How to Safeguard Your Tattoo

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on November 29, 2023
4 min read

Tattoo aftercare refers to the steps you take to protect the look of your new tattoo and prevent side effects, such as infection.

Whether your tattoo is small or takes up your entire back, you should make sure it fully heals. Rules vary by state or country about who can get tattoos, but your tattoo artist should always send you home with a clean tattoo.

At the federal level, the U.S. FDA has recommendations to help manufacturers and distributors prevent contamination of tattoo ink. Tattoo inks that contain germs or other harmful substances could cause infection.

Check reviews for your tattoo artist to make sure they're following local safety measures before your first ink session.

So, how can you make sure that new tattoo is something you don’t end up regretting? Follow these steps while your new tattoo heals.

  • Be sure your artist covers your new tattoo in a bandage.
  • Remove the bandage after 24 hours (or sooner, if your tattoo artist recommends it). Wash your hands before taking off the bandage. 
  • Gently wash the tattoo with soap (antibacterial if available) and water, and pat dry with a clean paper towel.
  • Apply a layer of moisturizing antibiotic ointment, but don’t put on another bandage.
  • Carefully wash your tattoo area three times a day with soap and water, and gently pat it dry.
  • Keep applying a moisturizer or ointment after you clean your tattoo to keep it moist. After 5 days, you can switch from an antibiotic ointment to a gentle fragrance-free body lotion.

You should repeat this process for 2-4 weeks.

More tips for tattoo aftercare include:

If your tattoo scabs a bit or develops hard layers, don’t worry, it’s normal. But never pick, scratch, or peel your tattoo. You could get an infection or remove the color. If you think your tattoo is infected or isn’t healing properly, see your doctor.

Avoid swimming and the sun for about 2 weeks. You want to keep your tattoo dry and out of direct sun to give it the best chance to heal properly.

Avoid wearing tight clothing. Clothes that stick to your tattoo can be uncomfortable and delay the healing process.

Take cool showers. Scalding hot water will not only hurt, but it can also fade the ink.

Use sunscreen and moisturizer often. When you leave the tattoo shop, your ink will be bright and shiny. But remember, all tattoos fade over time. Always apply sunscreen on your tattoo, especially in the summer, to keep the colors bright. Choose a sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher for best protection. Moisturize your tattoo daily, especially if it’s on an area of your body, such as your hands, where it can fade quickly.

There are various products sold specifically for tattoo aftercare, but many common products can be effective. Talk to your tattoo artist for advice, and pay attention to ingredients as you start the healing process.

To clean your tattoo, start with an antibacterial soap if available, but a plain bath soap is also OK. Something more abrasive isn't necessary, and you should never use hydrogen peroxide or rubbing alcohol on your tattoo.

A thin layer of antibiotic ointment can help protect your tattoo as it starts healing.

You may be given petroleum jelly, or ointments that contain the emollient petrolatum, when your artist finishes the tattoo. However, some professionals don't recommend these products because applying petrolatum can trap dirt within a tattoo, leading to infection.

Check with your tattoo artist if you're unsure about what to use. Let them know if you have allergies to petrolatum or antibacterial products. You may want to see a dermatologist to help find an alternative.

Tattoo aftercare cream

On the fifth day of healing, you can start using a water-based body lotion instead of an ointment. Try using dye-free and fragrance-free creams to reduce the chance of irritation.

After your tattoo is fully healed, remember to apply sunscreen regularly. Look for ones that contain zinc oxide to help shield your tattoo from the sun's rays.

Dry healing a tattoo means that you focus on keeping your tattooed skin clean, but skip using any moisturizing creams or ointments during the healing process. Some people with tattoos find dry healing works for them as they may avoid allergic reactions to certain skincare products, for example. However, it's not recommended.

What's the risk of skipping parts of recommended tattoo aftercare?

More discomfort. If the tattoo isn't moisturized, it's more likely to itch. Scratching to relieve the itch can damage the tattoo.

Your tattoo's appearance may change. Deeper scabs may form on dry skin, causing some discoloration in the tattoo.

You may get an infection. If it feels very sore or tender, or you see redness, drainage, swelling, or a rash at the tattoo site, visit a doctor.

Always talk to your tattoo artist if you have concerns about tattoo aftercare steps. Contact your doctor if something doesn't look or feel right during the healing process.