Tattoo Aftercare Guide
How well a tattoo ages and how long the colors remain vibrant are most affected by the first three weeks of aftercare given a new tattoo. That statement implies what often goes unstated in the world of tattooing but what is tacitly understood by all—that tattoos do change over time. Because we know that the skin is constantly changing, we know that the appearance of a tattoo must also change. As skin stretches or shrinks, becomes injured, or simply ages, tattoos also stretch, shrink, and age. In addition, certain colors (red) are more likely to fade than others (blue) and will change more quickly.
This articles describes the changes that the tattooed can expect and how they can help to mitigate unwanted changes with detailed aftercare information and also preventative measures that can be taken during the lifetime of the tattoo.
It's natural to keep looking at your new tattoo in the mirror at this point, so don't feel too narcissistic. People in the shop will no doubt be looking also. Now that the tattoo is complete, your artist will dispose of all the single-use items and remove the tattoo machine for later disassembly so that the tubes and needles can be cleaned and sterilized. The work area will have the Saran wrap removed, if it was used, and then he wiped down, just as when the whole process started.
The healing process begins almost immediately but your best and first layer of protection, your skin, has been penetrated. Your tattoo artist will take immediate steps to address that situation. Your tattoo will be cleaned with alcohol one last time—the cool feeling is a relief to the hot sensation caused by the swelling. A final coat of Vaseline (or other topical ointment of choice) will be applied, and then a bandage. That's right, your brand-new tattoo is going to be hidden for its first several hours. The bandages vary from shop to shop, even from tattoo to tattoo. Sometimes a sterile pad with medical tape is used. Other tattoos, however, like a very large back piece, are impossible to bandage in that way. Instead, Saran wrap alone, held down by medical tape, might be used. The purpose of the bandage is to prevent infection and promote healing. Any sterile bandage material that accomplishes those goals is good for the task. Other options include a nonstick Telfa pad, and even a diaper for an awkward position on the body.
Your tattooist will tell you what to do to care for your new tattoo. These do's and don'ts are the all-important aftercare instructions. The burden of infection prevention now shifts to you. Despite all efforts made on your behalf by the tattoo your artist, assuming that you're happy with your new tattoo and you can afford it. Tip or not, though, if you're happy with your tattoo, you might want to say so before you leave.
Also at this point, tattoo artists sometimes like to snap a quick photo of the piece before you leave. Ideally, they'd like to get a nice photograph for their portfolio or Web site when the tattoo is completely healed. But that would mean that clients would have to come back for the express purpose of providing a photo op—which rarely happens. Instead, most tattoo photos are taken right after the tattoo is done. Occasionally, clients return for more tattoos, providing an opportunity to photograph the healed piece.
The next couple of weeks are a critical time for you and your new tattoo, which is why tattoo shops will go to the trouble of providing written aftercare instructions for their clients. If you've looked into aftercare at all, though, you quickly realize that these instructions vary from shop to shop, and they have also changed over time. There are a few reasons for that variation. Different products for aftercare are available in different places, even on the same continent.
Tattoo artists may he apprenticed using certain products and may keep using them even when they move off and set up their own shop. Experience and a history with these aftercare products is important in the same way that experience is important for the choice of tattoo inks. Confidence in a product or technique builds over years of working with hundreds if not thousands of clients.
But with all the variation of time, place, and tattooist, there still remain some broad and common themes that run through aftercare instructions. The common denominator is twofold: preventing infection and promoting healing. Add to that a third goal of trying to retain as much ink as possible in the tattoo and you begin to understand the reasoning behind all aftercare instructions. The following is a generic aftercare calendar of what you can expect during the first few weeks with your new tattoo and what you need to do to take care of it.
DAY 1: This is the big day—the day you're tattooed. Although most tattoo artists will instruct you to leave your bandage on for a minimum of two hours and hopefully somewhere between two and twelve hours, what they're really shooting for is that you'll leave it on overnight. You want the tattoo to remain moist and protected for as long as possible. Don't go overboard with this, though. Leaving the bandage on overnight prevents the new tattoo from sticking to your pajamas or sheets on that first night, but the next morning should be considered the upper limit on how long the bandage should stay in place. Ideally then, on Day 1, you will not see, let alone touch, your new tattoo.
DAY 2: Wash your hands! Always, before touching your tattoo, including removing the bandage, wash your hands with an antibacterial soap. Let this become your new ritual, much like the tattoo artists before they put on their gloves. Remove the bandage, slowly, in case it has stuck to the tattoo. If that's happened, then moisten the bandage with warm water (in the shower might be the easiest way) until it comes free without pulling. Gently, oh so gently, wash your new tattoo with a mild soap and warm water. Your goal is to remove any blood, lymph fluid, ink, or Vaseline that was left on the surface of the skin. You don't want to scrub or even use a washcloth. Instead, use your clean hands and gently work off anything that is on the surface. Don't soak your tattoo for the sake of soaking it, though. Once it's clean, stop washing it. Pat it dry with a clean towel, taking care never to rub it. This is probably your first long look at it, all clean and new in its pristine glory. You will not be applying a new bandage.
Exception #1 in the aftercare game: The vast majority of people will not need a second bandage, but occasionally the double bandage is the best course for some people. Folks who are prone to scabbing or thick scabs or who have an impaired ability for the skin to heal itself or whose ink just doesn't seem to stay (which you would only know from past tattoo experi- ence) might try a second bandage—but probably for not more than another twelve hours. After washing as above, apply another clean coat of Vaseline (or whatever product was used) and rebandage (with the same type of dressing as was used initially, or perhaps just Saran wrap and medical tape).
As the skin of the new tattoo heals, you want to keep it moist. How to prevent scabbing, which removes color from the tattoo and which would also create itching and the temptation to touch the tattoo, even scratch it. In order to prevent drying, you'll use a cream to moisturize the tattoo. How often and how much? You want to use enough so that the tattoo doesn't feel tight, dry, or itchy, and you want to achieve a thin coating, since you don't want to clog the pores.
What type of cream or lotion should you use? There are many from which to choose, and every tattooer and artist will recommend something different. What it amounts to, though, is label reading. You want to avoid alcohol since it will dry the skin. At this point, you also want to avoid oil, grease, petrolatum (which is in Vaseline), and lanolin (animal oil extracted from wool) since these will clog pores. You want to avoid fragrance since it doesn't do anything for you and could prove to be an irritant to freshly tattooed skin. What are your choices? They fall into two main categories: products made just for tattoo aftercare and products you can buy at any drugstore, grocery store, or pharmacy.
Specialized tattoo products (Tattoo Goo, Black Cat Super Healing Salve, THC Tattoo Aftercare, etc.) may be no better or worse than regular moisturizers at the supermarket. Again, it amounts to label reading. Some of these specialized products, typically sold in tattoo parlors, contain beeswax or dyes and fragrance. Some contain mixtures of homeopathic herbs, vitamins, and oils. Regular moisturizers and lotions (Curd, Lubriderm, A and D Ointment) are much the same, without the cool packaging and the word "tattoo" in the name. Again, these may contain petrolatum or lanolin and dyes and fragrances. You ideally want something as moist and neutral in terms of its chemical composition as possible.
An antibiotic cream perhaps? Well, here's the deal with that. Many, many, many people use antibiotic creams in the aftercare of their new tattoo (like Neosporin, Polysporin, Bacitracin, Bepanthen, etc.). An antibiotic, however, is for killing bacteria and these may not, hopefully will not, be present. Antibiotic creams do not necessarily promote healing. in addition, in a very small percentage of people who are allergic to certain antibiotics, a relatively high dose through all those punctures in the skin can lead to the ultimate in allergic reactions, anaphylactic shock—a full-body allergic reaction that is characterized by breathing difficulty and plummeting blood pressure. So, while an antibiotic isn't really necessary unless an infection develops, it will do no harm unless you just happen to be allergic to it.
Avoid wearing tight, restrictive clothes—including shoes if your new tattoo is on your foot—right over the top of the new tattoo. Wear clothing that breathes, allowing fresh air to reach the tattoo, cotton being ideal. No nylon stockings, for example, or polyester shirts. They don't breathe, and they can also stick to a new tattoo.
You might also want to avoid hard workouts that flex the new tattoo or cause excessive sweating. Remember that your skin is healing, and these first few weeks are critical to the final look and longevity of your tattoo. A small amount of prevention now is worth untold rewards later.
So, on Day 2, remember to wear appropriate clothing and take your moisturizer with you, along with some antibacterial hand wipes or liquid to wash your hands before you moisturize your tattoo.
DAY 3: Take your shower as normal and do your best not to soak your tattoo, although you can gently wash it as on Day 2. Wash your hands and apply your moisturizer as often as necessary to keep the tattoo from getting dry.
DAYS 4 To 14: Unless you notice signs of an infection or allergic reaction, your tattoo will go through a couple of different phases in this two-week time period. Ideally, your tattoo will not actually scab in the sense that we normally think of it. Instead, the colored and damaged epidermis may simply peel, just like a sunburn, becoming flaky and falling off. Like a sunburn, you don't want to help it. Never scratch or pick at the skin (or scab) of your new tattoo. Never, never, never. The thinner the scab, if there is one, the better, even paper thin. Thick scabs delay healing and can remove color from the new tattoo. Adhere strictly to the "NOs" in the first two weeks. If itching is driving you crazy, you might resort to an antihistamine, but check with your doctor first.
DAYS 15 TO 21: In general, tattoos will he completely healed somewhere between two and three weeks, although most will take only two weeks. Until your tattoo has completely peeled or the scab has completely fallen away, your tattoo is not complete. Even if the peeling has finished or the scab is gone, the new epidermal layer that forms over your tattoo is going to be quite sensitive. By week three, if your tattoo is completely healed, you should still avoid sun, although you can go back to all your other vices—swimming, sauna, etc.
Just as when you sat down for your tattoo and signed your contract, remember that tattoo artists are not medical doctors. The guidelines that they give you and the guidelines given above are just that: generic guidelines which work for the majority of the populace. Only a medical doctor can give you medical advice and he or she is the only person that you should be consulting for such advice. Don't rely on what your friends say or have done. Don't rely on word of mouth. Your primary sources of information are your tattoo artist, in the form of aftercare instructions and based on experience, and your doctor, based on training.
Public Enemy Number One
Once your tattoo has completely healed, feel free to frolic in the hot tub and splash in chlorinated beverages all you like. When it comes to the sun, though, from here on out it is your tattoo's number one enemy--Destroyer of Pigment, Vanquisher of Color, Fader of All Things Once Bright. It's ironic, of course. You want nothing more than for your friends to see your new tattoo. Hell, for strangers to see it too. But tattoo viewings are best left to the great indoors, no matter what the beach at spring break looks like.
You're used to the sun having an effect on your skin. In response to the radiation of the sun, it gets darker. You get a tan. That happens to all skin types, from white to black and everything in between. The pigment is called melanin and it's produced by melanocytes in the epidermis. In darker skin, melanin is in a constant state of production. However, melanin is not produced in response to all radiation; it is specifically counteracting ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The skin produces melanin in response to UV light as a protective mechanism so that the melanin can absorb the UV radiation and protect other cells from UV damage. That's all well and good and right. But consider how a darker epidermis affects the look of your tattoo. In order to see your tattoo, remember, you are looking through the epidermis. The darker the window, the darker the tattoo will look.
Tattoos fade just like all other color that comes under the rays of the sun. The technical term is photodegradation. Like the snapshot that you left on your dashboard for months or the red heart in bumper stickers that say "I [heart symbol] Pain" or whatever it is you love, all pigments fade when exposed to the sun. Both CV and visible sunlight contribute to the process of fading colors, but it's that nasty old UV that is also the culprit in a lot of skin problems. When it comes to color, radiation from the sun attacks the chemical bonds that absorb light. All pigments absorb light as part of their normal function. When you're looking at a red heart, the reason you see red is because the blue and the yellow are being absorbed and only the red reflected. All pigments work this way, including those used for tattoos. They absorb some colors while reflecting others. When the chemical bonds are broken down at the molecular level by the nasty UV radiation (which they also absorb, to their detriment), they lose their ability to absorb and reflect different colors. Less red is reflected and possibly also more blue anti yellow, which used to he absorbed. What we see in the end product is a less intense red. Since tattoos are generally composed of darker colors (outlines of black as just a start), they are clearly absorbing more light than not (since they are reflecting less—this is why black clothes in the summer sun make you feel much more hot than white). If you want to preserve color, then keep it in the dark, like the wall paintings in the tombs of the pharaohs.
Tattoos battle another fading mechanism as well, since they are impregnated in a living organism, also known as our skin. We already know that if the tattoo pigment has not penetrated to the dermis and has instead ended up primarily in the epidermis, then the tattoo will seem to fade as the epidermis routinely sloughs off and rejuvenates itself. The process of forming new epidermal cells that push their way up from the bottom to the top of the epidermis where they are shed, carrying tattoo pigment right along with them, is some thirty-five to forty-five days. In the truest sense, this is not a faded tattoo per se. It's an inferior one, since it never reached the dermis. Even for pigment that reaches the dermis, however, there are still some obstacles to overcome.Until your tattoo pigment has taken up permanent residence within the dermis in a fibroblast (a stringy type of cell that makes up connective tissue), your body will treat it like the foreign body that it is, attempting to capture it for escort out. The immune system tries to engulf the pigment molecule with a type of white blood cell, the largest of which is a macrophage. Sometimes the pigment molecule is ust too big, however (size does count), so the immune system may try to break it down into smaller parts by dissolving i Tattoo pigment doesn't generally just dissolve but nevertheless, over time, your immune system will capture what it can and then transport it away in the lymph system.
If you've been tattooed, the lymph nodes closest to your tattoo likely carry tattoo pigment. After all is said and done, however, the immune system carries away only a small percentage and the remainder is captured in fibroblasts.
Which colors fade the fastest? It depends on the particular molecular composition of the pigment used. Some of the chemical bonds are less stable than others. We've already seen that the ingredients in tattoo pigment are largely unknown and, if known, their composition is sometimes held like a secret. The overwhelming anecdotal evidence for tattoos, however, is that red seems to fade the fastest. In tattoos that are twenty to fifty years old, sometimes the red is completely gone.
The best defense in the skin game is not necessarily a good offense. The best defense in the battle of fading tattoos is to combat tattoo enemy number one, the sun, by running away. The easiest and the most effective thing to do is cover the tattoo with clothing. A tattoo that is done well in the first place, healed properly, and protected from light can remain vibrant for many decades. Ironically, of course, this isn't why many people get a tattoo. They get it to show it. So if you gotta show it, then show it indoors. If you gotta show it outdoors, do it in the winter on a cloudy day. If you gotta show it outdoors in the summer, do it in the early morning or late afternoon. And if you show it outdoors at all, use sunblock, always, always, always, even in winter on a cloudy day.
Sunblock and sunscreen are not created equal. A sunscreen chemically absorbs the UV radiation, not unlike the melanin naturally present in your skin, attempting to prevent as many of the rays from reaching your skin as possible. Sunscreens are generally transparent after they've been rubbed in. A sunhlock actually physically blocks the sun from hitting your skin. You're probably familiar with the white nose treatment that lifeguards and sailing competitors wear. Those are examples of sunblocks, probably white zinc oxide. However, sunblocks don't necessarily need to look like geisha makeup. 'Today they are available in a microbead form that is also transparent. The American Cancer Society recommends a sunscreen or sunblock rated at least SPF 15 in order to protect your skin from the damaging rays of the sun. Applying it correctly is also a must as long as you're going to use it: apply twenty minutes before being in the sun, twenty minutes after (think of it as the second coat of paint that gets the thin spots), and every two hours after that. As you may recall, your tattoo resides in your dennis while the cells that create a suntan and natural skin color reside in your epidermis. That means that your tattoo will not protect you from a sunburn in that spot. What's good for your skin is good for your tattoo. Neither is maintenance free when treated right.
Stretch and Shrink
Tattoos will stretch and shrink, but only within limits. Moderate and gradual weight gain or loss will have little effect on a tattoo except to stretch and shrink it accordingly. Think of birthday balloons that are slightly overinflated and underinflated. You can still read "Happy Birthday" pretty easily and the letters maintain their relative spacing and composition. However, other types of rapid weight gain or loss could be another matter. For example, women who are considering having children might want to think twice about an abdominal tattoo placement. Similarly, men who are planning on getting seriously into bodybuilding might want to reconsider their upper armband. Stretch marks (often associated with pregnancy but which can also afflict all women as well as men) can also appear on the arms, thighs, and buttocks and even the hips and lower back.
Tattoos will blur for some of the same reasons that they fade. As the chemical bonds are broken and the molecules begin to break down as a result of exposure to the sun, the body's immune system, always on the prowl, will attempt to take the smaller molecules away. In addition, tattoos on areas of the body that stretch constantly (the elbows, knees, ankles, feet, and even hands) will also blur more easily over time, for all the masons that we've discussed above. Tattoos done in skin that has already been damaged by overexposure to the sun also seem to he more susceptible to blurring, with the skin less able to hold the ink securely in position.
Tattoos change over time but there are simple and commonsense steps that can mitigate unwanted changes, perhaps even preventing them completely. Tattoo artists are loath to give a number on how many years a tattoo will last (which is essentially forever) or how long it will look good (which is so variable that there's no good answer). The way a tattoo holds up over time is so dependent on its initial quality, the healing period, its maintenance, and the variations of people's skins that it is impossible to predict. Even a well-executed, simple, lettered word, for example, placed on the knuckles and never covered in the sun, might begin to blur and fade in its first summer, especially given the stretching of the skin over the joints. The same exact lettering, however, on the back of the shoulder, which healed properly, never saw the light of day, and never suffered excessive stretching or shrinking, might remain nearly as crisp and legible in its second decade as it did in its second week.
Finally, though, let us acknowledge that as the skin naturally ages, the look of our tattoos changes as well. Age spots and wrinkles take their toll on the clarity and pristine color of our tattoos. Given enough time, even the boldest and darkest outline softens, inevitably blurring to a minute extent. The lines appear to grow ever so slightly thicker and the gaps between them seem to narrow, sometimes even disappearing. Shading that was once bright and solid becomes a touch less immediate and vibrant. Pigment is moving imperceptibly over time on a cellular level as the elasticity and resilience of our skin naturally declines. For these changes that come simply as a result of time, there is no escape—for our skins, our tattoos, or ourselves. Instead, only our attitudes toward that process count and dictate whether we see an aging tattoo as attractive or not.
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