How to heal tattoos for best results

Photo and tattoo credit: Fawn Baker

Most people think getting a big tattoo is the hard part. “Did it hurt?” they ask, cringing – kind of like how tattooed people cringe every time we get asked this question.

But sitting for a big tattoo is only half the battle. You also have to suffer through healing it and make sure you don’t do anything to mess up the beautiful art that is now settling into your skin.

Heal your tattoo correctly, and you’re set for a lifetime of admiring (and being admired for!) your gorgeous living artwork.

Make one wrong move like over-moisturizing, picking or scratching, and you may be in for a lifetime of regrets and “if only’s.” Ink is for life so best get it right, sucka!

Have no fear though, the Tattoo Doula is here with some cooling tips and soothing advice – think of it as lotion for your hella sore, traumatized and decorated skin.

Are you ready? Let the healing begin.

But first, a disclaimer: please don’t mistake any of this for actual medical advice. Consult your physician and tattoo artist if anything seems amiss. This is merely helpful wisdom based on my 25 years and countless hours of getting and healing tattoos. Your mileage may vary.

Pre-tattoo day

Yes, that’s right, proper tattoo care begins even before you sit your butt in the chair. Rule number one: hydrate! Drink more water than you usually do. Water helps your cells do their thing, including healing. Drink lots of fresh water before, during and after your tattoo. Moisturize your skin a few days ahead of your appointment so it’s supple and healthy, making for a nice canvas to tattoo on. “It rubs the lotion on its skin…” (who can name that movie?!)

Also, lay off the alcohol in the days leading up to your tattoo and on the tattoo day. Alcohol in your blood will cause you to bleed more and your tattoo artist will know right away that you’re a lush. Also, get a good meal the night before your big tattoo – my artist Fawn Baker recommended that I carbo-load like before a marathon. As if I ever need any excuse to load up on carbs! Last but not least, get a good night’s sleep before that big tattoo session. You won’t be physically comfortable again for a while.

Tattoo day

On the day you’re getting a big tattoo, wake well-rested and hydrated. Have a good, protein-heavy breakfast. Drink lots more water. Wear comfy clothes. Avoid alcohol. Get yourself in a positive frame of mind in whatever way works best for you: meditate, stretch, journal, hold crystals and set your intentions for the tattoo sitting, do some relaxing breathing, or pet your dog or cat.

During your tattoo sitting, try to relax as much as you can. After my last marathon tattoo session (7 hours, which happens to be my personal record), my entire body was achey and I could tell I had been tensing up for many of those hours. Fawn had suggested that I do some stretching around the mid-point, but I declined. You’d better believe that next time I’ll take her up on it! Stretching during breaks is a great thing to do to avoid body soreness or stiffness afterward.

Healing days 1-14

Follow your tattoo artist’s after-care recommendations; they know best. However, if you go in already heavily tattooed, they may not give you after-care instructions because they may assume you already know what you’re doing. That’s why I’m sharing these tips here – because sometimes, even if you have a lot of tattoos, it’s been years since you’ve gotten a new tattoo and you forget how to care for them afterward!

I’ve slightly modified the after-care instructions from the RedTree Tattoo website, which is where I get tattooed these days (and they are all rockstars who have been tattooing and collecting a LONG time):

  • Remove bandage after 2- 5 hours (or next morning if you get home late from your tattoo appointment)
  • Always wash your hands before touching your new tattoo
  • Wash tattoo 2-3 times daily with AntiBacterial Dial or another gentle soap (I like Cetaphil). On that FIRST wash of your brand new tattoo, be sure to gently wash away any clear/yellow ooze (plasma) because that can turn into thick scabs if not removed (BUT DON’T PICK OR SCRAPE IT OFF!)
  • Rinse new tattoo with water & pat dry with clean towel (do not rub!)
  • Allow 20-30 minutes to air dry before applying lotion
  • Apply a thin layer of NON-scented Curel or Lubriderm
  • Clean and lotion new tattoo 3-5 times daily for 2 weeks
  • Do NOT pick at scabs if present
  • Wear clean, loose clothing – should be natural fabrics like cotton ideally
  • Do NOT soak in water, pool or hot tub. Keep out of sun!
  • Always apply SPF 30 to 50 if you are in prolonged sunlight

Healing days 15-21

After two weeks, your tattoo is likely mostly healed on the surface – but it is still continuing to heal beneath your skin. It likely won’t hurt anymore, but it may still itch – in fact, my most recent tattoo didn’t start itching until the two-week mark and then itched like crazy for two full weeks.

It’s still critical to NOT scratch your tattoo at this stage, but if the itching is making you crazy, over-the-counter Zyrtec may help. In addition, keep up with lotioning your tattoo morning and night, although you no longer have to wash it first. And, I’d still avoid soaking in pools, hot tubs or beaches for a full month from the day you got tattooed.

Forever after-care

Show that tattoo off but keep it protected from sun for the rest of your life – that means covering up with clothing and wearing SPF 30 to 50 always, anytime you’re going to be out in the sun. No exceptions! Sun is the biggest killer of tattoos.

Also, tattoos of any age always look best when hydrated and moisturized. I really like Mad Rabbit tattoo balm on healed tattoos – it brings them right back to life and shows off the color beautifully.

So, there you have it. When it comes to collecting large tattoos, it’s not as simple as just sitting in the chair and holding still! But if you follow this after-care advice, you’re sure to be happy with your skin art for life.

Got any other great post-tattoo tips? I’d love to hear them in the comments below or over on Instagram as TattooDoula.

About the author

Proud and loving mama. Lucky and devoted wife. Dog, cat and snake mom. Travel nut. Writer since birth. PR and social media pro by day - tattoo doula by night.

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