As a tattoo artist, I get asked all the time by my customers this question. I was also told that when they googled the answer, they got a lot of mixed answers.
So how long does it take for a tattoo to heal? It usually takes a tattoo 4-6 weeks to fully heal. The reason for this is that a tattoo needle doesn’t just pierce the epidermis (top layer of the skin) but also the dermis (second layer), and although the epidermis might heal within 2-3 weeks, the dermis layer is still not healed yet.
In this article, I will explain all the stages and healing procedures, and also how to know when your tattoo is fully healed.
I am NOT a doctor and the advice given here is purely from my own experience and my customers experience over the years and my own research. Do your own research and if unsure ask your own doctor for professional advice!
How Does A Tattoo Heal And How Long Does It Take
First of all, every person heals at a different rate and it also depends if the aftercare procedure has been followed, but throughout all my years of experience I have found that usually they heal in 4-6 weeks.
In order for a tattoo to be created, the tattoo needles need to pierce through the epidermis (first) layer of the skin and deposit the pigment (tattoo ink) in the dermis (second) layer of the skin. Sometimes you might see tattoos that have what is called as blowout (this is when the ink seems to spread underneath the skin) and the reason for that is that the needle has been pushed further down and the tattoo ink has been deposited in the hypodermis (or the fat tissue) layer of the skin.
What are the stages of a tattoo healing:
- Within the first 24 hours the tattoo will bleed and discharge plasma. This sometimes looks like a mixture of blood and mucus. Its is very common at this stage for the tattooed area to feel like burning and be very warm to the touch. The tattooed area will also be swollen after the trauma (tattoo needles piercing the skin) it has been subjected to.
- After 3-5 days the tattooed area will start becoming very itchy. This is very normal as your body is trying to heal itself and sends as many white cells to the area to repair the “damage” that has occurred. At any point please do NOT scratch or rub your tattoo, as this can irritate the skin even further. If the itchiness is too much, just apply gentle pressure on the area.
- Usually after 5-6 days you will notice that your skin starts to peel off and when washing the tattoo, you will notice a lot of skin washing away. At this stage your tattoo will look quite faded and patchy. Do not worry, as this is normal and there is nothing wrong with your tattoo. When washing your tattoo, do NOT pull on any skin that is not washing away on its own.
- Within 10-20 days the skin will stop washing away and the skin will start to feel firmer. At this stage, the epidermis is almost fully healed, but your tattoo will still feel a bit tender and it is not fully healed underneath,
- After 3-4 weeks your tattoo will look very shiny and the hairs on your skin will start coming back trough and your skin will feel itchy again, as the hair follicles are coming from the dermis layer (second layer of the skin) and popping through the epidermis (the first layer of the skin). This is the last stage before your tattoo is fully healed.
- Usually about a week after the last stage your tattoo will be fully healed. By this stage both layers of the skin have fully healed and you are ready for touch ups (if necessary) or just adding onto your existing piece.
Getting tattooed over your healing tattoo can cause scar tissue to form, and this is why we always recommend waiting at least 6 weeks before adding to your new tattoo, or covering up a “holiday tattoo”.
How To Take Care Of Your New Tattoo
As medicine science, so does our understanding of the healing process of the epidermis and dermis layers of the skin.
A lot of older artists or old school artists will recommend letting the tattoo dry and scab over, or keep the film or bandage that the tattoo artist places over the fresh tattoo for 24 hours, but this is not recommended anymore for several reasons, in fact its now considered quite inappropriate in the modern tattoo industry.
Sure, your tattoo artist has been tattooing for 10-20 years and is very professional in doing his job, but sometimes the latest techniques and procedures might take a bit of time to reach everybody. Especially if he is tattooing full time and maybe running a shop and family time, he might have quite a lot on his “plate”.
Researching the latest discoveries and recommended procedures might evade some of the artists with busy schedules.
As a tattoo artist that specialises in black and grey realism and cover-ups tattoos, I have seen firsthand (including on myself) the difference between the “old school aftercare procedure” and the “updated aftercare procedure”, especially on portrait tattoos that require a more gentle approach to aftercare.
Before doing any type of aftercare, please always ensure you read the products ingredients to make sure you are not allergic to any of them. If unsure, do not use and ask your family doctor for advice.
How do my customers and I take care of our tattoos:
1. Tattoo Finished – Once the tattoo artist has finished your new tattoo, and you have approved your new body art, the tattoo artist will give it another wash after which he will apply a cream (usually tattoo butter) and wrap your tattoo in a transparent film, usually this is either cling film or a specialised product like Dermalize.
2. Wash Your Hands – After 4-6 hours after the tattoo has been done, you will have to thoroughly wash your hands using an antibacterial fragrance free (preferably liquid soap).
3. Remove Film – now you can remove the clear film the tattoo artist has placed over your fresh tattoo and dispose of it safely.
4. Wash tattoo – under running luke warm water and only using your hands with antibacterial soap, wash your tattoo thoroughly. Keep in mind that you need to also wash the immediate area next to your tattoo, and not just the tattooed area.
The reasons we don’t use any sponges or cloths, is because as they have been used before they can harvest bacteria, and can even leave fibers that can attach themselves to the tattoo and irritate the area, but also because some sponges or cloths can be quite abrasive to the wounded skin.
5. Tap it dry – using paper disposable towels, tap your tattoo dry, but try not to rub, as this can irritate the skin and be quite painful on a freshly tattooed skin. I found that kitchen paper towels are the most comfortable for drying a tattoo off.
6. Apply barrier cream – using your clean hands, apply a very thin layer of barrier cream (Bepanthen, Tattoo Goo, Hustle Butter, etc) on and around the area that has been tattooed. You don’t need to apply too much cream, as you only need to apply enough to make the skin look shinny and be fully covered in the cream.
7. Wrap up in barrier film. If you don’t have any specialized products like Dermalize, food grade cling film will be just fine.
8. Repeat steps 2,3,4,5,6,7 every 4-6 hours for the first 5 days.
9. Keep moisturized – after the first 5 days, you will still have to wash your tattoo at least 3 times a day and you need to keep the skin hydrated using a dermatologically tested cream (like E45 ) or cocoa butter every 2-3 hours or whenever the skin feels dry. You don’t need to keep it covered with barrier film after the first 5 days.
We have found that all following this aftercare, all the tattoos have healed really well and NO scabbing has occurred.
The reason scabbing is considered dangerous for a healing tattoo is that the scabs can be broken off very easily by accident, and also dust particles and textile fibers can reside in them.
Usually when the freshly tattooed area is becoming itchy, just doing the aftercare procedure is enough to relieve you from the discomfort.
What Not To Do When You Have A New Tattoo
There are a few things that are strongly advice against when having a newly tattooed area of skin.
Here is a list and the reason why:
1. NO swimming or baths – (if the tattooed area will be submerged in the water)
We strongly recommend against swimming, as this usually happens in the swimming pool, the sea, or any large body of water. Any stagnant body of water is NOT sterile and bacteria can thrive without any problems in such waters.
Also, a major discomfort will be the salt in the seawater or the chlorine usually found in the swimming pool coming in contact with your freshly tattooed skin. You wouldn’t put salt on a fresh wound, would you?!
2. NO sunbathing – (this includes tanning salons)
UV rays are very harmful to a tattoo, especially in the healing process, and can fade your new tattoo even before its fully healed. Even once the tattoo is fully healed, we always recommend you have SPF 50 or higher sunscreen cream.
3. NO make up on the tattooed area – (this includes “fake tan”)
As your tattoo is healing you want to protect it against any type of infection or irritation. So make-up or “fake tan” not being a sterile product, please don’t apply it on your new tattoo whilst is healing
4. NO rubbing or scratching – (this includes tight clothing or anything that can rub against the area)
Anything that is rubbing against the tattoo will cause the sensitive skin (wound) to become irritated. This is very unpleasant and if it is consistent this can lead to your tattoo not healing properly.
5. Never touch your tattoo without disinfecting your hands
Never apply any creams or touch the newly tattooed area without at least washing your hands thoroughly. Just think of all the things we touch during the day and how many other people have touched as well. As you always wash your hands after going to the toilet, make a habit of washing your hands before touching your new tattoo.
You can never be to safe when having a fresh tattoo.
6. Beware of pets and dust –
If you are lucky enough to be a pet owner (like me) you will find that your pets will try to investigate the wounded area and might even try to lick it. Be very aware of this, as this can cause a serious infection. Pet hairs and dust is something you must avoid at all costs when having a tattoo that is healing.
If you consider your newly tattooed area as a wound, chances are that your logic will help answer any other questions in relation to what NOT to do.
What To Do In Case You Got An Infection On A New Tattoo
If you were not careful enough and ended up getting an infection on your tattoo, you need to wash your tattoo using antibacterial soap and then covering your tattoo with a bandage and get in touch with your family doctor or go straight to your pharmacist.
Usually you will be told to let the tattoo dry and stop applying any other creams. Don’t worry about it, as you will avoid any serious complications and ask your tattoo artist to touch it up once fully healed. He will be more than happy to help you out and correct the damage done by the infection on his artwork.
You will probably be given a course of antibiotic to ensure the infection is eradicated and please do follow your doctors or pharmacist’s advice, and don’t stop taking the antibiotics until the prescribed course is finished.
If you do not take your antibiotics, in serious cases, you can develop septicemia.
How long do you have to wait before you can workout after getting a tattoo? Usually you can go back to the gym after 2-3 weeks. The reason you shouldn’t before that is that sweat is a saline solution and will cause you discomfort and irritation of your newly tattooed skin.
How long does the tattoo pain last? Usually you will find that tattoo pain will disappear within a couple of days. The length of the pain time frame will also depend on how much skin was tattooed. Small tattoos heal faster and the pain usually disappears after a few hours, whilst big projects (back, chest, tattoo sleeves) can be painful for up to 3-4 days.
If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below and I will try to answer them as soon as possible.