Everything You Need to Know About the Healing Stages of Tattoos

As the healing process continues, the top layer of skin peels, flakes, scabs, and itches—similar to the response the body makes as it recovers from a sunburn. This is a normal, healthy recovery process. Avoid scratching, rubbing, picking at scabs, and physically removing peeling skin. Doing these things might only cause more injury and prolong the recovery period.

How Tattoos Heal

tattoo healing process

A tattoo may look healed within a few days. However, it’s important to stay consistent with aftercare: The healing process can actually take as long as 6 months.

We’ll go over the healing stages of a tattoo, what types of tattoos take longer to heal, and the best aftercare practices to keep it clean.

Tattoos go through stages that are a natural and important part of the healing process. The healing process can be divided into four distinct stages:

1. Oozing and redness

Your tattoo artist will bandage your tattoo. They’ll tell you when to take it off, anywhere from a few hours to a week.

Once you remove the bandage you may notice fluid coming from your tattoo, or that the surrounding skin is very red. It’s also normal to see ink coming out of the tattoo, sometimes called “weeping.”

This will likely last for a week or so, but if the redness and oozing doesn’t subside after a week, you’ll want to check in with your doctor.

2. Itching

It’s not uncommon for wounds to itch as they heal — and a tattoo is essentially a wound.

In the first and second week, your new tattoo will likely start to itch and flake. Resist the urge to scratch it. Applying gentle lotion should help. You can also put an ice pack over your clothes to numb the itch.

If it gets unbearable, ask your doctor about taking an over-the-counter antihistamine.

3. Peeling

In the second, third, and fourth weeks, your tattoo will probably begin to peel. This skin is sloughing off as the body’s natural response to what it perceives as injury.

The tattoo itself won’t flake off. It’s just a normal part of the process. In fact, it shows your tattoo is healing well.

4. Aftercare

After the first month, your tattoo will look vibrant and fully healed. It’s easy to remember aftercare in the first few weeks, but it’s essential to keep it up for several months. Doing so will help the tattoo stay clean and look its best.

The length of healing time depends on your tattoo’s location. For example, a tattoo near a joint (like the hand or ankle) or anywhere that flexes (like a wrist) will take longer than a place that doesn’t move much.

Larger tattoos and ones with intricate color work will also take longer to heal.

However, keep in mind the healing timeline also largely depends on each person’s body.

Practicing proper aftercare is essential in preventing infection in your tattoo and making sure it properly heals.

Keep your tattoo clean

Keeping your tattoo clean is essential to avoid infection. Use a fragrance-free, hypoallergenic soap to clean it. If you live in an area where the water is not safe to drink, wash your tattoo with distilled water instead, or boil your water first and let it cool. Let the tattoo fully dry before applying moisturizer.

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Moisturize

Your tattoo artist will likely give you a thick ointment to use in the first few days, but after that you can switch to a lighter, gentle drugstore moisturizer like Lubriderm or Eucerin. It will also help with the itching.

Some people even like to use pure coconut oil, which is an antimicrobial. Just be sure to avoid products that contain fragrance, which can irritate your healing skin.

Wear sunscreen

In the first few months after getting a tattoo, keep it covered with sunscreen or sun-protective clothing. Direct sunlight can cause your tattoo to fade, which can’t be reversed.

Don’t pick at scabs

Your tattoo will likely scab over and itch. Avoid the temptation to pick or scratch at the scabs. Scratching may change the look of the tattoo or cause scarring. You can apply moisturizer to help ease the itching.

If you notice your tattoo isn’t properly healing, see your doctor right away. Signs of improper healing include:

  • Fever or chills. If you have flu symptoms like fever and chills , it’s possible that your tattoo has become infected, or that you’re allergic to the ink. Instead of going back to your tattoo artist, see your doctor right away.
  • Redness. It’s normal for your tattoo to be red and maybe even slightly puffy in the days after you get it done. If the redness persists, it may be an early sign that something is wrong.
  • Oozing liquid. If fluid (especially green or yellowish in color) is oozing from your tattoo after a week, see your doctor.
  • Swollen, puffy skin. The actual tattoo may be slightly puffy at first, but this swelling should quickly stop. The skin surrounding the tattoo shouldn’t be inflamed. If puffiness persists, it could be a sign that you’re allergic to the ink.
  • Prolonged itching or hives. If you break out in hives in the days or weeks after getting a tattoo, see your doctor. Excessively itchy tattoos can also be a sign of an allergy. An allergic reaction to a tattoo does not always happen immediately . It can take months or even years after getting the tattoo.
  • Scarring. Your fresh tattoo is considered an open wound. Like all wounds, it will scab over as a natural healing response. A properly healed tattoo should not scar.

Every tattoo heals slightly differently depending on each person and where the tattoo is located. The healing process follows a four-stage healing timeline that includes oozing, itching, peeling, and continued aftercare.

It’s important to be consistent and strident about aftercare so your tattoo doesn’t get infected. If you see any signs that your tattoo isn’t properly healing, see your doctor as soon as possible.

Last medically reviewed on December 16, 2019

How we reviewed this article:

Healthline has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references. You can learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate and current by reading our editorial policy.

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    10.4103/0974-2077.155072
  • Tattoo aftercare instructions. (n.d.).
    city.milwaukee.gov/ImageLibrary/Groups/healthAuthors/CEH/PDFs/Tattoo_aftercare.pdf
  • Tattoos. (2017).
    youngwomenshealth.org/2013/08/12/tattoos/
  • Tattoos: 7 unexpected skin reactions and what to do about them. (n.d.).
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    girlshealth.gov/body/grooming/tattoo_pierce.html
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Everything You Need to Know About the Healing Stages of Tattoos

Elyse M. Love, MD Headshot

Rachel is a board-certified dermatologist and Assistant Clinical Professor at Mount Sinai Hospital Department of Dermatology. She has contributed to Byrdie, as well as Harpers Bazaar, Marie Claire, Allure, Vogue, and the New York Times, and more

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In This Article

Tattoo Healing Stages How Long Do Tattoos Take to Heal? Tattoo Healing and Aftercare Tips How to Know If Your Tattoo Isn’t Healing Properly The Final Takeaway Frequently Asked Questions

If you’re anything like me, pop culture has familiarized you with both the tattooing process and the final product, but not so much what happens in between. Naturally, questions about this in-between stage linger: How long does a tattoo take to heal? Is the healing process painful? And what are some signs that a tattoo isn’t healing properly? As a dermatologist, I can tell you that these are perfectly normal questions to have. So ahead, I sat down with my board-certified colleague Dr. Liza A. Moore and tattoo artist Adam Makharita to demystify the tattoo healing process.

Meet the Expert

  • Dr. Liza A. Moore is a board-certified dermatologist specializing in cosmetic dermatology. Her wide breadth of expertise includes injections, lasers, peels, PRP, and more.
  • Adam Makharita is a tattoo artist based in New York City where he specializes in graphic and realist designs.

Keep reading to learn about the healing stages of your fresh ink.

Tattoo Healing Stages

In our experience, a normal healing tattoo will go through three broad stages of healing.

Days 1 to 3: Inflammation

It is normal for a tattoo to be red, swollen, and tender for the first 48 to 72 hours. There may also be some oozing of blood and/or ink during this time period. Makharita notes that these symptoms should improve significantly each day. Prolonged symptoms should be evaluated by your tattoo artist and/or a physician.

Days: 4 to 14: Visible Recovery

As the healing process continues, the top layer of skin peels, flakes, scabs, and itches—similar to the response the body makes as it recovers from a sunburn. This is a normal, healthy recovery process. Avoid scratching, rubbing, picking at scabs, and physically removing peeling skin. Doing these things might only cause more injury and prolong the recovery period.

Days 14 to 30: Invisible Recovery

The visible signs noted above have typically resolved by the third week post-procedure, in our experience, however, the tattoo will may remain dull and dark appearing until approximately one month after the tattooing procedure. At the one-month mark, the tattoo may have taken on its permanent vibrant color. Remodeling of the skin underneath the tattoo will continue for three to six months when tattoos are fully healed.

How Long Do Tattoos Take to Heal?

In general, it takes approximately one month from the time of tattooing for a tattoo to take on its permanent form in a young, healthy individual, though as mentioned above, tattoos are considered fully healed around 3 months. However, there are some factors that can influence healing time. For one, tattoos with more saturated color areas may take slightly longer to heal. Makharita explains that saturated pigment requires more needle pricks to deposit ink than finer tattoos. This may create a larger inflammatory response, potentially requiring a longer recovery phase.

Tattoo Healing and Aftercare Tips

Both experts have slightly different post-care instructions, but the core of their routine is the same: The body is capable of healing the wound as long as we don’t get in its way. Makharita emphasizes that improvement should occur daily, and that lack of daily improvement may be a sign of delayed wound healing or infection.

  1. Use a breathable bandage the first week: Since tattoos create an opening in the skin that allows bacteria entry, Moore recommends covering the tattoo with an adherent, breathable bandage, such as Derm Shield ($35) for the first week. These bandages are meant to protect the wound from infection while allowing it to breathe. She recommends washing the skin with a gentle soap and water and reapplying the bandage daily for the first week. After the first week, the bandage can be removed. However, it’s important to continue to apply a healing ointment on the tattoo until all signs of healing have resolved.
  2. Cleanse with antibacterial soap: Makharita applies a breathable bandage immediately after tattooing and prefers for clients to leave this initial dressing on for three days. After removing the breathable bandage, Makharita recommends cleansing with antibacterial soap twice a day.
  3. Break out the healing ointment: After the breathable bandage comes off and you’ve cleansed with antibacterial soap twice daily for about three days, Makharita recommends slathering the area with Aquaphor Healing Ointment ($10) daily. After the first week of doing this, he recommends clients then transition to daily cleansings and application of a gentle, fragrance-free lotion, such as Eucerin Advanced Repair Lotion ($10).
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How to Know If Your Tattoo Isn’t Healing Properly

There are a few tell-tale signs that your tattoo isn’t healing properly. Namely, if you’re experiencing any redness, puffiness, or itching beyond a few days, consult with your physician. Also, if you notice any fluid or pus oozing from the tattoo, this may be a sign of infection.

The Final Takeaway

The tattoo healing process is fairly straightforward. Swelling, pain, and oozing typically resolve by day three and are followed by itching and peeling for another week, in our experts’ experience. Your tattoo may even look darker and duller than expected for the first month. Follow the proper course of care from your dermatologist and/or tattoo artist, as proper care may help protect you from infection and create a better tattoo result.

Should I cover my new tattoo at night?

The first night with your fresh ink, you might want to wrap the area in plastic. (But consult with your tattoo artist for their advice on the matter.) After that, you want to make sure the tattoo is getting as much air as possible, free of coverage.

Can I wear clothes over a new tattoo?

You can definitely wear clothes over your new tattoo (depending on where you’ve been inked, you might have to). Just make sure to opt for loose, natural fabrics like cotton, and avoid tight clothing that could rub against the tattoo.

When can I touch my tattoo?

Be sure to ask your tattoo artist for their specific instructions, but in general, your tattoo should stay under the initial bandages for a least a few hours. During the healing process, you should try to only touch your tattoo when cleaning it—and when cleaning it, make sure you’ve washed up first. “The most important step would be to clean your hands before you clean your tattoos,” says tattoo artist Tuki Carter. “[I recommend that] you listen to the verbal directions [from your tattooer] first, then refer to the written directions after.”

Article Sources

Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.

  1. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Tattoos: 7 unexpected skin reactions and what to do about them.
  2. Cleveland Clinic. What to expect when you get a tattoo. Updated October 2, 2020.
  3. Müller CS, Oertel A, Körner R, Pföhler C, Vogt T. Socio-epidemiologic aspects and cutaneous side effects of permanent tattoos in Germany – tattoos are not restricted to a specific social phenotype. Dermatoendocrinol. 2016;9(1):e1267080. doi:10.1080/19381980.2016.1267080