When you leave the tattoo parlor after getting inked, chances are your artist will hand you a cheat-sheet on tattoo aftercare—or at least offer you some rudimentary advice as you’re paying for that sweet new design.
But if you want to keep your ink pristine, you may need to do some self-care above and beyond the instructions you’re given. That’s because only 7 states require their health departments to approve aftercare instruction, according to research in JAMA Dermatology—so in the remaining states, you might not be given the most thorough information. And that could put you and your ink at risk, even if you adhere to your instructions perfectly.
“Every state has different regulations, so your aftercare directions may vary widely depending on where you live,” says researcher Jared Jagdeo, M.D., an assistant professor in the department of dermatology at the University of California. “In general, it’s best to know how to care for your tattoo before you get one.”
With that in mind, here’s what you need to know before you get more ink:
Tattoo Tip #1: Do some pre-care before your appointment
Although much of tattoo care is after the fact, there are a couple of things to keep in mind beforehand, according to Dr. Jagdeo.
Make sure your shop is licensed by your state—a license will likely be prominently displayed in the reception area. Also, look around for overall cleanliness, including any work surfaces or equipment that are visible. Artists who are tattooing should be wearing gloves throughout the process, and any items like needles or dyes should be in one-time-use-only packs.
Stay out of the sun for a few days before your appointment. Sunburn doesn’t only make the whole tattoo experience extra painful—the burn can also cause inflammation, which can affect tattoo quality and subsequent healing.
Then when appointment day finely rolls around, clean the area to be tattooed with mild soap and water. Don’t scrub, since that can cause micro-abrasions that may inflame skin.
At the appointment, make sure the tattoo artist uses an antiseptic before doing the work, to prevent any bacteria on the skin surface from going into the tattoo.
Your tattoo artist should cover your art with a bandage before you leave.
Tattoo Tip #2: Take it easy
One common mistake that Dr. Jagdeo sees is a return to vigorous activity the day after a new tattoo—or even the same day.
“People who get body art tend to be active, so they do what they always do, which is to go rock climbing, or swimming, or lifting weights at the gym,” he says.
But outdoor activities can expose the new tattoo to the elements—like sun and water—while it’s still in the healing stage. Indoors, you may be getting sweat and gym bacteria into the tat. Because tattoos are created through micro-abrasions on the skin, that makes it easier for bacteria to get in if you’re not careful, and that can increase your risk of infection.
Exposure to any of those factors can cause a condition called inflammatory hyperpigmentation, which may create a kind of “tan” underneath and around the tattooed area. Dr. Jagdeo says it’s very difficult to treat, and changes the look of a tattoo in terms of both color and lines.
Also try to resist baths or ocean swimming for a few weeks after you get your tattoo (showers are fine).
Tattoo Tip #3: Don’t use antibacterial lotion
Although you don’t want bacteria infiltrating your tattoo, you should avoid products like Neosporin, Triple Antibiotic, and CURAD. Dr. Jagdeo says these can lead to skin becoming more sensitive, and again, creating the conditions for inflammation.
Tattooed skin that becomes inflamed can become a long-term problem, says Dr. Jagdeo. You could see swelling and redness in the area on a recurring basis, even for years afterward.
Instead, try A&D; Ointment or Aquaphor. This will moisturize your skin, which will help prevent any scabs from forming.
“Scabs can lead to scars, and that can mar your tattoo,” he says. If scabs do form, resist the urge to pick at them since that can change tattoo appearance, making colors uneven or causing lines to look blurry.
Tattoo Tip #4: Ditch the loofah
When washing a new tattoo, be gentle by using a mild soap, and avoid scrubbing with a washcloth or loofah, since either can cause small tears that may lead to infection.
Dr. Jagdeo advises waiting at least a week before going back to a washcloth, and to make sure the area is well healed before you do.
Tattoo Tip #5: Use more sunscreen
Tanning and especially sunburns can create mild-to-severe inflammation on the skin, and that can affect tattoos long-term. You may see faster color fading, uneven healing, and even allergic reactions, Dr. Jagdeo says.
Even long after you get new ink, you’re going to want to keep your skin slathered with sunscreen to keep your tattoo from fading. You’re also going to want to keep your skin moisturized—Arizona-based tattoo artist Anthony Michaels told us it’s like putting “wax on a car.”
Dr. Jagdeo also says that if you’re having problems with a tattoo despite doing everything right, you could be having an autoimmune response to your new tat. In that case, be sure to see a dermatologist so that the situation doesn’t get worse.
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