I am a pretty heavily tattooed person. When I first started getting inked up, I would meticulously clean and lovingly massage each new piece of skin art with expensive tattoo creams, but over the years, I've gotten pretty laissez-faire about it. My tattoo care program has dwindled down to basically not bothering with them at all. While virtually ignoring new ink is a viable approach for some, it definitely won’t work for everyone, so I asked a dermatologist and a celebrity tattoo artist to tell me how to best take care of a new tattoo.
It turns out, after much research, my hands-off approach isn’t too far off base. “Constant manipulation and washing and applying greases multiple times a day will make it take longer to heal,” Tsippora Shainhouse, a dermatologist in Beverly Hills, tells Mic. “I am all about keeping tattoo and wound care simple and minimal, with the goal of making it easy for people to keep it up, in order to ensure infection-free wound healing.” But healing quickly may not actually be the goal when it comes to new ink.
You might be wondering why you would possibly want the tattoo healing process to take longer. Is this some kind of kink? Unfortunately not. “Sometimes, longer wound healing is the goal for a prettier outcome,” Shainhouse says. “Keeping it all greased up can allow the skin cells ‘swim’ over and heal unobstructed, rather than allowing scabs to form,” she says.
Some scabbing in any wound healing process is normal, but keeping tattoo scabbing minimal may keep your colors and lines looking fresh. When scabs form, Shainhouse says, the body has to work harder to heal faster on a microscopic scale and making quick work of healing may not actually lead to the best long term results. “Cells must try to heal as easily over scabs,” Shainhouse says, “which can lead to potential scarring or loss of tattoo pigment.” Mind blown. It never occurred to me that a longer healing time might be better.
Tattoo artists seem to align with this theory. “The less scabbing you receive during the healing process the better the tattoo will look in the end,” says Jesse Smith, a Virginia-based tattoo artist and some of the brains behind the Richmond Tattoo and Music Festival. “A lot of the time when tattoos heal bad you'll notice that some of the ink falls out or scar tissue forms.” Yes. This has definitely happened to me.
Proper healing isn’t apparently just about aftercare. “The first step to getting a tattoo to heal efficiently is to pick the right artist,” Smith says. “Throughout my years as an artist, I noticed that the better I got at applying tattoos the better they healed up. Typically if your tattoo does not heal up well it's because the artist either overworked your skin or your immune system is compromised.” Smith adds that sometimes individuals with diabetes or auto-immune disorders have a more difficult tat healing time, but otherwise, a lot of it has to do with your artist’s skill. This is surprising to me. I have favorite artists, of course, but generally, I’ll get a tattoo from almost anyone.
So, my tattoo artist promiscuity may not be the wisest in terms of healing. Smith says that if your tattoo artist is skillful, it will mean less work for you on the aftercare end. “Your immune system is equipped to heal your tattoos,” he says. “If it was applied correctly, then the less you [have to] do, and the less room there is for potential issues.” Sainhouse didn’t mention the skill of artists, but she did say that many tattoo infections are due to staph, a type of infection which most frequently occur because of contaminated ink or equipment. Having high quality tools and taking good care of them seems like the mark of a skillful artist to me.
Whether you want to draw out your healing time for the best aesthetic results or not, there are still some best practices for taking care of new tattoos that everyone should know about. I don’t know who still needs to hear this, but you do not get to take your new tat into the pool. “Showering is fine, but avoid submerging the tattoo in water — bath, swimming pool, ocean/lake — for at least 2-3 weeks, until it is completely healed,” Shainhouse says. This is super important, since bodies of water can harbor bacteria that can get into a new wound and (rarely, but it’s worth mentioning) wreak horrific havoc.
Excessive scabbing or scarring can lead to alteration or loss of pigment in the tattoo, Shainhouse says. In order to avoid this, your new tat should be kept moist (not wet or greasy) and protected. That means wearing light, breathable clothing over it and keeping it lightly lubed. I use coconut oil, but Sahinhouse recommended using plain old Vaseline the first week and then switching to a light oil or fragrance-free moisturizer.
If you get tattooed more frequently, Smith tells me, you may want to invest in Saniderm, a wound cover developed specifically to keep tattoos from forming scars. This is different from the usual plastic wrap bandage that most of us are used to, which you remove a few hours after inking. Saniderm should be applied right after the tattoo session and kept on for a few days.
Once you take the dressing off, Smith says, you want to keep your ink clean and, again, moist. Smith says that Sanibalm is his go-to, but that what you choose to lube with isn’t especially important. “Just make sure is has minimal ingredients that you actually understand and is fragrance, petroleum, and paraben free.”
Both Shainhouse and Smith agreed that you don’t need to worry too much about healing your new tattoo. I’ve personally been through this process dozens of times, and while there have been a few slight mishaps, I’ve never had a terrible infection or a terrible tattoo. “Being healthy is only half of what it takes to get a tattoo to heal up properly. The other half is how the tattoo was applied,” Smith explains. “Tattoos are expensive and will hopefully be a part of your body for the entirety of your life so choose your artist wisely.”