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Fresh ink—what to do when a tattoo is peeling

Don’t worry—flaking skin is normal when you’ve recently been tattooed! Here’s how to handle it.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jan 29, 2024 • 9 min read
Medically reviewed by Donna McIntyre, NP-BC
The Tattoo Process Damages the Top Layer of Skin (Plus it Hurts)
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jan 29, 2024 • 9 min read
Medically reviewed by Donna McIntyre, NP-BC
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.

In this article

Why’s my tattoo peeling?
More

You found an artist you trust. You took your time to make sure you knew exactly what you wanted. You even tried it out as a decal for a couple of days before fully committing. And you love your new tattoo.

But now, a couple of days later, you’re starting to see some waxy patches, flakes, and even colored pieces of skin coming off your fresh ink. Just what exactly is going on, here?

We can certainly understand why you’d be concerned, but don’t panic—it’s likely just your skin healing. Peeling is a completely natural and expected process. But there are some steps that you might want to be taking to make sure your skin heals properly. Here’s the rundown on what to do when a tattoo is peeling.

That new ink looks great! Keep it that way for the long-run with a specially formulated broad-spectrum sunscreen.*

Why’s my tattoo peeling?

Typically, peeling is a natural part of the tattoo healing process. To put it bluntly, the tattooing process is pretty traumatic for the skin. Some people may have a higher tolerance, but the honest fact about it is that the top layer of your skin was just injected with ink thousands of times by tiny needles—and now it needs to heal. 

The peeling you’re experiencing is likely exfoliation from the natural healing process. You’re shedding off the top layer of damaged and dead skin cells. They’ll be replaced with fresh, healthy, and relatively undamaged tattooed skin. But you are more likely to encounter one or more of these common complaints after getting a tattoo: itching, stinging, pain, and swelling or inflammation.¹

Most tattoo peeling will start within a couple of days of getting inked. But don’t worry—the ink is deep in your skin, beyond the epidermis and into the dermis (middle layer).² So, you can rest easy knowing that peeling doesn’t mean you’re losing ink or that your new tattoo is going to end up looking faded. Think of it as a snake shedding its skin. The replacement skin will be healthy and your art will be able to shine through.

What to do when my tattoo is peeling

Your tattoo artist should give you aftercare instructions for your healing tattoo, but feel free to also bookmark this article just in case you need a quick refresher on what you should (and shouldn’t) be doing! Here are a few steps that everyone with a new tattoo should follow.

Keep the area clean

Gently wash the area with cold or lukewarm water and a hypoallergenic mild soap. Then apply a hypoallergenic ointment or unperfumed moisturizing lotion to keep it moist. This routine should be repeated everyday for 2-3 weeks until the tattooed skin is completely healed.³

Use a moisturizing cream or lotion

It’s standard practice to apply a moisturizing cream or lotion to your new tattoo to promote healing and reduce discomfort.⁴ Curology’s Rich Moisturizer helps repair the skin barrier while providing a boost of hydration and the skin protection of aloe. Your tattoo artist may recommend a specific brand, often one carried in their studio.

Beware of marketed “tattoo aftercare” products

The ointment or moisturizer that your artist or studio recommends might be just fine, but some of them may contain allergens.⁵ Take a good look at the ingredient label to ensure you know what you are putting on your skin.

Wear loose-fitting clothing

Loose clothing is less likely to rub against your tattoo and irritate the new skin, or to leave lint or other contaminants on your ink. It also acts as a barrier to outside elements.

Sun protection

Protecting your skin from the damaging effects of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays should be part of your daily routine already, but with a new tattoo it’s especially important to use sunscreen and avoid prolonged UV exposure.⁶ Yes, that includes tanning beds.

Give it time

Like we said, everyone’s skin will heal a little differently. Some tattoos may not peel at all while others may take weeks to heal. The size of the tattoo, the amount and types of ink, and the length of the process all play a part as well. 

As long as you’re taking proper care of your tattoo and you aren’t noticing signs of infection, taking longer than expected to heal usually isn’t a big deal. Even after the flaking and peeling are done, your skin is still healing and you should continue cleaning, protecting, and applying moisturizer to your tattoo.

What not to do when a tattoo is peeling

There are also several things that you should absolutely not do with a peeling tattoo. Any of the following can damage your tattoo, leading to possible infection or scarring, or discolorations and flaws in the tattoo design once it’s fully healed.

Don’t pick or scratch

Yeah, it’s itchy, but that can be part of the healing process. As mentioned earlier, remember to moisturize to minimize discomfort. Consult with a medical provider if you’re concerned with the level of discomfort. 

Don’t scrub

You’ll want to put down the sponge or loofah and just use your fingertips to apply a mild, gentle cleanser on your tattoo. Rinse well and remember to avoid any harsh or abrasive exfoliating skincare products.

Don’t shave or wax the area

The skin under your new ink is already irritated enough. There’s no reason to drag a razor or shaving gel across it, or to risk pulling out any ink when you wax. Let your skin completely heal first, and then you can groom it, if you wish.

Don’t use towels

Or any rough cloth for that matter. It’s best to let the area air dry, or if you must, use a very soft cloth to gently pat and lift the moisture away. Don’t rub!

These are, of course, just general recommendations. You should always follow the advice and proper aftercare instructions from your tattoo artist and your dermatology provider.

What about complications?

In the U.S., tattoo artists and studios are regulated by the laws in the state where they operate, which usually cover everything from minimum age requirements to sterilization and sanitation procedures. 

The general idea is to make the process as safe and risk-free as possible. Still, even if your tattoo is done by the most trustworthy artist, at the most reputable studio following the strictest sanitation policies, there’s still a risk of infection or allergic reaction.⁷

Allergic Reactions

One study found that around 42% of people with tattoos had complications, with about 52% of those complaints being sun-related.⁸ There’s also the possibility of a reaction from a previously unknown latex allergy when the gloves of the tattoo artist interact with the skin’s surface.⁹ 

Other skin reactions are usually delayed by weeks or even months, and most aren’t life-threatening unless it’s a severe allergy or has autoimmunity implications.¹⁰

Infection

There are actually a few different ways that getting a tattoo can lead to infection. If your skin isn’t clean and sterile beforehand, the needle may push contaminants deep into your dermis right along with the ink. A reputable artist will make sure your skin is clean and free of microbes with isopropyl alcohol before starting. 

Additionally, improper aftercare can also lead to infection. If the tattoo isn’t properly cleaned or maintained, your chances of developing an infection increase.

Symptoms of a tattoo infection include:¹¹

  • Painful bumps or rash: Rash of itchy, red, and painful bumps may develop within the tattoo. 

  • Progressively worse redness and swelling: There might be some normal redness and swelling for the first couple of days, but if it doesn’t start to go away or starts getting worse, then it could indicate an infection.

  • Feeling ill—Any sort of physical unease not specific to the tattooed area, such as fever or chills, could indicate an infection.

If any of these symptoms occur, they could be indications of infection or other problems that can lead to serious complications, and you should seek medical attention immediately.

Taking good care of your skin

Peeling is a natural part of the healing process after skin damage, like a tattoo. As long as there aren’t any symptoms of infection or inflammation, chances are your skin is doing just fine. 

You’ll still need to keep up with your aftercare instructions even after your skin stops peeling for the full benefit of the healing process, and to keep your new tattoo looking fresh as long as possible. 

If you do happen to experience any signs or symptoms of an infection or allergic reaction, seek medical assistance immediately.

Curology Offers Personalized Skincare Tailored to your Individual Needs

If you want to know how you can take good care of your skin, we’re here to help! Curology can provide you with a personalized skincare formula, helping you manage all sorts of skincare issues, including acne, rosacea, and anti-aging concerns like fine lines and dark spots. 

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FAQs

Does a tattoo’s color come back after peeling?

Generally speaking, the waxy white flakes of peeling skin don’t have much ink in them. The ink is actually in the deeper layer, so once the peeling is done you should see the original color. If you’re finding excessive amounts of color coming off as your tattoo heals, it’s possible that the ink wasn’t deep enough the first time. You may be looking at a touch-up, but those are fairly common.

Should you keep a peeling tattoo covered?

After the first day or so, you want your tattoo to be able to breathe. But you also want it to be protected from external contamination or irritants. So keeping it moisturized but protected under some loose-fitting clothing is your best bet. Be sure to follow the instructions given by your tattoo artist.

How long should I moisturize my tattoo?

Follow your artist’s aftercare instructions, but a tattoo can benefit from moisturizing long after the epidermis looks and feels healed. Making sure that you always apply sunscreen will also help keep your ink looking good for years to come.

• • •

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

  1. Serup, J., et al. Tattoo Complaints and Complications: Diagnosis and Clinical Spectrum. Curr Probl Dermatol. (2015, n.d.).

  2. Krutak, L. The Cultural Heritage of Tattooing: A Brief History. Curr Probl Dermatol. (2015, n.d.).

  3. Schmid, D.A., et al. Exploratory evaluation of tolerability, performance, and cosmetic acceptance of dexpanthenol-containing dermo-cosmetic wash and sun-care products for tattoo aftercare. Health Sci Rep. (2022, June 27).

  4. Fauger, A., et al. Tattoo aftercare management with a dermo‐cosmetic product: Improvement in discomfort sensation and skin repair quality. J Cosmet Dermatol. (2021, May 8).

  5. Liou, Y.L., et al. Characterization of Tattoo Aftercare Products: Allergenic Ingredients and Marketing Claims. Dermatitis. (2021, October 1).

  6. Gonzalez, C.D., et al. Aftercare Instructions in the Tattoo Community: An Opportunity to Educate on Sun Protection and Increase Skin Cancer Awareness. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. (2020, June 1).

  7. Kennedy, B.S., et al. Outbreak of Mycobacterium chelonae Infection Associated with Tattoo Ink. The New England Journal of Medicine. (2012, September 13).

  8. Carlsen, K.H. and Serup, J. Photosensitivity and photodynamic events in black, red and blue tattoos are common: A 'Beach Study'. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. (2013, January 28).

  9. Serup, J., et al. Tattoo Complaints and Complications: Diagnosis and Clinical Spectrum. Curr Probl Dermatol. Ibid.

  10. Serup, J., et al. Tattoo Complaints and Complications: Diagnosis and Clinical Spectrum. Curr Probl Dermatol. Ibid.

  11. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Tattoos: 7 Unexpected Skin Reactions and What to Do about Them. (n.d.).

Donna McIntyre is a board-certified nurse practitioner at Curology. She obtained her Master of Science in Nursing at MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, MA.

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• • •
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

Donna McIntyre, NP-BC

Donna McIntyre, NP-BC

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