After months of hard deliberation, you've decided to tattoo some dainty on your wrist or a few meaningful words on your ribs. Once you're inked, your artist will likely tell you to clean it with a mild soap (like Dial) and keep it moisturized with something simple (like Aquaphor) for the first few weeks. And while these products get the job done, they're not all that exciting or sophisticated in their formulations. Slowly but surely, tattoo aftercare is becoming its own skin-care category, with brands like Mad Rabbit, Hustle Butter, and Billy Jealousy creating products designed to help those stars heal and keep them looking shiny and fresh as time goes on.
"If you're a tattooed person, what you're putting on your skin every day is extremely important," says Oliver Zak, co-founder of Mad Rabbit, a skin-care line that specializes in tattoo care. "That starts with tattoo pre-care, so going in with moisturized and healthy skin, and tattoo aftercare, which is essentially wound treatment for the first two weeks. Then, there's what I call 'tattoo skin care,' which is those two weeks and beyond—we want to provide everything in your routine that you need to rest assured that your tattoos will be best taken care of."
This is especially important as tattoos become more common. According to a report from data research firm Ipsos, 21 percent of Americans had tattoos in 2012. Now, that number is up to almost 35 percent, according to a Rasmussen survey from earlier this year—and the numbers are even higher amongst the under-40 set, nearly half of whom have at least one tattoo. Tattoos have "shifted from this kind of fringe grungy culture to being an accepted freedom of expression," says Zak.
The basics of tattoo aftercare
When a tattoo is fresh, it must be treated like a wound. If you under-moisturize it, it can be dry, itchy, and quick to fade; and if you over-moisturize, it will be unable to properly heal and may potentially scar.
"Tattooing is a traumatic process," says Brennal Pierre, PhD, co-founder of Ephemeral Tattoo, a company that specializes in made-to-fade tattoos. "You're using a needle. The needle is piercing your skin thousands of times. It's breaking apart your skin and it's destroying your skin. And essentially, you would want your skin to go back to where it was. We all know you should have a wound. You don't take care of that wound, what happens? Lots of things can happen. You can get infected, you can end up with scarring. You can end up with hyperpigmentation, all these different types of things."
The key is striking a delicate balance—something the products that have traditionally been used in tattoo care have failed to do. It's easy to overdo it with petroleum jelly-based emollients like Vaseline or Aquaphor, as they go on thick. Plus, "petroleum-based ointments can cause the wound to scab quickly and disrupt the design," says Amy Gordinier, founder and CEO of skin-care brand Skinfix. And panthenol, one of the seven ingredients in Aquaphor, was linked to contact dermatitis in fresh tattoos, a condition that can also be caused by the use of scented lotions.
Simply put, using products specifically for new tattoos makes aftercare a whole lot easier.
How to keep your tattoo looking fresh
Once you're past the early stages of healing (which can take up to six months), it's all about proper maintenance. The products you typically use for body care might not be the best for your new ink. You want to avoid ingredients that will make your tattoo fade.
"An example I come back to time and time again is vitamin E," says Zak. "It's incredible for non-tattooed people because it's a vitamin that targets impurities in your skin and eliminates them. Unfortunately, if you are a tattooed person, ink is technically an impurity in your skin. If you're using that every single day, over time, you're actually working against the appearance of your tattoo. So that's where formulating intentionally across an entire skin-care line and routine is extremely important." He adds that body washes that strip the skin can also lead to premature fading. You also want to avoid ingredients that increase cell turnover, like retinoids or exfoliants like alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids).
Keeping a tattoo moisturized also keeps the ink looking crisp in the long term. "There are a few things that can ruin a tattoo over time," says Zak. "One of them is time, which we can't really do much about, but the other two are sun exposure and lack of moisturization," Brenner says your ink should be protected with a minimum of SPF 50 and regularly nourished with tattoo-safe moisturizers. Shop everything you need—including healing balms, shower gels, and SPFs all made specifically for tattoo aftercare—below.
This stick is a revamp of the tattoo balm that won over Mark Cuban on Shark Tank in March 2021. “We saw a huge opportunity for us to go back to our roots and really improve the product that made us famous,” says Zak. Unlike the original, this balm is fragrance-free, so it can be used to help moisturize and heal fresh tattoos. Plus it’s in a biodegradable cardboard tube for easy application. It’s made with a bend of moisturizing fatty acids; protective, antioxidant-rich butters; and lightweight oils to support the skin’s natural barrier.
“We created Inked with a perfect balance of occlusives for protection, emollients to keep the wound soft and moist, and humectants to hold water in the skin and also promote gradual skin cell turnover,” says Gordinier. It uses a vegetable-based occlusive and coconut oil to hydrate skin, strengthen the moisture barrier, and minimize scabbing and fading. It also includes healing allantoin and antiseptic orange peel extract to help the skin heal in a clean environment.
This three-item bundle helps you revive old tattoos. It includes a gentle antibacterial wash; a tattoo salve that can be used on either new tattoos to help with healing or existing tattoos to emphasize color and clarity; and a lotion to rejuvenate and protect tattoos from fading. These products deeply nourish skin and moisturize with ingredients like hydrolyzed oat protein, shea butter, and aloe. Note that some of these products include fragrance, so save them until your tattoo is healed.
This reef-safe sunscreen, available in a spray and a stick, is perfect for protecting your tattoos from the sun. It was developed by a tattoo artist to help with long-term maintenance. It’s scented with coconut, so don’t use it on a fresh tattoo—stick this in your stash for after you’re healed.
Keep tattoos clean with this rinse from Hustle Butter. It’s anti-microbial but gentle and lathers without much effort so you don’t have to rub hard to feel like your tattoo is getting clean. The first inactive ingredient is aloe vera, so you know it’ll soothe your skin while also cleansing.
For lighter-weight skin hydration, try this hyaluronic acid tattoo serum. Use it as soon as your new tattoo goes on to help it heal and keep it in your regular rotation to keep it looking good as time goes by. It also includes antioxidants to protect your ink from environmental stressors and goji berry extract to accelerate healing, while reducing the development of scar tissue.
See what it's like to get a made-to-fade tattoo at Ephemeral:
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