procedure. These specialized immune cells “eat” the pigment particles and hold them in place.
- During the initial healing process your skin may ooze exudate for the first 24-48 hours (Exudate is fluid that leaks out of blood vessels into nearby tissues. The fluid is made of cells, proteins, and solid materials. This substance may ooze from abrasions or from areas of inflammation. like you may see after receiving a tattoo.) There may be redness radiating around the edges of the tattoo as well as a feeling of itchiness or irritation while the tattoo goes through this initial stage of healing. During this stage, the majority of surface healing is done with the tattoo. The scabs that collect on the skin surface should also fall off and your skin should have a glossy, thin-looking sheen to it.
- The second stage is deeper healing, wherein the dermis rebuilds its structure to support and consolidate the pigment that has been introduced through the tattoo process. This process starts as soon as the scabs that have formed on the upper layers of skin start to fall off naturally and can last anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 months. On average this settling of the skin and consolidation of pigment lasts around 2 months.
- The final stage of healing is what we call in the business “settling”. During this stage, the skin has adapted to the newly introduced pigment and adjusts the saturation sections as macrophage interaction (dying off and being replaced with newer cells) redistributes the pigment is ways that eases the distributed skin tension. The settling process will cause the pigment to “bleed out” a little and make the tattoo look less focused as time passes. This process is continuous and will affect your tattoo for your lifetime (or the lifetime of the tattoo).
Common tattoo aftercare products
Let’s cover the products used most commonly in aftercare regiments and toss out a few pros/cons with each type-
Lotions creams and gels
These are the most commonly recommended products for taking care of a fresh tattoo. Emollients are usually made up of lipid (hydrophobic compounds that repel water) and water emulsions that utilize a binding agent to keep them together. These products fill the gaps in your skin creating a more “full” stratum corneum layer (the outermost layer of skin) and cover the outer layer of skin to prevent TEWL. This increases the pliability, fullness, softness and moisture of the skin. These products are commonly produced with additional products added for increased shelf-life and mechanical enhancements (ease of application, color, medications, natural products, smells etc.) Lotions are the thinnest of these mixtures. Creams usually have additional ingredients that create a thicker consistency. Gels will liquify when they contact skin.
Examples – Lubriderm
Pros- due to the decreased amount of oils in lotion, the maximum retained moisture is decreased. There is also a greater effect of excess moisturizer being evaporated so over moisturizing of the skin is less likely to occur with single applications. Given specific climates, lotions are a best bet for the aftercare of a tattoo if the preservatives and additives are considered beneficial for healing of damaged tissues.
Cons- In arid climates, there is a decreased ability of lotions to retain enough moisture in the skin to promote faster healing. You will need to reapply more often which may result in a mixed over-moisturized/under-moisturized situation with the affected area of skin. You may also unknowingly introduce pathogens to an open wound by touching it more often. This can result in a higher incidence of infection.
For larger areas of skin to be covered, there can be an inconsistent level of beneficial moisture applied. Along with the increased amount of damage that increases the amount of moisture lost by the skin, there can be a dehydrating effect that will increase the amount of discarded tissue collected on the surface of the skin (increased scabbing). There are also additives that are more often found in lotions that can cause allergic reactions and with a new tattoo, and when healing a fresh wound we want to avoid any possible reactions.
Usually an oil or wax-based moisturizer that is applied to the skin. It acts in a way that stops the skin losing moisture due to evaporation by creating a barrier where the skin won’t be able to lose moisture due to TEWL.
Examples – A&D Ointment, Aquaphor
Pros- Less product must be consumed to create a high level of hydration. This is beneficial in moderately temperate climates to hot or arid climates and decreases the amount of product used to ensure proper skin moisture levels. In people who have dry skin or problems like eczema, the oil-based moisturizers will soothe the skin and increase the body’s ability to heal before the tattoo procedure is scheduled.
Cons- In humid climates the skin can become choked with moisture when using ointments which results in excessive scabbing and delayed healing times. If you have oily or combination skin types, ointments can effectively over-moisturize your skin, which in turn can increase the chances of contracting an infection. Using ointments can increase your chances of having acneiform eruptions (pimples) as well as contracting short bouts of contact dermatitis, especially if you have oily, sensitive skin or allergic responses to additives or the base ingredients. Another drawback to using occlusives is that the water content of the skin takes a long time to increase, as the water must be drawn from deeper levels of the skin before an improvement takes place
Substances that attract and hold moisture in the skin. They are commonly used in conjunction with other products to increase skin health.(Honey, propylene glycol, hyaluronic acid). Humectants can be mixed with a simple moisturizer to enhance their effects.
Examples – Manuka honey, glycerol
Pros- If you have naturally dry skin, humectants have been shown to increase the natural moisture levels of the skin when applied correctly and in the correct environments. There are many “all-natural” choices when selecting humectants.
Cons- If used separately, these products underperform clinically developed emollients and occlusives, especially when the relative humidity levels are less than 70% (making them useless in arid climates). There can also be a concern for purity and controls when purchasing what could be considered less than regulated substances from producers.
These products we will classify as those specifically made for healing tattoos. I will not be going out on a limb to give any review with these products. Not only do I wish to not be sued by blasting some of their claims, I also do not wish to sway any person who is currently using a product that is produced specifically for tattoos and having a positive result.
Below is a shortlist of product reactions that I will be adding to as more become available through your submissions.
- Using silicone gel strips or wound coverings like “Second Skin, Teguderm etc..” increases chances of irritation or reaction.
Formulations – An expansion and explanation
The term “cream” traditionally refers to a product containing more occlusive ingredients, whereas a “lotion” contains primarily humectants.
Modern moisturizers often contain both occlusives and humectants that contribute to the efficacy but levels of each additive are not uniform among. Understanding the physiology of the skin barrier, and how a disease state or circumstance may contribute to dry skin, impaired barrier function or flaking of the skin can help us choose the best ingredients for a patient. The specific balance and combination of ingredients will help achieve a variety of outcomes depending on the desire of the consumer.
Pay attention to the additives and formulations of any product that you choose to utilize. Take the time to look up ingredients and potential reactions that may be experienced when using the products.
When in doubt – Lotions make for the best aftercare product
I admit that I have left out many variables that go into the best course for your tattoo aftercare but this article is a good introduction for those wanting a more focused aftercare regimen.
In my opinion, using a lotion in most, if not all occasions, makes the most sense. The possible complications that arise from overuse the of humectants or occlusives make e default to that choice. It’s not some paid ideology but experience that has shown time and again that people will attempt to care for their tattoo in a way that doesn’t help it heal. People more often than not smother their pain with love and care and that doesn’t help a wound heal.
This article is a part of our in-depth look at tattoo aftercare. As they become available, we will link additional information for you, our discerning reader.