When you get a fresh tattoo, there is a lot of care involved to preserve the artwork. Your skin is a delicate canvas and your tattoo requires specific treatment. So what happens when a brand new tattoo gets wet? Well, a lot of things, actually. If it's kept wet, the softened scab will peel and stick to things, damaging what is essentially a healing but beautiful wound.
All the experts I spoke to for this piece (as well as the artists I've gotten my own ink from) agree that a fresh tattoo should never be submerged in a bath or a swimming pool during the critical healing phase. However, it should be cleaned with soap and water and patted dry.
Wash a new tattoo gently and then keep it only slightly moist with a thin layer of lotion during the healing process. It's a simple rule to follow: Protect it, but don't saturate it. It should not be drenched or immersed in a body of water for any length of time.
Joe Klein of Majestik Creations in Mooresville, Indiana tells me over email, "It is actually pretty simple when looked at from a different perspective. A tattoo is, in fact, a 'sore,' when broken down into simplest terms. A needle punctures the skin, leaving behind a plasma film. If that film is soaked in water, it is the same as soaking a scab in the tub. It gets soft, comes off, and leaves scarring. Too much aftercare will cause the same effect." Yuck.
It's also why swimming should be avoided during the healing phase. Klein says, "There are chemicals in pool water that are not good to get under the skin, which can actually lead to blood poisoning."
Rachel Rosenberg, who was a tattoo apprentice in Chicago before she swapped out her needle for a headset as an NYC publicist, also explains via an email interview why keeping new ink dry is essential.
"What happens to a new tattoo when it gets wet? It will stick to things!" she says. "Your fresh tattoo should be kept away from fabric at all costs, especially when wet, so as not to have your clothes attach or stick to your new piece and dry there." Having to pull fabric away from the healing artwork can mess with the skin and the piece itself.
"One should never be making an effort to keep their brand new tattoo 'wet,'" Rosenberg continues, commenting on how some tattoo newbies tend to over moisturize during the healing process. "If anything, a thin layer of Aquaphor is what you want and then your tattoo wants to be left alone, aside from the few times it's washed gently with Dial soap and patted dry with a clean paper towel."
Alex Varkatzas, singer of the band Atreyu and a tattoo artist who has plenty of ink of his own, echos Rosenberg's sentiments when I spoke with him, explaining that a wet tattoo could get infected. "A new tattoo should be kept clean and only slightly moist from unscented lotion," he said. "It should be treated just like an open wound. If a new tattoo gets wet, clean it and dry it. Then you'll be OK."
To recap: While you need to keep your tattoo clean, do not soak your tattoo or the scab will soften, fall off, and leave a scar. Stick to a quick rinse in the shower, and you'll be good to go.