Get it healed and healed right!
This is one of the main reasons I started this blog, because I felt confused around what healing directions to follow. Every tattoo establishment seems to have a different view. Ask 5 tattoo artists or shops and you will get 5 slightly or vastly different answers. It’s just so difficult to know what the right process to follow is to ensure the best chances of healing a new tattoo. There’s so much advice out there, good and bad. One size definitely doesn’t fit all.
I am going to attempt to look at it logically and from that we can deduce the best healing route to take. Let’s Go!
Skin make up: basic facts
So how exactly does our skin heal? That seems like the best starting point. I’ll start with some basic facts.
- Skin is the largest organ we have (contrary to what guys believe)
- Our skin has 3 layers:
1. Epidermis layer (top/outer)
Our visible layer is amazing, Protecting us from things like water, radiation, chemicals, and temperatures. Plus its chock full of nerves allowing us to feel the outside world. This is also the layer that flakes off for new skin cells to emerge.
2. Dermis layer (middle)
This layer gives the epidermis it’s strength and elasticity. It holds our hair follicles, houses glands like sweat, & can be the culprit when we give off an odor. This is also where the tattoo ink is deposited.
3. Hypodermis or Subcutis layer (bottom)
Basically its the “cushion” layer made up of fat cells for energy storage and insulation.
Healing stages of skin
If your skin is damaged or cut, this is what happens:
- Your body reduces blood flow to the injured area.
- Proteins, blood platelets, & plasma create a scab as protection.
- New skin regenerates from the outside edge of the wound towards the center, underneath the scab.
- The scab eventually falls off.
What occurs during the tattooing process
Tattoo artists use a tattoo machine (sort of like a hand held sewing machine) which delivers ink to the needles and is pushed into your skin via puncturing through to your epidermis layer.
When an artist works on your tattoo, they are making a very fast succession of puncture wounds via the needle(s)…”between 50 and 3,000 times per minute,” or 100 piercings per second. How Tattoos Work
For a very in-depth article all about tattoo application check out How Tattoos Work. This is a great article but deeper than I will go for this post.
Also here is an awesome video on how the tattoo machine works. Plus it has a cool Scottish narrator I think I’d like to be friends with.
What are the effects on my skin when tattooed?
Ok, so basically we know how our skin heals but what happens when a tattoo artist is introducing foreign substances (ink) into our skin and how does our skin react?
Each of us are individuals, which makes life wonderful and crazy, and so everyone’s skin and body may react differently. There are multiple factors that can play into it:
- Skin Type
- Time of Year
- Your Age
- Your Health
- Local Climate
- How good your artist’s application of the ink to your skin was executed.
The list can go on but you get the point, it’s not cut and dry.
For example, I’m a Ginger and we have inherent challenges with tattoos. The most common issue is that we have very sensitive skin and of course, acutely impacted by the sun.. So we know how to slather on the sunscreen. A less known concern, but not conclusively proven by the medical community, is that we bleed more than the average person. Also, we are more sensitive to pain.
So some of the effects the tattooing process and inks can have on your skin are:
- Infection – If the needles and equipment are not properly cleaned & sanitized this can occur. This is why aftercare is so critical besides resulting in a great looking tattoo.
- Allergic reaction – in rare cases people can be allergic to the ink. This reaction can even occur years after your tattoo was inked.
- Granulomas – these are small bumps that form around the ink which is a foreign substance.
- Keloids – Scarring often creating raised skin where the tattoo is created.
In unusual cases, some people may find their tattoos swelling or burning during an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) medical procedure.
How do we want our skin to heal once inked?
Here is what we don’t want to happen. We don’t want the skin to dry out, because that will create a much bigger and thicker scab which will crack and flake off in large chunks. This will damage the tattoo requiring more touchups. It may also result in scarring. However, no matter how careful you are, you may still get a thick scab in some spots. It could be the way the artists applies the ink, he or she could be very heavy handed and increases the impact to your skin. It also may be due to how you heal. We are all different.
I recently got a decent sized forearm arm tattoo, and while 99% healed amazing there is still a small area that developed a thicker scab. It may be due to the way the artist applied the ink in that one moment or it may just be a surface of my skin that heals differently, or the area may have just been too dry. It happens and that’s what touch ups are for.
We also don’t want the skin so moist with plasma or moisturizer that the ink is floating, not able to take hold, and the skin cannot start healing. It’s really a balance. This why so often the directions artists give you say use a very small amount of A&D Ointment or moisturizer/lotion. Just enough to create a light sheen. We want the skin supple and flexible and the scabbing to be that of a bad sunburn. You will flake but the layers flaking will be very thin. It will seem like the ink is flaking off but it’s just the outer layer.
Once you get home you’ll probably want to take off the dressing the artist put over your tattoo. some artists and studios want you to keep the bandages or Seran wrap on for several hours or even overnight if your tattoo was done in the evening. I tend to do this myself. But this is up to you. Be very careful of bacteria and dirt getting into the wound.
- It’s very common for the tattooed area to ooze bit of blood and plasma for 24 hours, and clear or blood tinged fluid for several days. It’s the plasma seeping out.
- You’ll find the site dry, tight, and itchy. As I said similar to a bad sunburn.
Process to follow:
- The first night:
You’ll want to either leave the artist’s dressing on over night or replace the bandages. This is to protect the tattoo from your cloths, blanket or other abrasions. Now often in the morning you will take the bandages off and you’ll see an imprint of the tattoo ink on the bandages. This is fine. You aren’t losing your tattoo. It’s due to the moisture and yes, some of the ink.
- Next two to three days:
Once you are ready to take the bandage off (be careful as the bandage may be stuck in places, remove gently). Now go ahead and lightly wash the area in luke warm water. Don’t allow the water to directly hit the tattoo area, disperse it with your hand. Apply a no fragrance soap. I use Dial liquid soap. Lather it a bit and again being very sensitive to the area, wash away the soap. You might do this two or three times to ensure there isn’t any blood or plasma left. I usually look to see if there is no longer a sheen. You will do this at least twice a day, don’t over do it. You aren’t trying to wash it away, just keep it clean.
- Those two days:
Apply A&D ointment. There are many recommendations going around and tattoo shops will suggest their own product. Just stick with A&D ointment, it’s readily available and safe. After each washing apply a very small amount over the area. A little goes a long way. You just want to moisturize the area. Rub it in gently (my common word during the healing process). Now you do want a very subtle sheen.
- After the two days:
Once you’ve passed the two day window and the plasma is no longer seeping out, you will want to switch to a non-fragrance, non-petroleum, non-sunscreen moisturizer or lotion. Keep it simple. Don’t get overly complicated with it. Apply two to three times a day.
Tattoos generally heals 3 weeks to a month. Don’t go swimming, use hot tubs, or anything that might get bacteria or dirt in the wound, because it is still that, a wound.
As many will state, don’t scratch or pick at the area. That is a sure fire way to create damage to your new tattoo. Also limit it’s exposure to the sun.
Long term care
The long term care procedures are pretty consistent out there.
- If your tattoo area feels dry put on water based lotion or cream ( I do this every day regardless and it usually has some sun protection in it. For now I like Aveeno Active Naturals Daily Moisturizing Lotion with SPF 15, 12 Ounce)
*Note, don’t use Petroleum-based products as they can fade the ink over time.
- Use sunscreen because Ultraviolet (UV) light can fade some of the inks in your skin. It’s best to apply 15 minutes prior to going out in the sun a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. Reapply every 2 hours.
- Sun lamps and tanning beds will potentially fade your tattoo.
Enjoy your new tattoo and start looking for your next one.