The biggest difference between a hand poke tattoo and machine tattoo is right in the name—one method involves poking ink into the skin manually while the other involves maneuvering a machine that does the poking for you. Hand poke tattoos, which are also commonly called stick and pokes, have been steadily rising in popularity over the past few years because they’re so accessible—many self-taught tattoo artists start their careers as hand pokers. And naturally, as the percentage of professional stick and poke artists increases, so does the percentage of clients getting this kind of tattoo.
There are tons of reasons people love hand poke tattoos aside from their accessibility, too. For some folks, hand pokes feel more authentic (hand poking is, after all, the original method of tattooing). Others love the fact that this manual tattooing method is known to be gentler on the skin. Some people even say that stick and poke tattoos are less painful than machine tattoos. Whatever your reason though, once you’ve gotten a hand poke tattoo, you’ll need to take care of it to ensure it heals properly.
Stick and poke aftercare is pretty much the same as aftercare for any other tattoos. To determine your ideal aftercare routine, you should always check in with your tattoo artist and follow their specific advice. Still, there are some basic rules to follow to make sure your hand poked tattoo stays fresh for a long time. Here, Texas-based hand poker Anna Wexler, walks us through her top four aftercare tips.
1. Keep it clean using a gentle, unscented soap
One of the benefits of getting a hand poke tattoo is a gentler procedure—typically a hand poker’s needle doesn’t go quite as deep into the skin as a that of a machine. But regardless of the kind of tattoo you get, the needle still creates a wound that needs to be protected from harmful bacteria while you heal. As a result, the most important step of your stick and poke aftercare routine is cleansing.
Keeping your new tattoo clean enables you to heal faster and avoid infection. You shouldn’t wash your tattoo with just anything though. Rather, to minimize the chance of irritation, most artists will recommend using a mild, unscented soap like Dove Beauty Bar or Dr. Bronner’s Liquid Soap (both of which are in our list of the best soaps for new tattoos, according to experts). While you’re cleansing, also remember not to scrub the tattoo to avoid pulling out any ink. And when you’re done, pat it dry with a paper towel, not a cloth towel which, even when clean, can harbor tons of germs.
2. Moisturizer is your friend—but don’t overdo it
While you’re healing, it’s perfectly normal for your tattoo to peel a bit. But if you’re looking to heal as fast as possible, you’ll want to keep that peeling to a minimum. How? Using a mild moisturizer can help. Like soap, you’ll want to choose an unscented, non-comedogenic—which means that it won’t block your pores, so your newly tattooed skin can breathe—moisturizer or balm for your tattoo.
Aquaphor ($14; amazon.com) is a favorite among both dermatologists and tattooers precisely because it allows oxygen flow to the freshly inked skin, which is necessary for healing. Thicker creams—which you should avoid—on the other hand, create a barrier between your skin and the outside world which actually traps bacteria and puts you at higher risk for infection. Regardless of the moisturizer you use for your tattoo, you’ll want to make sure you’re not over moisturizing—twice a day should suffice—and that you’re only applying a thin layer of the product to your new ink.
3. Consult your artist if you want an all-natural stick and poke aftercare routine
If you only use all-natural products on your skin, Aquaphor and Dove aren’t going to be the right fit for you and your tattoo. Rather than choosing an all-natural aftercare product lineup for yourself though, consult your tattoo artist for alternate options. Remember, your artist knows best, and unless you’re a tattoo expert, you should always heed their advice.
Even products that seem safe, like coconut oil, a natural multi-use toiletry—it can be used as shaving cream, a hair or face mask, toothpaste, and even moisturizer—that has purported antibacterial qualities, won’t work on a tattoo. Unfortunately coco-oil, like the thick creams we’ve already warned you to avoid, doesn’t allow your skin breathe. Wexler learned this the hard way after trying the product on her own tattoo. “I was putting coconut oil on for a week and it ended up getting really infected,” she says. “I did more research after the fact and what I found out was coconut oil certainly has those antibacterial qualities, but it’s still an oil and my skin couldn’t breathe.”
4. Keep it up even after your tattoo is fully healed
Tattoos require long-term TLC to keep them looking their best. They’re also an investment—sometimes a pretty expensive one—so taking good care of them is a no-brainer. With that in mind, your stick and poke aftercare routine should continue even after your tattoo is fully healed. As soon as your piece healed, you should also start applying SPF whenever it will be exposed to the sun. If possible, you should actually try to keep it out of direct sunlight altogether to prevent the tattoo from fading. Following these steps consistently will enable your hand poke to look as fresh as possible for as long as possible.
If you liked our story 4 Expert Tips for Stick and Poke Aftercare, be sure to check out How Long Do Stick and Poke Tattoos Last?