Some people would be surprised to know this, but I’m slightly addicted to getting tattoos. Seven currently scatter my body and I have plans to get another sometime this summer. With more than $1,000 and several hours of pain invested so far, I want to make sure my tattoos continue to look as fresh and vibrant as the day I got them (at least until I’m old and wrinkled and officially stop caring). For this to be possible, I had to become an expert in the healing process—aka the most crucial part of any tattoo.
If you get this right, your tattoo can look great for years to come—without requiring touch-ups along the way. To see what I mean, check out my Little Mermaid side piece (below). This was a huge commitment, but I’m still satisfied with the finished product more than a year later.
To achieve similar results, follow these basic tips:
Wait before you remove the bandage.
Once your body art is completed, your tattoo artist will protect the area with a bandage (after they let you take pictures, of course). Though it’s tempting to show off your new ink right away, it’s best to keep it covered for two to four hours. After that period, you can let your skin breathe (unless you’re instructed to do otherwise).
Prepare for some oozing.
When you do remove the bandage, it won’t be a pretty sight. The skin will be raw and your bandage will probably be soaked in a mixture of blood and bodily fluids. This wasn’t really a problem with my smaller tattoos, but the larger ones on my ribs and foot oozed quite a bit, which freaked me out at first. While it can get messy, it’s totally normal. If you experience this for more than a couple days, though, you should contact your tattoo parlor to make sure there isn’t an issue.
Keep it clean.
A tattoo typically takes at least two weeks to heal. To avoid excess scabbing or a chance of an infection, it’s important to keep it clean during this time. After the bandage is off, gently wash it with a fragrance-free cleanser. I love using Dove Beauty Bar for Sensitive Skin ($10 for 8 bars; drugstore.com), but you can also pick up a kit, such as Billy Jealousy’s Marked For Life Tattoo Care Kit ($40; ulta.com), which has a tattoo-specific wash included. Do this three to fives times a day and dab it dry with a cloth.
Moisture is key.
A moisturizing agent is necessary to speed up the healing process. Aquaphor Healing Ointment ($5; drugstore.com) is highly recommended by tattoo professionals. It keeps the skin smooth and supple while also providing a barrier against bacteria. Apply a thin layer over the tattoo and around its perimeter after every wash and before you go to bed for the first three to five days. After that, you can switch to a fragrance-free moisturizer like Aveeno Daily Moisturizing Lotion ($7; target.com).
Wash, but don’t soak.
For the first two weeks, you’ll want to avoid swimming and bathing, as soaking a new tattoo can lead to a blotchy appearance. When you’re showering, do your best keep the area away from the water.
Mind what you wear.
Depending on the location of your tattoo, it’s a good idea to wear loose clothing that won’t rub against or suffocate the area. Pay attention to any advice the pro gives you for this. For my first tattoo, I was told not to wear jeans for a week. For the one on my foot, I had to wear flip flops (luckily, it was summer).
Whatever you do, don’t pick or scratch.
Like any wound that’s in the process of healing, things can get itchy. Resist any urges to scratch your tat and definitely don't pick at it, as this can leave imperfections you’ll have to get touched up later. After a few days, your tattoo will flake, peel, and might even look faded, but it’s nothing to be concerned about. Allow these pieces to fall off naturally during the cleansing process. The colors will return to their vibrant state once the tattoo is finished healing.
Stay out of the sun.
UV rays are your tattoo’s biggest enemy, especially during the first two weeks. Make sure it isn’t exposed when spending time outdoors. Once your tattoo is healed, SPF is an absolute must to prevent premature fading. For a product that’s easy to apply, try Coppertone Tattoo Guard Sunscreen Stick SPF 50 ($5; walmart.com).