This Is How to Clean an Infected Tattoo

how to clean an infected tattoo
Credit: Sarah Harvey

As common as tattoos are, with one study showing one-fifth of all adults in the U.S. having at least one tattoo, infections are still uncommon. This is comforting news to anyone thinking about getting a tattoo but it does not mean you’re in the clear. Anytime you get a tattoo, you should ask about the shop’s cleaning processes and make sure your artist uses a new needle and fresh gloves; and no matter how seasoned you are, it’s crucial to the health and aesthetics of your tattoo that you follow aftercare instructions to the letter. If your artist isn’t telling you how to care for your tattoo, ask. Their job doesn’t end once the tattoo machine is turned off.

Now say you’ve made sure to get inked at a reputable and clean tattoo shop and are following aftercare instructions but something looks off. What do you do? Well, that depends.

Not sure if your tattoo is infected?

If you’re worried about an infection but aren’t experiencing any serious symptoms, such as fever, chills, swelling, or excretions from the area, we suggest calling or visiting the shop where you got the tattoo. You can also treat initial signs of an infection on your own, according to Dr. Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in the Mount Sinai Hospital dermatology department. Zeichner warns that if the skin is “red, warm, tender, or has any pus” it may be infected. If these are your only symptoms, he recommends cleansing the tattoo thoroughly with gentle soap and water, applying over-the-counter bacitracin ointment to the area, and keeping it dry and covered.

But not everyone is willing to treat a possible infection on their own. Experienced artists can quickly differentiate between the typical healing process and an infection. We went to the “Ask a Professional Tattoo Artist” Facebook group to see how artists responded to questions about infection and, not surprisingly, several members were worried their fresh tattoos were infected but, fortunately, nearly none of them were.

What really happens to the skin when you get a tattoo

It’s important to keep in mind that, by getting a tattoo, you are continuously puncturing your skin for several minutes or hours and injecting a foreign substance into your body. One artist in the Facebook group explained to a concerned member, “Your body is naturally going to try to fight it off because it is not used to having it in your skin. So slight redness and swelling around a tattoo for a few days is normal along with a little bruising due to trauma to the skin.” Additionally, a fresh tattoo will eventually scab or the top layer of skin will look dull or cloudy as it gets ready to peel. These are both normal parts of the healing process, similar to what would occur if you scraped your hand or knee on the sidewalk.

Another typical side effect is the area may be slightly swollen, warm to the touch, and tender for a day or so after the tattoo. Infections take more than two days to become symptomatic, so if these signs persist or get worse, it’s time to speak with the artist or a doctor. According to Prairie Koo, a tattoo artist at Ink & Water in Toronto, the most common sign of infection is a rash or red, bumpy skin surrounding the tattooed area. He instructs his clients to see a doctor if they experience a fever, chills, swelling, pus coming from the tattooed area, red lesions around the tattooed area, and areas of hard, raised tissue. Other symptoms might include: bone or muscle aches, impetigo, and diarrhea.

How to clean an infected tattoo

To avoid or treat mild infections, it’s as simple as washing the area daily using clean hands, a clean washcloth, and a gentle soap—something that is unscented and detergent-free. Zeichner notes you can also try a professional grade antiseptic cleanser that is available over-the-counter, such as Hibiclens, to treat the area. Keeping a tattoo dry, but moisturized is important in protecting a healing tattoo and infected area. Artists commonly recommend Aquaphor, which is thick like Vaseline but non-comedogenic, so it allows the area to breathe. However, if you suspect the area may be infected or want to add an extra layer of protection, Zeichner says applying an antibiotic ointment both “treats microorganisms and provides a protective layer over the skins.

The same cleansing and care process should continue unless a doctor recommends otherwise. If you’ve treated a potentially infected tattoo on your own but do not see any signs of improvement after two days of treatment, Zeichner says it’s time to see a dermatologist. Most common infections will require a few days or a week of antibiotics. But, depending on the infection strain or how long you go without treatment, you may be required to take antibiotics for several weeks or months.

When to see a pro about an infected tattoo

While an artist should be able to recognize an infection quickly and will instruct you to wait at least a day or two after getting the tattoo to make that assessment, you should see a doctor if you’re worried or unconvinced. Regardless of whether you’re treating at-home or have already seen a physician, if the infected area grows, you need to get professional treatment immediately.  A lag in treatment could lead to prolonged antibiotic treatment and can be as severe as a hospital stay or surgery if the infected tissue turns necrotic. Once you’re in the right headspace, it’s also critical to disclose your infection to the health department so they can survey the shop where you may have contracted it.

There is no doubt that this is scary, but it’s also the worst-case-scenario. The likelihood of contracting an infection is slim and avoiding one is, mostly, within your control. Visiting a clean, reputable, and health department-credentialed shop and following aftercare instructions without improvisation are your best options for avoiding and treating a looming infection–and, like your mother always said, don’t pick your scabs!

Not ready to go under the needle? Consider an Inkbox Tattoo, which looks like a permanent tattoo but only last for one to two weeks, fading naturally over that period of time. Just a heads up, Inside Out is powered by the folks at Inkbox. It’s all part of our shared mission to empower you to tell your unique story, be it for now or forever.

Related: Four Brilliant Ways to Heal a Tattoo Faster

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