How to care for a new tattoo has been an ongoing debate for almost as long as there have been tattoos (which for some Polynesian cultures dates back thousands of years). For some reason the tattoo community has had a hard time reaching a general consensus. The root cause may lie in the lack of standardization within the modern tattoo community. There are literally tens of thousands of tattoo shops in the United States alone, and most of them have their own preferred set of instructions for the aftercare of their customer’s tattoos. It’s even very common for several artists from the same shop recommending very different aftercare to their clients. Most artists even offer different aftercare instructions based on the location of tattoo that their client has received (such as a tattoo on a foot getting different treatment than one on an arm).
Some tattooists do not want their tattoos to be covered, feeling that exposure to the air aids the healing process. Others insist that the new tattoo remain covered for a specific (but completely variable) amount of time before the bandage can be removed. While some tattoo shops enforce a policy that the tattoo remain bandaged for 24 hours before it is cleaned, others recommend washing the tattoo as soon as the client returns home. A few locations even recommend not washing the tattoo at all, but rather adding ointment to the unwashed tattoo periodically until it is completely healed. More and more often though, artists are turning to clear adhesive film bandages that keep the tattoo clean and protected for several days before the client even has to worry about washing it. Every tattooist also usually has a religious attachment to a specific tattoo washing sequence and type of soap that should be used. After the tattoo is washed most artist will suggest a proprietary maintenance ritual that must be strictly adhered to (though some suggest doing nothing at all to it beyond keeping it clean). This often involves conservative to liberal application of any number of thousands of aftercare products available.
There are a myriad of aftercare products on the market specifically created for tattoos. There are balms created in house at local shops, and several are over the counter treatments that have been the tattoo industry’s go to for decades (such as vitamin A&D ointment and unscented Lubriderm lotion). Though according to one PBS article, Polynesians are still using what they’ve always used- salt water and massage therapy (Skin Stories, 2003), there are hundreds of new products being created every year. Many of them even contain little more than salt water in a bottle.
One of the reasons that it is so difficult to for artists to agree on a single solution is that there are few standards in place for the tattoo industry beyond what is required by individual states not to spread Hepatitis C and other blood-borne pathogens. Things like tattoo design and recommended tattoo aftercare are usually up to the artists discretion.
The main reason that it is so difficult to for artists to agree on a single solution is that there literally isn’t one. Introducing foreign material under the skin of a living person with needles and insuring that it stays there is a tricky process with many variables. Every canvas that walks into a tattoo shop is a living organism, not only with their individual aftercare needs (which is the case with diabetics), but also with their own personal hygiene habits as well as environmental hazards (like construction sites and chicken farms). Artist face the primary challenge of insuring that their client’s tattoo does not become infected once it’s left the shop and the secondary challenge of insuring that their artwork is preserved to its greatest potential. Surprisingly often, they find themselves charged with the task of effectively tricking their clients into being nice to their new controlled abrasion by frightening them with outrageous tales gangrene and amputation.
Since you are now undoubtedly more confused not than you were when you started reading, here is a list of things most tattooists would agree that you should definitely do/not do to take care of your new tattoo.
- Follow your artists instructions on removal of the bandage if one is applied, but use good judgment. If the bandage is causing pain or you feel that it is damaging your tattoo, contact your artist. They will usually recommend removing it with running water and washing your tattoo with an antibacterial soap.
- Do not touch your tattoo without washing your hands with antibacterial soap, and don’t touch anything else until you’ve washed your hands again. It’s called cross-contamination, people. Washing your hands before and after reduces spread of germs.
- If your bandage becomes saturated with any liquid (including tattoo leakage) contact your artist and consider removing it. Do not soak your healing tattoo in water. No bathtubs, no swimming pools, and especially no rivers and lakes until the tattoo is completely healed. Keep your tattoo relatively dry unless you are washing it or applying ointment.
- Keep your new tattoo clean. Follow your artists instructions on how and how frequently to wash it. Do not allow anything that is unclean to touch it. Unfortunately pets and small children technically count. If your new tattoo comes into contact with an object that you are unsure is clean, wash it with antibacterial soap and reapply suggested aftercare. The neighborly thing to do would be to wash that object with disinfectant also.
- Apply aftercare sparingly unless otherwise instructed. A light layer to keep the surface protected and lubricated is usually enough. If the ointment that you are using is breaking you out, or causing redness or swelling of your tattoo site, STOP USING IT! It might be causing an allergic reaction or may have become contaminated. If your tattoo seems infected (red, discolored, swollen and/or unusually painful to the touch), wash it with antibacterial soap and contact your artist. If the problem persists seek medical attention. As much as they hate to admit it, tattoo artists are not doctors, but they are interested in your well being and that of their artwork. They will do their best to help you in any way they can during the healing process.
- The sun will damage your tattoo at every stage of it’s lifetime. Do not expose your new tattoo to the sun until it is completely healed. When it is healed consider using sunscreen to keep the tattoo vivid.
There you have it. If you have any personal aftercare tips, tricks or products that you would like to share or add to the list, please feel free to leave them in the comments. If this post was helpful to you in your quest for the perfect tattoo healing experience please share it.
Skin stories: The art and culture of Polynesian tattoo, 2003. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/skinstories/history/.