A fresh tattoo is a wound, and like any other wound, it takes time to heal. “It’s a process you can’t really rush,” says Jes Valentine, owner and resident artist at Haven Studio in Brooklyn. “Bodies are unique and complex and heal at varied paces, but tattoos usually take around two weeks—sometimes a bit long and sometimes a bit shorter, depending on the person.”
Valentine, who has spent the past 12 years working as a tattoo artist and is almost completely covered in ink, has found that most tattoos go through very similar stages throughout the course of the healing process. Your ink will first scab over and then flake or peel—although she says some people bypass these two stages depending on their aftercare routine and their body’s unique way of healing, which differs from person to person—and eventually, a fresh,
But if two weeks feels like a long time, Valentine and Dr. Bruce Katz, Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and Director of the JUVA Skin & Laser Center in Manhattan, suggest there are a few things you can actively do (and actively avoid), both before and after getting tattooed, to help your ink heal faster.
1. Above all, make sure to follow your artist’s instructions
When your tattoo is complete, your artist will wrap it up and walk you through the aftercare process so you know exactly how to take care of your new ink. The specifics of aftercare can vary from artist to artist based on their preferred healing methods, but the most common way to heal a tattoo, Valentine explains “involves keeping your bandage or wrapping on for two to three hours and upon removing it, washing the tattoo with warm water and soap—something gentle and antibacterial, and nothing with fragrances or dyes because those have extra chemicals that you don’t want to get inside an open wound.” After washing, you’ll apply a thin layer of healing ointment—Valentine recommends Aquaphor—twice a day for the next few days. “Then, you’ll switch to a fragrance-free body lotion, using it as needed to keep the tattoo moisturized for about two weeks or until it’s completely healed.”
Although this is one of the most popular ways of healing a new tattoo, Valentine emphasizes that it is far from the only method—in fact, she suggests varying methods for clients depending on the type of tattoo and their level of experience healing fresh ink—so if your artist recommends something different, unless you have a number of tattoos and are a healing expert, you should heed their individual instruction.
2. Use aftercare products—they work and are worth any added expense
Dr. Katz, like Valentine, recommends Aquaphor ($14; amazon.com) to his newly tattooed patients, “advising them to use the ointment twice daily as that can help the wound heal more quickly.” Because Aquaphor keeps the skin moist while still allowing oxygen flow to the freshly inked skin; a quality attributed to its active ingredient, petroleum, he says, it helps prevent the formation of a scab and expedites your recovery time since wounds with scabs typically take longer to heal.
Valentine stresses the importance of only applying a thin layer of ointment to the tattoo though, noting that “putting on too much doesn’t allow the skin to breathe” and can actually lengthen the healing process.
Popular alternatives to Aquaphor include bacitracin-based ointments, which are used to prevent infections to minor wounds, and A+D ($10; amazon.com).
There’s also Saniderm ($10 and up; saniderm.com), another aftercare product that has quickly gained popularity among tattoo artists thanks to its exceptional healing power. Valentine refers to it as a “second skin,” something many artists echo because the thin, transparent sticker amplifies the body’s natural healing functions while protecting the wound from external irritants—and lauds it for its ability to almost completely heal a tattoo, bypassing scabbing and flaking, in about a week. Saniderm is permeable enough to allow oxygen to pass through it while still strong enough to keep out dirt and germs, and because it’s breathable, it can be worn for several days and in lieu of ointments, like Aquaphor, that would otherwise be used during the first week of healing.
Valentine has found that when she uses Saniderm on clients they not only heal faster, they also heal better—”the process isn’t as itchy because your skin isn’t peeling,” she says, “and it tends to keep colored tattoos extremely vibrant.” Your ability to use this product (and alternatives like Tegaderm), however, depends on your artist since they’ll need to apply it for you, and it is not a product that all artists work with. Again, the most important thing you can do to accelerate your healing is to follow your artist’s instructions, whether they suggest Saniderm, Aquaphor, or another aftercare product.
3. Avoid anything that could irritate or infect the wound including baths, the sun, and scratching
If you come up with your best ideas while lounging in the bath, find nothing more satisfying than scratching an itch, or love to spend your days tanning under the sun’s shining rays, it’s important to understand that you’ll have to hold off on those activities until your tattoo is healed.
While healing, it’s essential that you avoid soaking your new ink. “Soaking the wound lengthens the healing process, exposes you to infection—especially if you’re swimming in a public pool or outdoor body of water—and tends to leave the tattoo sticky which can make it easier to ruin,” Valentine warns. Showering is fine—essential in fact—as you want to keep the wound clean, but long showers are strongly discouraged and to avoid irritation you should always pat, not rub, your tattoo dry. Rubbing a tattoo, especially if it’s scabbed or peeling, can pull some of the ink out of the skin, ruining parts of the design. It’s for this reason that you also can’t scratch the tattoo, even though the skin may be itchy as you heal.
In addition to soaking, Katz cautions against any activities that can cause general irritation to the area as they can further delay the healing process. In particular, he advises patients to steer clear of working out. “Even the cleanest gyms are full of bacteria that can irritate the skin and potentially cause infections, and excessive sweat can aggravate the wound.”
He also strongly urges patients to avoid sun exposure, something Valentine emphasizes as well. “If you need to be in the sun while you’re healing, keep the tattoo covered,” she says. “And once you’re healed, you’ll want to apply sunblock to the area to keep the tattoo looking its best and to prevent its colors from fading, which, like any ink, they can if exposed to excessive amounts of sun.”
4. Before getting inked, consider how style and location will affect your healing time
As you prepare to get inked, there are a couple of factors to consider if you’re interested in a tattoo that will heal as quickly as possible. According to Katz, “if you get a tattoo in a place that experiences a lot of friction or often bends, like the inner or outer elbow and knee, that will delay the healing” because all of that action makes it harder for the open wound to close. The ditch—the inner knee and elbow—is an increasingly popular location for ink, says Valentine, but the area is composed of thin, sensitive skin which is prone to bruising and that additional trauma can even further prolong your recovery.
Valentine has also found that style can affect the amount of time it takes for a tattoo to heal. “Linework usually heals a lot faster than something fully colored because with full color there’s a lot more damage to the skin and more surface area that needs to heal.” When you get a full-color tattoo, your artist has to go over the same area of your skin with their needle multiple times, leading to a more severe wound which typically takes longer to completely recover, so if you’re hoping to be pool, sun, and scratch-ready in two weeks or less, you should be cognizant of the style you’re getting inked.