Photo by Bel Perez

The Ultimate Guide To Tattoo Care

How to make them stay vibrant for years

Congratulations, you are now a living piece of art!

You are exhausted and feel something between an itchy burn and a lot of pain. The tattooed area is swollen and tender.

Tattoos are open wounds and require careful aftercare to avoid infections and heal correctly.

Prepare to treat your body art like a newborn for the next couple of weeks! In return, they will heal faster, stay bright and slow down fading as your skin ages.

I have my share of them and can say my oldest piece looks almost as vibrant as the first day over four years later. Besides having a fantastic artist, I took good care of my skin.

I’ve compiled what I learned along the years into this skin care guide so your tattoos stay beautiful for years to come.

Nothing replaces a good tattoo artist, but 90% of the success will depend on what you do before, during, and after your appointment.

At the studio in 2015 after getting my first tattoo. Notice the swell and redness around the piece and under lighter colours — Photo by Bel Perez

Prep your skin

The state of your skin when you arrive at the studio will dictate the result. You should start prepping a minimum of two weeks before getting tattooed.

  • Avoid sun exposure and use SPF 50 or a physical sunblock if your skin is exposed in any way. Do not get tattooed during the summer!

Do it even if it’s cloudy. Don’t tan, and re-schedule the appointment if you suffered sun damage.

If your skin shows signs of irritation or sunburns and the artist doesn’t refuse to tattoo you, run away from the studio.

  • Use a gentle exfoliator on the area up to two or three days before your appointment.

Stay away from strong chemicals, use a soft-medium glove or a natural bamboo exfoliant in the shower. Don’t overdo it. It could result in irritation, dry patches or oilier skin.

  • Moisturise your skin.

Activate your circulation by massaging a thin layer of lightweight cream or oil after your shower. Do this until up to one to two days before getting tattooed, longer if you have oily skin.

The day of your appointment

Hygiene is not the only thing to keep in mind that day.

  • Take a lukewarm shower a couple of hours before going to the studio.

Use a soap free of perfume and parabens. Avoid hot water, moisturisers, or oils. Pat the area dry and you’re ready to go.

Your tattoo artist will clean and disinfect the area before they start but you don’t want any product buildup. Run away from the studio if the artist doesn’t clean the area.

  • Don’t use anaesthetic creams or ointments.

Their effect won’t last more than a couple of hours, and it will hurt more once the area comes back to life. It’s better to endure it, your brain will release adrenaline and endorphins to help you go through it.

Numbing creams can alter the result and healing process. Be warned some artists may refuse to tattoo you if you use them.

  • Don’t take any medicines, drugs, or alcohol on the day of your appointment.

If you absolutely need to take a medication, tell your artist when you book the session. Don’t wait to inform them when you arrive at the studio.

They may need to research or contact their ink suppliers to ensure your safety. Don’t take painkillers or aspirin; you’ll bleed more during the appointment as your skin will push the ink out.

Drugs or alcohol will in addition make you unable to sit still and increase pain. No reputable artist will tattoo you if you show any signs of drug or alcohol intake.

  • Eat a small protein-packed meal up to two hours before you go to the studio.

What does this have to do with skin care? Your body will go through a lot of stress and direct all its energy toward stopping the ‘attack’. It will consume all its reserves.

You may lose consciousness if you have an empty stomach or get nauseous after a big meal. If you need to finish the session early, your artist will need to wait several weeks or months before working in the same area.

  • Ask questions.

A good tattoo artist will do a skin assessment before they start and give detailed instructions on aftercare.

They know their inks, how they react to different skin types and tones and which products are best for you. Each person heals differently, so listen to them and ask as many questions as you need.

Photo by Bel Perez

Back home

They’ll advise how long you must wait before removing the wrap. Now it’s up to you to make the tattoo heal correctly.

  • Wash the area with cold water and gentle soap. Don’t use hot water.

You might need someone to help while it’s fresh. Avoid hitting the tattoo directly with water. Lather up soap on clean hands and gently remove the mix of petrolatum, blood and plasma.

Rinse with cold water and repeat until the area is clean. For a gentler rinse, using water bottles helped me avoid further damage.

Do this several times per day outside of your shower routine for a week. Avoid taking baths for a month. Your tattoo shouldn’t be underwater until fully healed.

  • Don’t dry your skin with fabric towels.

They could make small fibres stick to the wound and cause an infection or cause damage. Use kitchen paper towels instead.

Press lightly, lift and repeat until the area is dry. You have an open wound and your body is acting on it, so don’t rub!

  • Let your tattoo breathe uncovered until you feel your skin tighten.

It can take from a few minutes to up to an hour depending on different factors, such as the trauma your skin went through and the piece you got.

  • Use the products recommended by your artist with a light hand.

Many tattoo artists advise against using products like Bepanthol. There are reports on allergies and skin reactions linked to it, and many cases of tattoos fading early or healing unevenly. It speeds up the healing process, not allowing the ink to settle on your skin evenly and forcing too much ink out.

My tattoo artist suggested Eucerin Aquaphor, and I swear by it. I’ve recommended it to a lot of people over the years with great results.

Whatever you apply, use the tiniest amount. Start with clean hands, take a small dollop and spread it into a very thin layer. It should be thin enough to allow plasma to pass through it.

Reapply several times per day once it dries off, and don’t suffocate your skin. You’ll notice how you need less product each time.

  • Don’t pick at the scabs or peeling skin!

They’ll fall out naturally by themselves as your tattoo heals. Yes, you’ll be shedding skin and ink for a few days, and it’s fine. Let it take the time it needs and don’t scratch. Itching is normal and expected.

  • Avoid going to the beach or swimming pools for the first two to three months. Longer if it’s a big tattoo.

Seawater and chlorine interfere with the healing process. They will fade quickly and you’ll risk infections and skin reactions.

  • Stay away from the sun!

If you will only listen to one thing, it’s this.

Cover your skin, and if it’s sunny where you live, use total sunblock even under your clothes. Ask your pharmacist for specific products for sun intolerant skin. Those are so dense they will cover the tattoo almost entirely. They leave a white film on your skin and stain everything, but it’s worth the hassle.

Trust me, I come from the South of Spain, specifically, the closest area to Africa and the sun is no joke there. Clothes won’t protect you from sun damage and you’ll feel the burn regardless.

You may not like this, but if you want your tattoos to last longer, you’ll need to avoid direct sun exposure without total sunblock for a minimum of three to six months.

Photo by Bel Perez

Going forward

Once fully healed and for the rest of your life, use SPF 50 whenever you expose your skin to the sun. For the first couple of years, go back to total sunblock on days of high UV radiation or at the beach.

I still do it, if you see me at the beach, my tattooed arm will be covered in total sunblock from wrist to shoulder.

This small hassle will save you the money of getting a retouch. Also the disappointment of going through all that pain and care for them to fade or look a lifetime old.

If I can’t get away from the sun, I protect my skin accordingly and apply aloe vera afterwards.

That’s the secret for my tattoos stay so bright and beautiful. I avoid direct sun exposure and moisturise my skin often.

How do you take care of your tattoos? Did you ever had issues during healing or experienced fading? Do you have any further tips to share with The Glossary readers?

I’d love to hear about your experiences.

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