Dear Alice,

How long does it take a tattoo to heal when you get one?

Dear Reader,

Considering that tattoos are made to last a lifetime, the recovery period is fairly swift — the initial healing process lasts only about a week. However, skin needs up to 45 days to fully repair any damage caused by the tattooing process. While a tattoo is healing, proper care can help prevent infection and preserve its appearance in the long run. A good tattoo artist should sit down with you to discuss proper aftercare and healing information.

First thing’s first: Before touching a healing tattoo, always wash your hands thoroughly. You can perfect your hand washing technique by following the tips in Handwashing do's and don'ts, located in the General Health archive.

Within two hours of getting inked, take off the bandage that covers the tattoo so it doesn't stick to the skin. Using your clean bare hands, gently wash the tattoo area with antibiotic soap and then pat it dry with a disposable paper towel. This is important, as rubbing the tattoo can be too abrasive, and using a cloth towel can introduce germs. It's normal to see some blood. If you do, just blot with a paper towel.

Next, apply a thin layer of non-antibiotic ointment, such as Aquaphor or A&D. Non-antibiotic ointments are recommended because topical antibiotics may cause allergic reactions. As long as your hands and tattoo are clean before you apply the ointment, no antibacterial agents are needed to protect the tattoo until the next time you clean it. After you wash the tattoo and apply ointment, don't re-bandage the tattoo. For the next two weeks, repeat this cleaning process three times a day. After five days, you may want to switch to a water-based body lotion (make sure it's fragrance and color-free) instead of using an ointment.

There is some disagreement about which type of ointment is best. Products that contain bacitracin, including many over the counter antibiotic creams and ointments, help to prevent infection, but some people are allergic to ingredients in these ointments. In addition, many of the antibiotic options are made with petroleum jelly. According to many tattoo artists, petroleum jelly can cause fading. Your tattoo artist may recommend another ointment formulated specifically for tattoo after care.

A few days into the healing period, the skin around the tattoo will start to peel like a sunburn. Try to resist the urge to scratch or "help along" the scabbing process, since picking at the skin may damage the tattoo's color and increase the chance of infection. By the seventh to tenth day, the skin should have peeled away, leaving shiny, wrinkly new skin. By the end of two weeks, the tattoo should look like it's healed, although it may still take the full 45 days for the skin to completely repair itself.

While your tattoo is healing, take extra care to do the following:

  • Limit sun exposure. Steer clear of tanning beds for at least four weeks. After the tattoo is healed, use sunscreen to prevent the colors from fading.
  • Stay dry. Pass up swimming and baths for two weeks. Limit showers to ten minutes or less.
  • Don't use hydrogen peroxide or rubbing alcohol on the tattoo area.
  • Avoid wearing tight clothing or nylons over the tattoo.

If you notice any kind of allergic reaction or infection, it is important that you visit a health care provider. Warning signs include excessive soreness, redness, drainage, or swelling at the tattoo site. If you're diligent about cleaning your tattoo, infection shouldn't be a problem. Hope you enjoy your new adornment for years to come!


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