New tattoos have special needs, and a tattoo that looks good and ages well owes much good skin care in the first few weeks. To heal properly, tattoos should stay dry and clean. They need access to air and enough moisture to stay soft and healthy. Aloe Vera is antibacterial and anti-inflammatory. It relieves pain and itching, and delivers moisture deep beneath the skin’s surface, while allowing skin to breathe. Many experts (tattoo artists and tattoo addicts) however, include Aloe on their list of what to avoid in caring for a new tattoo, usually without explanation.
The Aloe debate
Reasons I’ve found for avoiding Aloe include claims that Aloe “heals skin too quickly,” and “dries out too fast.” Some say Aloe promotes fading, some say it prevents fading. To confuse things further, Aloe is an ingredient in many products made specifically for new tattoo care (Tattoo Goo, Tattoo Lube, H2Ocean, etc.). The makers of T.A.T. products defend the use of Aloe in their products on their website: “Aloe has a long record of external use in treating skin burns, irritations and disorders. It is high in vitamins and minerals, and is analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and reparative. There are cautions to observe in how much aloe juice one should drink, and in using aloe (or any topical healing agent) on deep and puncture wounds. These cautions may have become generalized over time with regard to tattoos.”
Aloe Vera’s best researched use is as a topical treatment for damaged tissue. Commonly used to treat burn victims and to promote healing after surgery, Aloe has been proven safe and effective in treating wounds, which tattoos essentially are. So why the blacklisting? The answer might have something to do with what makes tattoos different from ordinary wounds.
In a new tattoo, ink is concentrated in the uppermost layers of the skin and superficial damage in the first few weeks can have a long-term effect on its appearance. Some changes are inevitable; the lymphatic system detoxifies the body by flushing foreign matter, including ink, from the skin, resulting in some fading. With age, ink seeps into the lower layers of the skin- tattoos become more resilient and less effected my minor damage at the surface.
Back to Aloe. What makes Aloe Vera especially effective in treating wounds is its ability to support the growth of new, healthy skin. Aloe contains vitamins and amino acids necessary for new tissue growth and polysaccharides that stimulate the body’s immune response and prevent infection. Another part of the equation is Aloe’s concentration of enzymes, which slough off dead skin, stimulating new cell production. It might be this characteristic in particular that makes it questionable as a treatment when tattoos are new and ink is concentrated in the upper skin layers.
Skin care continues to be important once a tattoo has fully healed. A tattoo that is moisturized and infection-free ages well. There’s no reason why Aloe wouldn’t be safe to use on an older tattoo to keep skin healthy. In addition to providing moisture and protecting skin from infection, Aloe can be used to soothe persistent mild irritation which can result when some inks are exposed to sunlight.
Experts agree: Aloe reduces scarring
Aloe is widely recommended as a treatment to reduce tattoo scarring. Scarring can look like raised patches or bumps on the surface, and is often not visible until after the tattoo has fully healed and swelling has subsided. Scarring can result from improper tattooing techniques or complications during the healing process. Using Aloe on scars can reduce their severity as well as the likelihood of infection and further skin damage. With regular use, the surface of the skin will become more even and better prepared for any touch-up work necessary.
Some Tattoo care basics
- Tattoos need both protection and air circulation. Keep gauze (no plastic) on for at least 3-5 hours or overnight. Remove the bandage within 12 hours and leave off if possible (you may need to cover it occasionally to keep it clean).
- Tattoos need (gentle!) cleaning. Start with 3 or more times per day (and always after exercise) for the first few days. To avoid an allergic reaction, use a fragrance-free, hypo-allergenic soap. Lather and rinse gently. No rubbing, no loofas, no washcloths, no sponges- fingertips work best. This is the only time you should be touching your tattoo, by the way. Your hands are dirtier than you think. Pat dry with a paper towel.
- Tattoos need (some) moisture. Soft, healthy skin heals well, but choose your moisturizer carefully. Avoid petroleum jelly- not only does grease block air flow, but it can trap dirt. Also avoid potential allergens like lanolin. Antibiotic ointments can also cause irritation for some. Vitamin A&D ointment applied around the edge of the tattoo for the first few days is a safe bet. Once the healing process is underway, you can apply a thin layer of hypo-allergenic lotion several times a day to the skin’s surface to ease any discomfort and keep it healthy.
What to avoid during the first few weeks:
- Pools/hot tubs/ saunas- they increase the risk of bacterial infection and can interfere with the healing. Basically no soaking of any kind is allowed. Scabbing and flaking is a part of the healing process. When scabs are wet for too long they may come off too soon, damaging the color. Sweating has the same effect. Scabs should come off naturally.
- Scratching, picking, or rubbing. Stick to loose, breathable clothing. No bra straps, no elastic bands, no chafing of any kind.
- Shaving/waxing. The tattoo area, that is.
- Sun. Keep your tattoo completely covered in the sun for a few weeks. If you have to show it off, do it in the dark with a flashlight. Once it is fully healed, always keep heavy-duty sunblock on it to keep the color from fading.