Tattoo aftercare is one of the most important parts of the whole process of getting inked—second maybe only to deciding what you want permanently on your body. New York Dermatologist Dr. Dhaval Bhanusali doesn’t mince words: “Tattoos cause a form of trauma on the skin, so it’s super important to administer proper wound care immediately after,” he says.
Bhanusali, who advises the tattoo experts at Ephemeral Tattoo in Brooklyn, which specializes in one-year “made to fade” ink, says the first step is listening to your tattooer. “It’s not uncommon for different tattoo artists to recommend different post-care options for their work,” he adds. This is because different methods are used by different artists, and they may also be able to recommend specific advice to the size and location of your tattoo. However, there are some general products that will help clean, heal, and condition the skin, while also preserving the tattoo’s brightness in the long term. We’ve got the rundown below, plus a timeline for using them.
Bhanusali adds that in the days after a tattoo is applied, it’s normal for the wound to scab over, and also to emit some drainage from the wounds (including serous fluid, or some superficial tattoo ink). Don’t be alarmed if this happens, and continue following your tattoo artist’s own advice for recovery, as well as the tattoo recovery and maintenance tips below—which come from Carl Kuo, owner of Mission Ink Tattoo and Piercing in San Francisco.
Immediate Care and Recovery
Your tattoo artist might have a specific way of dressing the wounds. At Mission Ink, for example, many artists use the transparent Tegaderm dressing, which is placed directly on the wound, shielding it from infection and friction so that it can heal properly. Again, follow whatever your tattoo artist advises, because she or he will best know what works for the conditions at hand.
However, here are two products you’ll likely want to have ready during the immediate tattoo aftercare phase.
1. Gentle Cleanser
Be sure to use a gentle cleanser every day as the wounds heal, which will help neutralize any bacteria prior to applying ointment and lotion.
LA Bruket’s tattoo cleanser has neutralizing tea tree oil, along with soothing aloe vera and lavender oil.
2. Healing Ointment
“The first stage of caring for your tattoo is applying a general healing ointment or tattoo-specific ointment or butter, for about five days,” Kuo says.
He and Bhanusali both recommend Aquaphor for this. “Aquaphor has the added benefit of anti-inflammatory effects, which can make the tattoo healing process more speedy and less itchy,” Kuo says. “It absorbs the skin’s natural moisture, which keeps the tattoo fresh and promotes healing.”
Kuo and dermatologists all agree on one product to avoid: petroleum jelly (like Vaseline). Kuo says it can trap moisture, dirt, and bacteria underneath itself, and is typically too thick, not allowing the tattoo to breathe.
5 Days Later
After the initial dressing and ointment healing phase, you’ll still need to apply products to your tattoo to promote proper and efficient healing.
1. Unscented Lotion
The lightest option is an unscented lotion. (Artificial fragrance is irritating to the skin, and is best avoided in topical products, especially when applied directly to healing wounds or sensitive areas.) “Lotion has a creamy, smooth consistency so it goes on light which allows tattoos to breathe. The best ones are all-natural, including ingredients like olive or coconut oil.” Kuo prefers Lubriderm as a generic, low-cost pick. Dr. Bronner’s also has a low-cost line of oil-enriched lotions (with their fragrances coming only from essential oils, not artificial sources.)
2. Body Butters
Kuo also likes butters as a thicker alternative to lotion (after the 5 days of healing ointment). But, “If you go with butter, it’s critical that you apply only a thin coat,” he says. “This will allow the skin to get oxygen and help prevent infections.”
3. Tattoo Balms & Salves
Tattoo balms and salves often have a wax-like quality to them, which makes it easy to apply a light layer to the skin. “They contain nourishing, regenerating anti-fungal oils and butters. They help ease swelling, calm irritation, and in turn aid in the healing process,” Kuo says.
Kuo says the general consensus is “less is more” for preserving ink color over time. “Stay away from prolonged water exposure (especially chlorinated pool water), and excessive sun exposure, since UV light will cause fading,” he says.
One instance, then, where “more is more” would be with SPF, for this very reason. Always apply SPF over top your tattoo before going outside, and reapply frequently. High SPF is good idea, too—50 or above. And if you’re getting really picky, the general consensus among doctors is to choose a mineral/physical sunblock (with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) over a chemical one, since they’re typically less irritating to your skin.
He also says to consider a tattoo brightening balm. “This will enhance the glow of the skin and tattoo,” he says, but warns that it should only be used on fully-healed tattoos.
Main Image: Cosmopolitan