There are a lot of different ideas and theories as to what is the best method of aftercare for your tattoo.
I honestly believe that not one particular method will work best for everyone, seeing as everyone's biology is different. I believe it takes time and experience to figure out what particular method works for you.
Here is a set of instructions that I believe works well for many people, and have used this method on myself successfully:
No more than a few hours after the finish of your tattoo, you should remove the bandage and wash the tattoo. I personally recommend you wash the tattoo with an anti-bacterial hand soap, such as Dial antibacterial hand soap, to reduce your risk of infection. Also, use lukewarm water as opposed to hot water, which would burn the tattoo. It is important to wash the tattoo lightly, but be sure to remove all ointment, blood, and any other residue.
After washing the tattoo, apply an ointment. Some commonly recommended ointments would be Bacitracin, A+D Ointment and Aquaphor; I would recommend staying away from Vaseline and petroleum jelly. It is VERY IMPORTANT to only use a very tiny amount of ointment and that you lightly rub in on in a thin, shiny, “barely there” layer over the tattoo. The tattoo should just have a slight sheen after rubbing in the ointment. Using too much ointment can oversaturate the tattoo and cause excess scabbing, or cause scabs to come off prematurely. It is NOT “the more, the better.”
I would recommend use of the ointment for around 3–5 days. During these days, wash your tattoo every morning right when you wake, and right before bed. It is also important to wash the tattoo several times throughout the day. The more you wash your tattoo, the easier and faster your tattoo will heal. If your tattoo is in a hard-to-reach area, have a friend assist you — just make sure they wash their hands thoroughly before they do so. If you do not keep your tattoo clean, you run the risk of both infection and excess scabbing which could result in poor healing. During these first few days, depending on where your tattoo is located, the tattoo may be prone to swelling. Using a bag of ice, elevating the tattooed area, and taking ibuprofen can help reduce the swelling.
Around the third to fifth day, you should notice your tattoo has formed a thin, hard layer, which will begin to peel. The peeling is similar to that of a sunburn peeling — only the skin will come off in the colors of the tattoo. This is normal. At this stage in the healing process, you can switch from using the ointment to a non-scented hand lotion. Aveeno, Curel, and Lubriderm non-scented are some common recommendations. For the next two weeks, keep washing the tattoo and use the lotion as needed. Keep the skin moisturized to prevent cracking and bleeding. There may be a couple scabs on your tattoo that take longer to come off then others — some taking up to a few weeks to come off. If this is the case, just let the scabs fall off on their own and be mindful not to pull them off prematurely, as this could result in loss of ink. The majority of your tattoo's healing should be over in 2 weeks, but it does take up to 4 weeks for a tattoo to be fully healed.
Things to avoid during the tattoo healing process:
Try not to sleep on your tattoo. For example, if the tattoo is on your back, sleep on your stomach. Not only will the tattoo become stuck to your clothing and linens, it will leave a lovely imprint on your sheets. Should you wake up and your clothes are stuck to your tattoo, do not rip them off, for this could result in the ripping off of scabs. Instead, wet the area of clothing that is stuck to the tattoo with water, and it will become unstuck.
Avoid submerging the tattoo. Soaking in water could cause scabs to come off prematurely. Also, avoid swimming due to possible bacteria and irritants in the water. So no ocean, lake, pool, jacuzzi, or bath tub for two weeks! Showers are okay … and encouraged.
Avoid the sun! Getting a sunburn on your tattoo can cause some serious problems. Think of your tattoo as like a bad sunburn; you wouldn’t want to get more sun on it. If you're going to be in the sun for an extended period of time, wear loose cotton clothing over the tattoo.
Avoid wearing tight clothing that will rub on the tattoo, as excessive rubbing can lead to scabbing and loss of ink. Some key areas where this is common is around the pants line and the bra line. Try to wear loose fitting cotton clothing over the tattooed area so that it's breathable, or if you're not in public, go without! If you had your foot tattooed, try to stick to a more open-type of shoe such as a flip-flop. Also, for the first couple days of healing, the tattoo will tend to “ooze” colors that tend to stain fabric, so don't wear your Sunday best!
Avoid over-working the tattooed area. For example, if you are an avid gym-goer, lay off the arm exercises for two weeks if you just had your arm tattooed. Or, if you just got your foot tattooed, don’t plan a hiking or a five-hour mall trip. Over-working the tattooed area can result in scabbing and poor healing. Working out will also cause you to sweat, which is also not good for the tattoo's healing process.
Infection is not super common, but let's face it: With so many invisible bacteria floating around out there, it's bound to happen at some point. Here are some tips on dealing with your tattoo should it become infected:
First and foremost, find out if your tattoo is indeed infected. Some key signs of tattoo infection are a red haze surrounding the tattoo after it's already past a week (or more) of the healing process, which could also be accompanied by: a white haze over sections of the tattoo; indentation of the tattoo; extreme scabbing which may turn green or yellowish; a bad smell; and puss. Contacting your tattoo artist so they may confirm whether or not your tattoo is infected (and suggest ways to combat the infection) is a good idea, although the best way to deal with an infection is by calling your physician. He or she will know the absolute best way to combat your infection and may prescribe antibiotics.
The best ways to avoid infections are by keeping your tattoo clean and by making your artist aware of any sensitivities or allergies you may have before getting tattooed. For example, many tattoo artists use latex gloves during the tattooing process, so if you have an allergy to latex, let your tattoo artist know so they can switch to nitrile gloves. Also, many people have a sensitivity to certain tattoo inks; red ink is a common color that people have a sensitivity to because of the nickel content in that particular color. An easy way to tell if you have a nickel allergy is by wearing a piece of cheap costume jewelry, which is commonly nickel-coated. It will discolor your skin if you're allergic to it.
After your tattoo is healed
In order to keep your tattoo looking good for as long as possible, it is important to keep your skin moisturized. And when you're going to be exposed to sun for a prolonged period, use sunblock to help avoid fading.
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