When I got my first tattoo as a high school senior, I was shaking for a good half hour before the needle even touched my skin. The control freak and hypochondriac that I was (and still am) felt so lost amidst all the advice for how to properly care for a tattoo. I'm sure the tattoo artist wasn't exactly thrilled when I couldn't sit still through the five-minute-long process (which felt like way longer, in case you were wondering). I couldn't stop talking and had seemingly millions of tiny questions for him like, "Can I shower after getting my tattoo?"
Don’t get embarrassed and feel like you need to hold back your questions. After getting inked, avoiding an infection situation like Rebel Wilson's "free tattoo" in Bridesmaids is a top priority. Thankfully, tattoo artists are literally in the business of knowing how to care for ink — and it’s a red flag if they’re unable or unwilling to address any of your concerns. Aside from following your artist’s instructions for how to best heal their style of tattooing, there are a few basics everyone should know — like the answer to that pesky showering question.
If you are a new ink collector (or just wanting to refresh your knowledge on best tattoo care tips), here are nine things you should know when healing your tattoo.
1. Try A Pre-Tattoo Regimen
The best aftercare starts even before you get inked. Experts say it's best for you to take care of your skin prior to an appointment so that the tattoo goes on more seamlessly. “I believe pre-care is just as important as aftercare,” says NYC-based tattoo artist Ghinko. “Like how we take special care of our face to keep it looking hydrated and healthy, you also must moisturize, sunscreen, and exfoliate your body so your tattoos take well to your skin.”
2. The First 48 Hours After Are Crucial
Not surprisingly, proper tattoo care in the first 48 hours after getting inked is majorly important to the healing process. After you get a tattoo, the artist will bandage your ink to protect it from the elements — or prying hands. How long you keep on that protection depends on the type of bandage used.
According to Ann Arbor tattoo artist Carrie Metz-Caporusso, medical-grade bandages like Saniderm and Tegiderm are usually worn for 24 hours or longer. Any other bandage is likely to be removed in a couple of hours at most. Double check with your artist for their recommendation.
3. You Can Shower After Getting a Tattoo, But Remember to Use Mild Soap
When it comes to showering after a new tattoo, it's best to ask your tattoo artist when you can lather up. Their answer will depend on the type of bandage they use to seal their work before sending you off.
"Depending on what type of bandage you receive determines when you can shower," Metz-Caporusso tells Bustle. "If you get Saniderm or Tegiderm, then you can shower immediately. This type of covering is waterproof. If you get a classic bandage or cling wrap, then you must wait anywhere from two to 12 hours, depending on what your artist recommends. After you take that off, you can shower anytime."
But it's important to use a mild, fragrance-free soap when you do shower or wash your new ink. Think classic Dial soap or anything anti-bacterial and gentle. After a gentle washing, Brooklyn-based tattoo artist John O'Hara recommends applying Aquaphor to hydrate the skin and create a barrier to prevent infection.
"The key is to apply a very thin layer, let the skin absorb the Aquaphor for about 10-15 seconds, and blot off the excess with a sanitary paper towel," O'Hara tells Bustle. "This will give you the right amount."
4. Do Not Use a Washcloth or Loofah
When you do wash your piece, only use your hands to touch the ink. A washcloth or loofah can hoard bacteria and be too abrasive. While cleanliness is essential, you want to make sure you don't wash away healing skin or good bacteria.
"The most common mistake I see is trying to baby the tattoo," Metz-Caporusso says. "You can definitely over do it on washing and lotioning. Wash it once or twice a day, and wait until it's itchy and flaking before lotioning."
5. Refrain From Picking Your Flakes Off
If healing without Saniderm or Tegiderm, which prevents scabbing and flaking, your tattoo will begin to dry out around 48-hours after completion. But do not pick the impending flakes off. Doing so can cause scarring, blurred outlines, and discoloration of your ink
"Treat of your tattoo like a cut and let your body heal itself," Metz-Caporusso says. Simple but essential advice.
6. Use A Mild Lotion
Instead of picking flakes, soothe your skin's dryness with a fragrance-free lotion like After Inked. According to O'Hara, it takes the skin three to four days to begin regenerating, and itchiness is the first sign of this process beginning. That's when lotion will be your best friend.
"If your tattoo is itchy, lotion it," Metz-Caporusso says. "There is no exact formula for when and how many times you need to wash or lotion your skin. I personally don't lotion mine, just wash it once a day and that works for me. But it may not be what's right for you."
7. Avoid Sunbathing, Sweating and Swimming
Remember: The sun is a tattoo's worst enemy. If you're not fully healed, covering your tattoo when exposed to the sun is a must. Even when you are fully healed, protecting your tattoo with a high SPF sunscreen is recommended. “For the first two weeks when it's still healing, you should not be in the sun at all,” says Guilherme Assumpcao, tattoo artist at Mission Ink Tattoo and Piercing. “Once the tattoo is fully healed, you can use sunblock, but we still recommend not to expose it.”
It's also important to avoid swimming for at least three weeks, according to O'Hara. As for exercise, he advises staying out of the gym for at least a week to avoid infection. Exercising outside is best.
8. Use Sunscreen
You should be wearing sunscreen every day, but it’s especially important for your tattoo. Ghinko recommends putting sunscreen on your fresh tat regularly to take care of it. “Just as you take care of your face so that the skin remains youthful, you have to do the same with the skin that holds your tattoos,” she says. “For long-term care, you should always use sunscreen on the tattoos to prevent fading.”
She recommends using a sunscreen of at least 30 SPF for the best protection. Her pick is the Mad Rabbit Defend SPF 30 sunscreen because it’s specifically designed for tattoos.
9. Be Patient While Your Skin Heals
Most tattoos take seven to 14 days to fully heal, although in some cases, it can take up to a month. So, here's bottom line: A tattoo is like any other sensitive wound. Take care of it. Keep it clean and moisturized, and avoid putting it in contact with unwanted bacteria.
"My go-to healing tip is listen to your body," Metz-Caporusso says. "I've heard tons of different ways people like to heal their tattoos and, most the time, they look great. You know your body better than anyone."
Additional reporting by Katie Dupere and Audrey Noble
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