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Ask an expert: What to know about pimples on tattoos

How to keep your ink blemish-free.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 7, 2023 • 6 min read
Medically reviewed by Erin Pate, NP-C
Pimples-on-tattoo
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 7, 2023 • 6 min read
Medically reviewed by Erin Pate, NP-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Summary

Every piece of ink is truly unique, from the artwork’s meaning to its design, colors, and placement. Here at Curology, we love the freedom of expression that body art provides, and we often encounter questions about how to handle pimples on a tattoo. 

Here’s an in-depth look at how having acne-prone skin may impact getting tattooed, what might cause breakouts on tattoos, and how you can potentially treat those pimples.

Here at Curology, we don’t treat or diagnose skin infections—you’ll have to turn to your in-person medical provider for that. This article is for informational purposes only.

Can you tattoo over acne?

If you have acne-prone skin and want some ink, don’t worry—you can still get tattooed. That said, tattooing over active breakouts is a no-no because it may damage your skin and spread bacteria. Wait until your breakout has healed to schedule your appointment, so you can get tattooed safely (and without any risk to the artwork, either). You can also speak with a tattoo artist for tips on proper timing. 

If you’re wondering if you can tattoo over acne scars, the answer is yes! It’s typically safe to tattoo over scars, including the typical atrophic scars from acne.¹ In some cases, tattooing is even used to treat scars.² That said, if you’re looking to add ink over acne scars, our dermatology providers recommend seeing an experienced tattoo artist.

What are tattoo pimples?

During the tattooing process, the artist injects pigmented ink approximately 1.5-2 millimeters below the skin’s surface using a tattoo machine³, a process that creates many tiny puncture wounds. A tattoo is essentially one large wound, which is why getting tattoos in an unclean environment or using unsanitary equipment may lead to skin infections. 

When you find pimples on your tattoo after it’s healed (or while it’s fresh), it may be acne, but it also could be a skin condition like milia. According to our experts, small whiteheads or closed comedones may form on tattooed skin due to clogged pores, while milia, which are pearl-like cysts, may develop due to trapped skin cells within the tattoo’s needle wounds. To avoid complications with fresh tattoos, always follow the aftercare instructions the artist provides.

Potential contributing factors to pimples on tattoos

Tattooing damages the skin, causing potential side effects like redness, bleeding, and swelling. This process, including the aftercare provided by your artist, may contribute to developing skin reactions on your ink, including pimple-like bumps.⁴ Here are a few factors that may contribute to pimples on tattoos:

  • Irritation: Getting tattooed can irritate the skin, which may trigger breakouts.

  • Moisture: An essential part of tattoo aftercare is avoiding moisture—this is why many tattoo artists cover fresh tattoos in plastic wrap. When new tattoos come into contact with excess moisture, this may damage the appearance of the tattoo and potentially contribute to pimples.

  • Constriction: Covering a fresh tattoo in tight clothing or bandages may contribute to excess moisture developing in the tattoo area, which may also contribute to pimples.

  • Acne: If you have acne-prone skin, this may cause you to develop pimples on your existing tattoos. 

  • Sun exposure: Some people develop a sun allergy on their inked skin after getting tattooed. This allergic reaction may include an itchy rash of tiny bumps.⁵

  • Allergies: According to the American Academy of Dermatology, you may develop small, pimple-like bumps on your tattoo if you’re allergic to a specific color of ink.⁶ This is particularly likely with red tattoo ink.⁷

How to get rid of pimples on your tattoo

Pimples on tattoos are challenging, but thankfully, there are ways to treat them. Here are a few tips to help you get rid of acne on your tattoo: 

  • Use salicylic acid: Try a topical product that contains salicylic acid (a beta hydroxy acid), such as Curology’s Acne Body Wash. This ingredient can help unclog pores.⁸ 

  • Try benzoyl peroxide: If you’re worried that a chemical exfoliant may damage your tattoo, try treating the pimples with a product containing benzoyl peroxide instead.⁹

  • Keep the tattooed area clean: Wash your tattoo gently with warm water and an unscented cleanser. This will help remove excess sebum and bacteria that may contribute to pimples. 

  • Minimize sun exposure: A good general rule of thumb for tattoos is to keep them out of the sun, and always apply sunscreen. Prolonged sun exposure may irritate your tattoo and cause fading and discoloration.

Product recommendations for pimples on tattoos

Salicylic acid may help treat pimples on your tattoos. This beta hydroxy acid is often a first line of defense as a topical treatment for blackheads and whiteheads.¹⁰ Our dermatology providers recommend this ingredient to help reduce acne on your tattoos without fading or compromising your ink. That said, it is important to check with your tattoo artist for proper care of your new ink. Here are a few product recommendations: 

  • Stridex Wipes: These pre-moistened, medicated wipes help clear up and prevent acne with salicylic acid. They’re easy to use and convenient for on-the-go acne treatment.

  • Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash: This cleanser contains salicylic acid to help fight the appearance of blemishes. It’s oil-free, non-comedogenic, and is gentle enough for daily use.

  • Neutrogena Rapid Clear Acne Defense Face Lotion: This lotion fights breakouts with salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, two common acne-fighting ingredients. It’s lightweight, non-greasy, easy to apply, and great under makeup.

Do pimples damage tattoos?

Pimples are unlikely to cause any lasting damage to your tattoo. What could damage your tattoo, however, is popping or picking blemishes. Doing so may spread bacteria, potentially contributing to infection, more breakouts, or scarring that may impact your tattoo's appearance. Keep your hands off those spots to avoid color loss and faded ink.

Prevent pimples with an effective skincare routine

Founded by a board-certified dermatologist, Curology is a full-service skincare company offering products made with proven effective ingredients, including those that treat pimples. One of the most effective ways to deal with acne is to seek professional advice before changing your skincare routine. Our experts are ready to help you achieve your skin goals. 

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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One of the easiest ways to get a skincare consultation is through Curology. Our licensed dermatology providers take the guesswork out of your skincare routine by creating a personalized prescription formula suited to your skin concerns. Your customized formula will include a mix of three active, clinically backed ingredients like tretinoin, a topical vitamin A derivative used to treat acne and the signs of aging, niacinamide, azelaic acid, and more. 

Signing up is easy.* Just answer a few questions and snap some selfies to help us get to know your skin better. If Curology is right for you, we’ll pair you with one of our in-house licensed dermatology providers, and they’ll get you started with a simple, effective skincare routine—including a personalized prescription formula.

FAQs

Do pimples damage tattoos?

Pimples are unlikely to cause any lasting damage to your tattoo. What could damage your tattoo, however, is popping or picking blemishes. Doing so may spread bacteria, potentially contributing to infection, more breakouts, or scarring that may impact your tattoo's appearance.

Can you tattoo over acne?

If you have acne-prone skin and want some ink, don’t worry—you can still get tattooed. That said, tattooing over active breakouts is a no-no because it may damage your skin and spread bacteria. Wait until your breakout has healed to schedule your appointment, so you can get tattooed safely (and without any risk to the artwork, either).

How do I get rid of pimples on my tattoo?

A few tips to help you get rid of acne on your tattoo include applying a topical product with salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, keeping the tattooed area clean, and minimizing sun exposure.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Connolly, D., et al. Acne Scarring-Pathogenesis, Evaluation, and Treatment Options. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. (2017).

  2. Kim, E.K., et al. Use of tattooing to camouflage various scars. Aesthetic Plast Surg. (2011).

  3. Grant, C.A., et al. Tattoo ink nanoparticles in skin tissue and fibroblasts. Beilstein J Nanotechnol. (2015).

  4. Tattoos: 7 unexpected skin reactions and what to do about them. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (n.d.).

  5.  Tattoos: 7 unexpected skin reactions and what to do about them. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. Ibid.

  6. Tattoos: 7 unexpected skin reactions and what to do about them. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. Ibid.

  7. Van der Bent, S.A.S., et al. Complications of tattoos and permanent makeup: overview and analysis of 308 cases. J Cosmet Dermatol. (2021).

  8. Zaenglein, A.L., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. J Am Acad Dermatol. (2016).

  9. Zaenglein, A.L., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. J Am Acad Dermatol. Ibid.

  10.  Zaenglein, A.L., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. J Am Acad Dermatol. Ibid.

Erin Pate is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She earned her Masters of Science in Nursing at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, FL.

* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Our policy on product links:Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Erin Pate Nurse Practitioner, NP-C

Erin Pate, NP-C

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