Tattoos have been around for thousands of years, decorating the bodies of many people ranging from ancient Egyptians to sailors in the early twentieth century to rock musicians. The tattoo taboo is dwindling, and nowadays tattoos are becoming increasingly popular and making their way onto more and more skin. According to a survey, about 4 in 10 US adults have tattoos, and that percentage is only growing.
If you're looking to join in on the fun of inking your skin, and aren't quite impulsive enough to walk in to a tattoo shop and get a tattoo right then and there, you've probably been doing a lot of research, and if you're one of our sensitive skin friends you may be on the fence about tattoos. It's understandable. Nothing seems less sensitive skin friendly than getting poked repeatedly with a sharp needle, but tattoos can work for almost everyone if you're careful and smart during the tattooing and aftercare process.
Keep reading to learn more about tattoos for sensitive skin and the importance of tattoo aftercare for all skin types.
Why are Tattoos Permanent?
First of all let's answer the big question: why are tattoos permanent? What is going on in your skin to make tattoos last forever?
When you get a tattoo, your tattoo artist is depositing ink into your dermis, the layer of skin beneath the outer epidermis, using a tattoo gun which delivers thousands of ink-filled needle pricks into the skin per minute.
Your body senses something is wrong because, well, having ink forcefully driven into your skin isn’t all that natural, so your body’s immune response is to send white blood cells called macrophages to clean out any foreign material, and prevent it from delving deeper into your body. Macrophages eat up the ink, keeping it locked in their cell membranes, and they continue to suck up and store the ink repeatedly until they die. Then new macrophages arrive and repeat the same process on and on forever, and thus, the tattoo ink stays put.
Getting tattooed with sensitive skin
If you have sensitive skin or any type of skin condition like rosacea, psoriasis, or eczema, it’s best to check with a dermatologist before getting tattooed. You may be unable to get tattooed at all if your symptoms are severe or if you have a (rare, but possible) allergy to tattoo ink.
Once you get the thumbs up from your derm, seek out a tattoo artist who works in a reputable tattoo shop/studio, provides a completely sterile environment and needles, and has experience working with sensitive skin.
Flare ups are more likely to occur after being tattooed if you have an inflammatory skin condition, so be aware of that risk, and choose your tattoo’s location wisely. If you have psoriasis or eczema, don’t try to tattoo over psoriasis plaques, dry patches, or areas where these symptoms typically occur.
Your artist should also know not to tattoo over any moles because it will distort the view of any changes in the mole which can be a warning sign of melanoma (skin cancer). They will often suggest a different placement of the tattoo, work the mole into the tattoo (think a tattoo of a lady face with a strategically placed beauty mark), or tattoo around the mole.
Why tattoo aftercare is important
A new tattoo is essentially an open wound. Your skin is opened by the needles, and it needs time to heal like any other wound would. That being said, while it’s healing, your tattoo is just as vulnerable to infections and scarring which can ruin the appearance of a tattoo, and could require medical attention in more serious instances.
Symptoms that can occur after a tattoo include:
- Redness and Itchiness
- Eczema or psoriasis flare-ups
- Infection - Remember how a tattoo is an open wound? Well, bacteria and open wounds don’t mix, and can lead to an infected tattoo if you neglect to clean it properly or if it is done with an unsanitary needle or in a bacteria filled environment. So, whatever you do, don’t have someone tattoo you with an old tattoo gun in your basement.
- Scarring - If you are tattooed improperly, or your tattooer uses too much of a heavy hand, the tattoo needles may penetrate too deeply into your skin and cause scarring. This is part of the reason going to an experienced artist is critical. Scarring can also occur if you have a skin condition that causes problems with wound healing, and/or you are prone to scarring.
Some of these like itching and redness are standard, but in order to limit or avoid these, you’ll need to be very diligent about tattoo aftercare.
You’ve likely paid a lot of money for your tattoo, so to get your money’s worth, take good care of it so it can look its best for as long as possible.
How long to leave on your tattoo bandage
The aftercare process begins right after your artist finishes your tattoo. They should immediately clean and bandage your tattoo (after giving you a chance to check out your new artwork in the mirror of course). The bandage is there to soak up excess ink, blood, plasma and ointments, and also to keep out bacteria. Leave the wrapping on for as long as you are instructed to by your artist. Some artists recommend 2-4 hours, some recommend sleeping with the wrap on overnight, but it should be left on no longer than 24 hours, and don’t take it off too soon either.
Tattoo Aftercare for Sensitive Skin
While your tattoo is healing, keeping the area clean and hydrated is your goal to prevent infection and fading. Here’s a standard tattoo aftercare routine for sensitive skin:
- Wet your tattoo with a damp cloth or a splash of lukewarm water. Do not completely submerge your tattoo in water.
- Wash your tattoo 2-3 times a day with a gentle, fragrance free soap. Fragrances are a common irritant for sensitive skin, and you want to limit breakouts and irritation during the healing process.
- Pat dry with a paper towel or air dry. You can use a towel if necessary, but make sure it is clean.
- Moisturize using a thin layer of lightweight, non-comedogenic, fragrance-free lotion. You want your tattoo hydrated, but not too hydrated. Some artists recommend using Aquaphor or another healing ointment in the first few days after your tattoo, but it’s best to stay away from these thick, heavy ointments if you have sensitive skin, because they can cause breakouts which can damage your tattoo.
- Wear loose fitting clothes and let your tattoo breathe.
Continue washing and moisturizing your tattoo 2-3 times a day until it is fully healed.
How Long do Tattoos Take to Heal/Stages of Tattoo Healing
Tattoos typically take about a month to heal, but it won't be in the initial open wound phase for the whole month.
- Days 1-3 - Inflammation - During the first few days, your tattoo may not be as pretty as you were hoping, but don’t worry, and trust the process. Your skin, especially if it’s sensitive, will be red and inflamed, and there may be oozing that’s a mix of excess ink, blood, and plasma (the liquid component of blood). This doesn’t mean your tattoo is losing pigment, and it may make you a little squeamish, but it is all helping your skin heal.
- Days 4-14 - Peeling and Scabbing - When you’re in the second week of healing, your tattoo will start to peel and scab. Little flakes of your tattooed skin will start shedding, but once again, the color isn’t going anywhere if you take proper care.
Also, it’s going to itch. A lot. But here’s the thing — you can’t scratch it. If you scratch at a scabbing tattoo, and it causes it to flake prematurely, you may cause scarring and lose some ink, and be left with a patchy tattoo. Keeping it hydrated with lotion will help ease the itching, but if it gets really bad, lightly slap your tattoo. Yes, it’s going to look weird to the people around you. There’s unfortunately no solution for that.
- Days 14-30 - The Home Stretch - By the third week, your tattoo should be drying out, and the flaking and itching should have subsided. Your tattoo will look a bit more dull than when you first got it since a dry layer of skin has formed over it, but keep it moisturized, and it will eventually reveal the fresh tattooed skin underneath.
- Wrapping tattoo after initial bandage comes off - Your tattoo needs to breathe and stay dry in order to heal. Don’t suffocate it with saran wrap or a bandage because this can lead to excess moisture and create a breeding ground for bacteria.
- Immersing tattoo in water - This doesn’t mean you cannot shower. Please shower. But it does mean that you shouldn’t take a bath or go swimming in both public pools and the ocean. Your tattoo should not be submerged in water for at least the first two weeks, so try to only splash a bit of water on it while cleaning it.
- Exercise/excessive sweat - On that note, keep sweat at bay as much as possible. It’s recommended that you don’t exercise for at least 48 hours after getting tattooed, and once you do head back to the weight rack, don’t go overboard, and keep it light to limit moisture .
- Using public gym equipment - If you really need to get moving, you can engage in some light cardio like walking, but avoid public gyms at all costs. Why? One word: bacteria.
- Touching your tattoo with unwashed hands - Once again: bacteria.
- Sunlight/tanning - Sun damage and fading can occur long after you first get your tattoo, but it is increasingly damaging during the healing stage of your tattoo. Avoid using sunscreen on a fresh tattoo, but opt for protective clothing and staying out of the sun in general.
- Picking at scabs - As aforementioned, picking at a scabbing tattoo is a one way street to scarring.
- Shaving - If you get tattooed in a place that you shave regularly, be prepared to let the hair grow free for a few weeks. Shaving over tattooed skin can pick off scabs too early.
Why do tattoos fade over time?
But if tattoos are permanent, why do they fade? Think of it this way: your tattoos become a part of your skin and they will change, wrinkle, and discolor along with your skin. Aging and sun exposure are the two main factors that impact a tattoos appearance. The UV rays from sunlight are able to break down the pigments in your skin, causing fading, and aging can lead to less skin elasticity and stretching which can change the tattoos shape.
Tattoos in areas that receive more sun exposure and also substantial friction like the hands, feet, mouth, and face are also more prone to fading so keep that in mind when choosing placement.
Continued Care for a Tattoo
If you want to slow the fading, and keep your tattoo looking its best for as long as possible, then the tattoo healing process doesn’t stop once it’s healed. In case you’ve forgotten, this is permanent. You should take care of your tattoos in the same ways you care for your skin to prevent aging.
- Sunscreen - While you shouldn’t apply sunscreen to your tattoo until it is completely healed, once it is healed, sun protection is critical for your tattoo if you want to keep it as vibrant and defined as possible. Here's how to choose the best sunscreen for sensitive skin.
- Continuous moisturizing - Especially during dry, cold months, you’ll want to apply a good amount of non-comedogenic moisturizer for sensitive skin. Dry skin shows signs of aging faster, so keeping it hydrated will prevent some of the wrinkling and stretching that can warp your tattoo.
- Stay hydrated - Moisturizer and lotion can’t do all the work to keep your skin healthy. Drinking enough water is the basis for hydrated skin. Without it, your skin will be dull, and the duller the skin, the duller your tattoo will appear.
Tattoos are a lifelong commitment so invest in a quality artist and take eternal care of them to get the most of the new art on your skin. And don’t think that you can’t be included in the fun of tattoos if you have sensitive skin. Just do some research, contact your derm beforehand, and follow all of these tattoo aftercare tips.
The Culture and Chemistry of Tattoos - American Chemical Society
Can a Tattoo Increase Skin Cancer Risk? - The Skin Cancer Foundation
Tattoo Allergy - Healthline