If you are considering getting a tattoo, there’s a lot of important factors that come into play. You will need to choose an artist, a shop, a design. But you may also want to consider timing.
Many of us consider tattoos to mark important life events or rites of passage, and when we do that, we need to figure in that the tattoo we get today may not be ready for the world to see for quite a while. It has to heal, and the experts say to expect that to take a period of weeks.
The term tattooing is derived from “tattau,” a Tahitian word which translates essentially as “to mark.”
“Tattoos consist of thousands of large particles of pigment suspended in the skin,” explains Dr. Ryan Neinstein of Neinstein Plastic Surgery.
Similar to surgical procedures, it takes about two weeks for the body to heal, says Neinstein. “Initially, there is an inflammatory phase where you will see redness, swelling, and tenderness as the body brings in chemical mediators and extra blood vessels to assist in the healing,” he adds.
There’s also a few different stages that the body will go thru during that healing process, and all are normal and to be expected. Of course, you need to know what to expect. Your tattoo artist will probably give you guidelines and warn you about the steps, and it’s important to pay attention.
“There may be scabbing and flaking as the body prunes these extra things it brought in to help heal. It’s important to follow the directions to prevent any complications, such as infection and pigment changes that were not intended,” says Neinstein.
The healing process will have different stages, which may start with oozing and soreness, then go into itching and flaking, and in the final stage, look sort of dull and cloudy as the layers of skin continue to repair. But this is the last stage—promise.
Of course, you’ll have to do your part as well, and keep the area clean and away from bacteria during the healing process. Your artist will probably wrap the tattoo as soon as the work is done, and different artists have their own approach to wrapping but generally it’ll need to stay wrapped and dry for about a day. When you are allowed to start washing it again, it’s best to use warm (not too hot or too cold) water and fragrance-free antibacterial soap.
Mat ValDeez, a tattoo artist, agrees with that timeline. “Depending on the skin type and the amount of detail the tattoo has, an average tattoo could take anywhere from two to four weeks to be fully healed,”he says. You will know that your tattoo is fully healed as soon as the flaking and peeling have subsided. “Following the aftercare procedures your tattoo artist gives you is crucial,” ValDeez adds.
Of course, complications do happen. If you think at any point your tattoo is not healing properly or has gotten infected, be sure to contact your artist, or your doctor, immediately to see next steps about what to do and how to proceed. You may need to be put on antibiotics to avoid any further problems. But if you take care of your tattoo and follow all aftercare guidelines, these scenarios are more unlikely to occur. It’s always best to be prepared, though.