You probably shouldn’t have bought that tattoo gun with your paycheck, but now that you did, you might be wondering how to take care of that upside-down, eyeballed rendition of your cat that you did after one-too-many White Claws. Maybe you spent all night stick-n-poking yourself, only to end up with faded lines and poorly shaded blobs that you’ll need to touch up at some point. Or, perhaps you’re looking to get a little professional work done so that you can proudly rock some lower-back ink during the 2022 summer of love, now that tramp stamps are back. Wherever you are in your body art journey, we get it.
But no matter what kind of tattoo you get—and no matter how professional the work is—poor tattoo aftercare can totally wreck a new piece, which can mean fading, scarring, and infection.
A gnarly-looking tattoo (that’s “gnarly” in a bad way) is the last thing you want to show off on the beach, at the bar, or in the bedroom, so do yourself a favor and practice some proper tattoo aftercare. To help you not ruin your new ink this summer, we called on artists Ghinko and JK Kim and picked their brains about the hardcore do’s and don’ts of taking care of tattoos. Here are their answers to some of the most common post-session questions on how to take care of a tattoo.
What's the most important thing I can do to protect my new tat?
JK Kim is a 32-year-old, Korean-American tattoo artist who works (for the most part) at Atelier Eva in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and actually has her own tattoo aftercare line in the works. Kim always stresses the importance of long-term care to her clients. “A lot of the time you'll get instructions from your artist on how to properly heal the tattoo, but sometimes they don't mention the work you need to do afterward,” she explained. Her biggest piece of advice for summertime tattoo aftercare? Sunscreen.
“The sun is harmful in general if you're baking your skin, and even more so if it's beaming down on your fresh ink. Sunscreen should be applied before going out, and then reapplied every hour or so depending on the SPF.”
“Sunscreen and hydrate,” she said. “Just as you take care of your face so that the skin remains youthful, you have to do the same with the skin that holds your tattoos!” For long-term care, she explained, you should always use sunscreen on the tattoos to prevent fading.
Are there activities I should avoid after getting a new piece?
We wanted to know the care procedure for places that we could be—say it out loud, it feels so good—FREQUENTING during this blessed 2022 summer, including the pool, the beach, the lake, and (for some) tanning beds.
The general consensus was that basically, none of those settings are good for tattoos.
“All the above are things you stay AWAY from for the short-term care of a fresh tattoo,” Ghinko said. “If your tattoo is fresh, you should avoid long-term sun exposure for the first month. When a fresh tattoo is exposed to a pool or lake or tanning beds, you can cause irritation and infections.”
Cleaning a fresh tattoo with soap and water on a daily basis is a must, she said, and you can expose your tattoo to various bodies of water only after the tattoo has fully finished peeling. (The time between the tattoo session and when it starts to peel varies, and largely depends on the person and the style of the tattoo.) And tanning is generally a no-no until your tattoo is totally healed. “It's especially important to be careful if you plan on tanning this summer at the beach or at a salon,” Kim said.
Both artists recommend slathering on some specialized balm or lotion after a session—including products from Hustle Butter and Mad Rabbit—and then following up with a month-long regimen of neutral body lotion.
“Hustle Butter for the first week, Aveeno body lotion for the following month!” Ghinko said.
But go easy on the globbing, the pair suggested. You should only be using a small amount of lotion or ointment—just enough to make the tattoo shine. “One big mistake I see with tattoo aftercare is over-saturating the new piece with too much product,” Kim explained. “Too much product will gunk up your pores and can cause your skin to ooze or peel faster than it should. Make sure your hands are always clean before you touch your tattoo!”
“TOTALLY. YES,” Ghinko agreed. “People tend to glop on A&D, Aquaphor, or healing creams, but you’re actually supposed to apply a thin layer every time, so that your skin can also breathe.”
What if my new tattoo gets itchy?
“Scratching your new tattoo can be harmful because your nails carry a lot of surface bacteria and can introduce it into your tattoo. You would also risk fading if you pick or scratch the scabbing skin off before it's ready to come off on its own,” Kim explained. “If you're worried you'll unintentionally scratch at your tattoo while you're asleep, it's best to wear loose, long sleeves to have somewhat of a barrier.”
Ghinko, on the other hand (or sleeve?), offered a different solution: Give it a whack. “For larger tattoos, it tends to get super itchy during the peeling phase. If the urge to itch occurs, I always tell clients to slap it instead.”
She also left us with some parting tips. “Don’t drink heavily before or after a tattoo. Don’t over-moisturize. Treat a new tattoo like fresh stitches: take it easy.”
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