One of the biggest decisions in getting a tattoo is settling on a design and the right artist to bring your vision to reality. But the time you spend in the tattoo parlor is just a small part of the entire process. Once you leave the shop with your new tattoo, it’s important to turn your focus to the tattoo healing phase.
So, how long does it take a tattoo to heal? As you might expect, the answer is ‘it depends.’ Depending on how the inking process went and where your tattoo is located, it can take anywhere from four weeks to a couple of months for it to fully heal. Before we get into the nitty-gritty of how you can speed up this healing process, let's first take a look at the various stages of it:
1. Week 1: open wound
Immediately after the tattooist is done with the art piece, your body begins the process of healing. Though it might not look like it, your tattoo is actually an open wound on your skin. Your body begins to repair the damage right there and then.
In this stage, your body mobilizes its first responders to injury, and you might notice a slight stinging or burning sensation resulting from inflammation at the site of the tattoo. That sensation, which lasts a week, on average, is your body working hard to patch things up and prevent infection. It’s therefore recommended that you treat your fresh tattoo as an open wound. By doing this, you can avoid infections and other complications that can occur when you leave an open wound unattended.
Your tattoo artist will go over the things you need to do to keep your new tattoo clean, and it can feel overwhelming at first. Add to this some stinging pain, and it’s not hard to see how your stress levels might increase a bit during this time. A good tattooist can recommend some ways to alleviate this stress so that your skin can heal properly.
2. Week 2: itching and peeling
In the second week of the tattoo healing stages, the inflammation around your tattoo will subside a little. As you might have experienced with other healing wounds, an itching feeling — which replaces the burning and stinging sensation from stage one — is normal during this part of the healing process.
A new top layer of skin has formed over the tattoo, which means the old skin will form scabs and flake off. The dryness is what causes you to feel the itchy sensation on and around the wound — the tattooed area. The incessant itching might make you wonder, “How long do tattoos take to heal?”
In such a situation, try to resist the urge to scratch the skin or peel off the flakes. Your tattooist can likely recommend some lotion to keep your skin moisturized, which can reduce the itchy feeling.
3. Weeks 3 and 4: drying out
When the topical healing is done, you will stop feeling itchy at the site of the tattoo. At this point, the skin dries out. In many instances, there’s a layer of dry skin that covers the tattoo after the scabs fall off. While this often causes the tattoo to appear slightly duller in color, it will naturally slough off to reveal the vibrant piece of art you went in to get.
4. Weeks 5 and 6: completely healed
This is the last part in the four stages of tattoo healing. You’ll know you’re in this phase — and that your tattoo is fully healed — because all the dry skin and scabs have sloughed off to reveal new, smooth skin with a vibrant tattoo and you no longer feel the burning and itchiness because the body has repaired itself. Nevertheless, it’s advisable to continue with your aftercare to ensure the skin regains its full integrity.
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Failing to follow the proper aftercare steps can slow down the healing process for your tattoo. For this reason, it’s important to pay attention to the recommendations that your tattooist gives you regarding aftercare, which will help prevent complications and speed up the time it takes for the tattooed skin to heal.
After the tattoo artist is done, he or she will cover your tattoo will a thin layer of ointment and plastic wrap. They’ll give you aftercare instructions and from there it’s up to you.
Here are a few ways to help reduce the healing time for your new tattoo:
- Wash your hands before removing the plastic wrap
- Clean the area with lukewarm water
- Use gentle, unscented soap
- Use a mild moisturizer to keep skin from drying out (your tattoo artist might be able to recommend one)
- Stay out of bathtubs or pools to avoid the tatted skin steeping in dirty water
- Do not expose the tattooed area to the sun
- Do not scratch or peel at the scabs and flakes of skin during the healing process
- Keep hydrated for optimal skin health and regeneration
By following these aftercare tips, you can sleep well knowing that your work of art is healing nicely and will soon be ready for you to show off.
While most tattoos heal normally, without complications, it’s important to remember that a tattoo starts off as an open wound and can therefore get infected. Preventing infection starts from the moment you sit down to get the tattoo.
Ensure that your tattooist uses sterilized equipment and new needles, as used needles can spread blood-borne diseases like HIV, tetanus, and hepatitis. Once the tattoo is complete, take care to wash your hands before you touch it and follow the proper aftercare procedures.
If you think your new tattoo might be infected, you should see a doctor so it can be treated and to prevent further complications. Some of the signs and symptoms of tattoo infection include:
- Redness and swelling after the first week
- Foul odor
The tattoo healing process can feel long, but it can mean the difference between ending up with a smooth, vibrant piece of art or being disappointed with the result. Remember that your tattoo artist has done these hundreds — perhaps even thousands — of times before, and they make aftercare recommendations for a reason. Once your tattoo is healed, you’ll be glad you followed them.