What to expect:

Tattooing is accomplished by injecting colored pigment into small deep holes made in the skin. Depending on the size of your tattoo, you can expect certain stages of healing.

Day1: You Just Got Your Tattoo:

diagram of ink disbursal in skin layers When your tattoo is complete, and you've admired it sufficiently, the artist will wrap your tattoo in plastic wrap, and tape it securely onto you. This keeps any foreign particles from infecting your tattoo, and traps moisture in. You will want to remove this bandage after about 4-12 hours (depending on the method) and wash the tattoo with warm water and antibacterial soap. You will find during this time that your tattoo is probably red, and even raised. Not to worry, this is your body's natural healing process, cells are rushing to the tattoo site to aid in reconstructing the damaged tissue, and while uncomfortable, no cause for concern. This swelling may last anywhere from 24-48 hours and may be accompanied by some bruising, depending on the location and size of the tattoo.

What's Going On?
Initially ink is taken up by skin cells known as keratinocytes, and phagocytic cells (including fibroblasts, macrophages and mast cells). At one month the basement membrane of the epidermis (epidermal-dermal junction) is reforming and the basal cells contain ink. In the dermis, ink containing phagocytic cells are concentrated along the epidermal-dermal junction below a layer of granulation tissue that is surrounded by collagen. Ink is still being eliminated through the epidermis with ink present in keratinocytes, macrophages and fibroblasts.
At two to three months the basement membrane of the epidermis is fully reformed, preventing any further loss of ink through the epidermis. Ink is now present in dermal fibroblasts. Most of these ink containing fibroblasts are located beneath a layer of fibrous tissue which has replaced the granulation tissue. A network of connective tissue surrounds and effectively traps these fibroblasts. It is assumed that these fibroblasts are the cells that give tattoos their lifespan.

Methods of Aftercare:

Darkside Tattoo has outlined two methods of healing tattoos. The first is the more common method, although I personally prefer the second and have achieved remarkable results with it, it's really a matter of trial and error to see how your body responds to both methods. It is important to remember that these are separate and distinct methods of aftercare and should NOT be used together!

Method I:

Healing Method 1 This method is especially useful for smaller tattoos, and for clients who have had good results with it in the past. Remove the tattoo bandage after at least four hours. It is very important that your new tattoo be protected from the sun and dirty environments, as it is a rather large open wound at this time. You should wait to remove the bandage until you can properly clean it with mild soap and warm water. Rinse it well, and pat it dry, then allow it to air-dry before applying ointment.

Apply ointment, either A&D or Bacitracin, regularly throughout the day, keeping the tattoo slightly moist, but NOT smothered. Use just enough ointment to make the tattoo slightly shiny, and blot off any excess. For the first day or two, the tattoo will require more cleaning, as it will lose fluid at first--this is normal. Make sure that moisture doesn't get trapped under the ointment (hence the air-drying), and that the tattoo doesn't stay submerged in water either. Washing your tattoo a couple times throughout the day, using only mild soap, and rinsing and drying well is also recommended. Frequency of cleaning depends lifestyle--use your best judgment, but don't overdo it.

Apply ointment for as many days as it takes for the tattoo to peel, this process will take anywhere from three days to 1 week, depending on the individual and the area of skin. It will begin to flake like sunburn--just let this happen on it's own, avoid picking or scratching. When the tattoo has fully entered the peeling phase, do not apply any more ointment. The area will become dry and itchy, and a good hand lotion should help with this.

Here's what to should look out for with this method. Should any "bubbling" of the tattoo occur, you should consider method 2. This bubbling is caused from moisture (usually too much ointment!) getting trapped in your tattoo, and could lead to scabbing. If scabs develop, they can remove the color beneath them. It is very important that they are allowed to dry out completely, and not at any time get water-logged. The scab will eventually fall off on its own, and the tattoo should be fine if the keep the scabs dry. Also, some people develop a small allergic reaction to Bacitracin, which shows up as a red rash around the tattoo, and disappears once the ointment is no longer used. A small percentage of people may develop a more serious reaction, and may require medical attention, so we suggest the use of A&D, unless you've not had problems with Bacitracin in the past.

Method II:

This method is less conventional method, and tends to work well for larger tattoos, as well as tattoos in areas that will be covered with clothing, as this can cause irritation. This method is also useful for those who have had problems in the past with the above mentioned method. Remove the bandage, as in method 1, but use NO ointment, just plastic wrap. After washing, rinsing, and thoroughly drying, completely cover the tattoo in plastic wrap (but not too much surrounding area and tape it securely in place.

With this method, keep the tattoo completely covered with plastic wrap 24 hrs a day, for as long as it takes to peel--usually 3 to 5 days. You will want to clean your tattoo 3 to 4 times a day (every 4 to 6 hours), and change the plastic wrap each time. We suggest the use of medical tape to hold the plastic wrap in place, as you don't want to over-wrap the area, causing you to sweat more than normal.

This method, like method 1, has its precautions. As mentioned before, moisture can be very detrimental to the healing process, and too much plastic wrap--or not changing the wrap enough--can lead to development of a moisture rash. This will appear as bright red irritation and lots of tiny pimples around the effected area, and will also be very painful. Should this happen, do not re-wrap the tattoo--instead let it dry out and flake off on its own. In the first few days of this method the tattoo will lose a bit more fluid than normal, and changing the wrap more regularly may be necessary. Because no healing agent/antibiotic ointment is used, be sure to keep the area clean.

What to Avoid:

It should be strongly reiterated that a new tattoo is an open wound, and needs to be treated as one. Engaging in actions such as swimming, tanning, removing the bandage early, and general disregard for it, is just asking for trouble. It is surprising just how easily it can get infected or scab up and lose color. Give the tattoo the time and attention it needs to properly heal. It's going to be on you for the rest of your life, and it only takes a week or two of your attention to ensure it looks good forever!

ink disbursal over months

Additionally, if you wish to keep your tattoo looking as bright and vibrant as possible, avoiding the sun is necessary. Tattoos do not naturally change colors, but excessive exposure to sun makes this all but unavoidable. A sunblock of at least SPF 30 (I always use 45) should be applied religiously to any tattoo you wish to preserve. Ideally, the tattoo should be covered from the sun completely, but that is not always possible, but be aware that sun damages the tattoo, and the more sun, the more damage.

Why Does the Sun Damage Tattoos?
Sun exposure equals sun damage, whether you realize it or not. Langerhans cells, a type of dendritic cell, are present throughout the epidermis, but mostly located in the stratum spinosum. During sun exposure, many Langerhans cells will undergo apoptosis (a type of cell death where the cell breaks apart into many small fragments) while others migrate into the dermis and a minor inflammatory reaction occurs. The inflammatory reaction is not restricted to the epidermis, but also involves the dermis. Such a reaction causes the recruitment of more phagocytic immune cells to the area.

With the presence of larger than normal amounts of migrating phagocytic cells, the chances of ink movement increases, thus accelerating the fading of the tattoo.