A lot of thought goes into getting a tattoo — the design, the placement, whether or not you want color, etc. — but it isn’t always clear the best way to take care of new body art once you get back home. Do you wash it? Cover it in some sort of cream? While you should always follow your artist’s post-tattoo instructions, dermatologists do recommend applying an ointment as a way to help your ink heal.
The ointment phase of the tattoo healing process happens after you finally remove the bandage. Once you free your ink, that’s when you’ll clean the area with a gentle cleanser and apply a layer of ointment or balm that has a thick consistency, says Dr. Diane Madfes, M.D., FAAD, a New York City-based dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. The initial healing phase takes seven to 14 days, Madfes tells Bustle. During that time, she recommends applying a thin layer of ointment twice a day until the scabbing slows and your skin looks healed, after which you can switch to a lighter lotion with SPF to protect and maintain your tattoo.
The purpose of the thicker ointment, balm, or salve is to speed up the recovery time by keeping your skin extra-moisturized and protected from infections, says Madfes. The thickness of an ointment also serves a buffer — and the more you can do to prevent your tat from peeling, scratching, or rubbing up against something the better, adds Dr. Anna Chacon, M.D., a Miami-based board-certified dermatologist. Read on for what dermatologists have to say about tattoo ointments, plus their product recommendations.
Lotion Vs. Tattoo Ointment
Unlike a lotion, which feels creamy and light, an ointment tends to have an oily, greasy, or heavy consistency, says Chacon. She notes that tattooed skin has distinct moisturizing requirements while it heals, which is why an ointment with a higher viscosity or thickness is exactly what you need to keep your skin from feeling dry in the early days.
The thick ointment also prevents bacteria from entering your skin, says Chacon. Because your tattoo is technically an open wound, it’s super important to do what you can to prevent infection — so think of an ointment as a shield for your body art. That said, the goal is to apply a thin layer of ointment regularly throughout the day versus a really thick layer all at once as Chacon notes over-moisturizing won’t allow your skin to breathe (which it’ll need to do as it heals).
What To Look For In A Tattoo Ointment
If you have sensitive skin, Mafdes says to go for an ointment or balm that has simple ingredients — read: no alcohol or common irritants like parabens or fragrances — since you want to avoid allergic reactions and possible infections while your tattoo heals, as that can lead to blurring or fading. Instead, be sure to look for moisturizers with soothing ingredients like vitamin E and calendula as well as anti-inflammatories like sunflower, olive oil, and beeswax.
You can also keep an eye out for active ingredients that’ll act as an extra barrier to keep infections at bay. “Panthenol, a skin-regenerating, moisturizing, and elasticizing ingredient, is one of these,” says Chacon. “It aids in the healing of the tattoo by keeping it moisturized throughout the day and serving as an infection-prevention measure.” To help you shop, here are some expert-recommended tattoo ointments to snag for your ink’s healing journey.
Shop Tattoo Ointments
Chacon says that Aquaphor is more effective at moisturizing the skin than a regular lotion. “This is due to the fact that ointments have an oil base, whereas lotions have a water base,” she says. The oil base keeps your skin protected while allowing oxygen to reach your skin so your tattoo can heal. Perhaps the best part? You can find it at practically any drugstore.
As far as ointments go, Neosporin is always a solid choice. You may already have some lying around for everyday cuts and scrapes, but did you know it’s great for tattoos, too? Chacon says the antibiotic action helps heal broken skin — and this version also comes with a dose of pain relief.
Bacitracin, which contains zinc oxide to help heal wounds, is another type of antibiotic ointment that protects your skin against infection by preventing bacteria growth, according to Chacon. Remember, the goal is to prevent peeling and scabbing so that your ink doesn’t blur or fade.
The Organic Option
Mafdes is a fan of Badger’s Tattoo Balm, which has an organic formula filled with soothing ingredients. Within the bottle are actives like tamanu oil, coconut oil, and vitamin E to protect your tat as well as antioxidants like vitamin A and organic sunflower oil to keep your skin smooth.
The Color Enhancer
Tattoo Goo contains panthenol, one of the ingredients Chacon recommends for healing tats. It’s also made with olive oil and vitamin E that penetrate deep into the skin to moisturize and heal, plus vitamin D5 to prevent scabbing. You can use it on a new tattoo as it heals or an old one to boost the color.
The Pain Reliever
This option from Green Goo is made with plant-based ingredients like aloe vera, yarrow, and calendula to protect and moisturize the skin as your ink heals. It also soothes pain and inflammation with a blend of herbs and oils.
To go for something extra moisturizing, opt for A+D’s tattoo ointment, which contains natural ingredients like beeswax, almond oil, and pro-vitamin B5. It’s breathable, free from irritating fragrances and dyes, and infuses your skin with the hydration it needs.
Fauger, A. (2022). Tattoo aftercare management with a dermo-cosmetic product: Improvement in discomfort sensation and skin repair quality. J Cosmet Dermatol. doi: 10.1111/jocd.14157.
Dr. Anna Chacon, M.D., Miami-based board-certified dermatologist