A tattoo may be permanent, but that doesn’t mean it’ll always look as good as the day you had it inked. Eventually it’s going to fade, blur, and distend, though how quickly that happens depends on a lot of different factors—many of which you control.
“What you do in both the short and long term is really important when it comes to maintaining your tattoo’s appearance,” says Adam Friedman, MD, an associate professor of dermatology at George Washington University.
Here, Friedman explains how to keep your tat looking fresh and sharp for decades.
THE FIRST DAY
RUB ON SOME VASELINE
A new tattoo is basically a cluster of very small puncture wounds, Friedman says. And as with any other wound, your body is going to send white blood cells and other healing agents to the injury site. Normally that’s a good thing. But the inflammation that can result could mess with the way the fresh ink sets, and so lead to blurring right away and down the road. To combat this, he recommends rubbing some Vaseline (petroleum jelly) on your new tattoo. That will keep the area hydrated and limit inflammation. “You hear people saying not to use petroleum jelly on a fresh tattoo, but those people are misinformed,” he says.
“You want to show the world your tattoo, but you’re better off keeping it covered and protected for at least 24 hours,” Friedman says. This gives your skin time to heal quickly and properly, and protects the site from infection. After dabbing on Vaseline, cover your tattoo with a pad or bandage that won’t stick. That means no gauze—at least not the kind that will adhere to your damaged, tacky skin.
SKIP TOPICAL ANTIBIOTICS
Antibiotics could trigger a skin reaction or allergy, which could distort your tattoo’s appearance, Friedman says. “Some tattoo parlors recommend these,” he says, “but there’s really no reason to use them unless there’s a sign of infection, which there shouldn’t be if you’re going to a place that follows proper sanitary practices.” Before they go to work on you, ask your parlor’s people if they recommend topical antibiotics. If they say yes, get the hell out of there.
THE FIRST TWO WEEKS
DON’T SCRUB IT
You want to avoid drying out the area, because that will increase healing time and the odds of infection or irritation, Friedman says. He recommends washing the area once a day with mild soap—something like Dove Sensitive Skin. Afterward, apply moisturizer while the area is still slightly damp. This will lock in moisture, which will help your tattoo site heal quickly with minimal inflammation.
THE REST OF YOUR LIFE
PROTECT IT FROM SUNLIGHT
Shielding your tattoo from UV radiation is the number one thing you can do to preserve its appearance, Friedman says. “UV light ages skin faster, and breaks down its support structures.” That leads to wrinkling, dilated vessels, and other skin changes that sully the look of your tattoo. It’s best to keep your tat covered whenever you’re outside. If that’s not possible, you want to slather on a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 50 or higher, he says.
Your skin is your body’s largest organ—one intimately tied to your overall wellbeing, Friedman says. As a result, illness or poor health can lead to skin issues, which will screw with your tattoo’s appearance. So consider having a tattoo one more reason to eat right, exercise, quit smoking, and otherwise take care of yourself, he says.