One of the most memorable scenes from the 2013 dark comedy We’re the Millers features a dimwitted teen who proudly shows his chest tattoo that reads “No Ragrets”.
While in the context of the movie, it’s a joke, in the real world it’s part of the reason why according to a Marketdata study tattoo removal is an industry worth $694 million annually.
But even the best chosen, designed, and executed tattoo can in time leave you with real regrets if you don’t take care of it from the beginning.
Like it's fashion cousin the beard, tattoos have entered the mainstream. No longer do they conjure images of dangerous wharves and drunken sailors. Today, tattoos are as accepted in the office as they are on the runway. And, like beards, due to their popularity, they can generate big bucks.
The aforementioned study reported that the U.S. body art industry nearly doubled in revenue from $1.6 billion in 2007 to a whopping $3 billion in 2018. Its popularity is equal down under. Last year, 15,000 guests flooded into Melbourne to attend the Australian Tattoo Expo.
A tattoo is an investment. In Australia, the average price of a medium size tattoo can be upwards of $700. For something more complicated, the costs can run in the thousands. When you take into account that a tattoo is art you intentionally want to wear for the rest of your life, considerable care should be planned to ensure your artistic investment enjoys its most vibrant and healthy life.
But before we go into tattoo aftercare, let’s explore what happens to your skin during the process of getting a tattoo.
HOW TATTOOS WORK
In Moby Dick, Herman Melville calls the heavily tattooed skin of harpooner Queequeg as “living parchment”. And like most metaphors in that great novel, the description is as apt as it is poetic. When you’re getting a tattoo, the process is very similar to a person writing with a quill pen.
The famously painful process of getting a tattoo works when an artist dips a needle attached to a motorized device into ink. Once turned on, it vibrates rapidly. As the needle touches the skin, thousands of tiny pricks drag the ink into the skin. According to a TED video, a modern tattoo machine can pierce the skin at a frequency of up to 3,000 times per minute.
But unlike writing on parchment, in order for ink on the skin to become permanent, the ink has to travel below the epidermis into the dermis where the body’s immune system sends special blood cells called macrophages to “clean up” the foreign particles. Some macrophages are successful in getting the ink to the lymph system and eventually to the liver for excretion. This is why tattoos will all fade over time. But some macrophages remain trapped in the dermis with the ink particles they’ve eaten and remain visible. This is your tattoo.
HOW TO CARE FOR YOUR NEW TATTOO
Since a tattoo is basically a wound, it’s important to keep it clean. And while tattoo artists may vary between recommending dry healing or moisturized healing procedures, cleanliness will be key to keeping it healthy and looking clean.
1 – Watch for Infection
Queensland based tattoo shop Black Market Tattoo suggests that you monitor your new tattoo continually during the healing process that may take up to two weeks. If you see any signs of infection, contact your healthcare provider immediately. Symptoms of infection could include excessive redness, severe itching, or pus at the tattoo site.
2 – Keep it Covered
Your tattoo artist will cover your new tattoo with a thin layer of antibacterial/petroleum jelly and a bandage. WebMD recommends keeping the bandage on for 24 hours. After you remove the bandage, keep applying a non-scented moisturizer for two weeks. Also, try not to wear clothes that will stick to the tattooed area.
3 – Keep it Clean
The tattoo artists at Texas-based Classic Tattoo have guidelines for keeping a fresh tattoo clean. They suggest gently using soap and warm water to clean the area in a circular motion twice daily. Only your own clean hands to wash your new tattoo. No washcloths, bath towels, sponges etc… To dry the area, dab (don’t wipe) with a clean paper towel. Be sure to reapply a fragrance-free lotion like Aquaphor or Lubriderm.
4 – Keep Off the Beach
Sunlight is the best disinfectant. It’s also a great way to fade a new tattoo. For the first few weeks, if you plan to go to the beach, keep your tattoo covered. Also, avoid submerging it in water. Afterward, for the life of your tattoo, always use sunblock or zinc to keep the ink looking vibrant.
5 – Keep Hydrated
Whatever keeps your skin healthy will help your tattoo heal faster. Eat a balanced diet full of vitamins and minerals, drink lots of water, and lay off the booze for a while.
6 – Take it Easy at the Gym
You may be dying to show off your new ink at the gym, but according to Men’s Health, working out puts you at risk for getting sweat and gym bacteria into your healing tattoo. Exposure to these factors can cause inflammatory hyperpigmentation, which may create a kind of “tan” around the tattoo, which changes the look of both the tat’s color and lines.
Nothing is forever, but with proper care upfront, your tattoo will stay healthy and look (almost) new for many regretless years to come.
LaRosa, John, "Tattoo Parlors & Tattoo Removal is Now a Booming $3 Billion Industry”, Market Research Blog, 2018
McPhee, Eliza “More and More Australians are spending upwards of $10,000 on Tattoos….”, Daily Mail, 2019
“Tattoo Prices in Australia”, Aussie Prices, 2019
Aguirre, Claudia, “What Makes Tattoos Permanent?”, TED-Ed YouTube, 2014
“Complete Tattoo After Care Guide”, Black Market Tattoo Co, 2019
“How to Care of Your Tattoo”, WebMD, 20??
McKay, Rhys, “How to Help Your Tattoo Heal”, WHO.au, 2019
“Take Care of Your New Tattoos” , Classic Tattoo Texas,