It looks like colored bits of skin are flaking off. Now, you’re asking, “Why is my tattoo peeling?” And you’re wondering if the ink is just going to disappear.
Your new tattoo looks like it’s peeling because it’s healing. Don’t panic because the ink is located in the dermis, a deeper layer of skin. As the artist was packing in the ink, some of it also settled in the epidermis or top layer, and that’s what’s flaking off.
It’s normal for a tattoo to peel as it heals. The dead skin and scabs fall off, leaving fresh, smooth skin on the surface. However, this is a crucial stage for tattoo aftercare.
How do you treat a peeling tattoo?
If you don’t want to go back for a touchup at the tattoo studio, it’s essential to take good care of a peeling tattoo. After all, it’s wounded skin that’s healing from the trauma of being pierced by tiny needles. Instead of forming a typical scab like you’d see from a scrape, it builds a layer of hardened skin on top of the new tattoo.
The hardened skin may be colorful, but again, that’s not a problem for your new tattoo unless you pick at it. It’s best if the inky flakes fall off naturally.
If you pull or scratch at the scabs (we know it’s tempting), you might expose the upper layer of your tattoo before it’s healed. Then the design gets distorted. Worse, you might contaminate the skin with bacteria and get an infection (1).
Let your skin exfoliate naturally and shed the dead layers until the surface is healed and smooth. In the meantime, wash it twice a day and moisturize it. If the skin stays hydrated, it will itch and peel less, making for a better experience all around.
Invest in a tattoo aftercare kit like the one below and you’ll have everything you need to take care of a peeling tattoo.
COMPLETE SECONDSKIN™ AFTERCARE KIT
SecondSkin is better known for its medical-grade, latex-free bandage, but the company also makes foaming tattoo wash and moisturizer. This aftercare kit features four sheets of waterproof dressing, a small bottle of cleanser, and a jar of cream.
All the products are vegan, plus the tattoo cream is USDA-certified organic. It’s made with soothing natural ingredients like shea butter, coconut, and calendula oil.
Meanwhile, the gentle soap has no sulfates, fragrance, alcohol, or parabens. It cleanses new tattoos without stinging and keeps them from drying out unlike Dial Gold and similar products.
When does a new tattoo start peeling?
New tattoos usually start peeling around the fourth or fifth day. Of course, some people may peel sooner and others later, depending on their skin, the type of tattoo, and the type of care.
How long does peeling last with a new tattoo?
Tattoos usually keep peeling until the surface heals, so it may take as long as two or three weeks. If that sounds uncomfortable, you should try wet healing. This means using a waterproof dressing like Saniderm.
Saniderm Tattoo Aftercare Bandage
The wet healing method means covering a new tattoo with a bandage like Saniderm, SecondSkin, or 3M Tegaderm. The dressing keeps contamination and water out of the wound but still allows it to breathe, unlike plastic wrap. Bandaging the tattoo will help it heal more quickly and prevent it from forming scabs.
The bandage keeps the skin moist better than only applying tattoo balm, which means less peeling and itching and less risk of infection and damage to the ink.
Saniderm and similar products are specially designed to heal tattoos and wounds. They allow oxygen to enter and water vapor to leave, which is something that cling wrap can’t do.
Here’s how to use the bandage. First, wait a few hours after leaving the studio before removing the wrap the artist provided. Cleanse the skin with lukewarm water and mild soap and let it air dry or pat it dry with a clean paper towel.
Second, apply the bandage and cover the skin out to an inch beyond the borders of the tattoo.
Now, leave the dressing in place for the next three to five days. Only change it if it fills with blood, plasma, or ink. (It’s normal that the tattoo will leak for the first forty-eight hours).
You can shower without worrying about the tattoo getting wet. Plus, when it’s time to peel it off, it doesn’t pull at the tattoo if you go slow.
We’ve seen cases where tattoos heal within a week or ten days with wet healing. Meanwhile, at the week mark, other people are still dealing with itchy skin and peeling.
Should I moisturize my tattoo while it’s peeling?
If you’re not using a waterproof dressing on your tattoo, you’ve chosen the traditional route of dry healing. This means washing the tattoo at least twice a day and applying tattoo balm or lotion each time. This helps the skin resist infection and heal properly without scarring. It also cuts down on inflammation, itchiness, and flaking.
So yes, please moisturize your tattoo while it’s peeling.
Although it’s safe to use most kinds of fragrance-free lotions (as long as they don’t have chemical exfoliants), you might enjoy one of the artist-recommended products below.
Hustle Butter Deluxe
Everyone in the business knows about Hustle Butter. It’s petroleum-free unlike Aquaphor or A+D ointment.
This tattoo balm has a creamy texture that doesn’t leave a greasy residue or stain clothing or bedding. Furthermore, the calming fragrance is all-natural from the botanical ingredients.
For best results, rub in a thin layer after washing the tattoo. Feel free to put it on again if the skin gets itchy.
The only downside is that it’s a little more expensive than some moisturizers.
Ora’s Amazing Herbal Tattoo Salve
You can’t beat this herbal salve for calming down an itchy tattoo. It has a texture similar to petroleum jelly, but it’s made with natural ingredients like grapeseed oil, calendula, and beeswax. Moreover, it has antimicrobial components like tea tree oil and rosemary to prevent infection.
If you have sensitive skin, the good news is that there are no artificial fragrances, colors, parabens, lanolin, or gluten in the jar. Long after your tattoo heals, you can use the salve to heal cracked skin, cuts, and chapped lips.
Tattoo Goo Tattoo Balm
Tattoo Goo’s little tins for sale sit on the countertop of so many tattoo studios. It’s probably cheaper if you purchase one online than in person. After all, that only is this balm nice for soothing tattoos, but it’s also helpful for chapped skin and sunburn.
The formula is packed with skin healing ingredients like vitamin E, triglycerides, cocoa butter, lavender, and olive oil. It prevents the tattoos from drying out and flaking, keeping the skin moisturized and soft.
You won’t have to worry about lanolin, petroleum, or artificial fragrances. It’s a dermatologist-tested formula that’s safe for new tattoos and sensitive skin.
What’s the catch? The balm is a little stiff, so it’s easier to apply if you warm it up in your hands first.
Will my tattoo fade after it peels?
The other day someone said their tattoo was peeling and the ink was coming off. It’s not the first time we’d heard about a tattoo peeling and fading. It turns out that this first-time client was not aware that it was normal to see tattoo peeling around day four.
The inky flakes of skin were freaking them out. We suggested continuing to gently wash and moisturize the tattoo and give it a few more days for the peeling to gradually stop.
After the tattoo heals, it may look a little dull compared to the bright, crisp colors when you walked out of the studio. That’s normal, too. After about three weeks, if the skin is smooth and unbroken, it’s safe to start exfoliating. Use a glycolic acid body wash and dead skin will shed, leaving the surface renewed and the ink more vibrant.
However, if you do a tattoo peeling before and after comparison and the ink looks damaged, please stop by the studio to show the artist.
Help for dealing with a peeling tattoo
If you wrap your tattoo in a waterproof dressing, chances are you will never have to deal with it peeling. But if you prefer to do it old school, try these tips.
- Wear loose clothing so that nothing rubs against the tattoo.
- Keep the tattoo clean with mild soap. Remember to wash your hands before touching the tattoo.
- Follow up with a good quality moisturizer. You don’t have to use a specialty tattoo aftercare product, just something that’s fragrance-free and hydrating.
- Don’t pull off scabs or flakes. Don’t rub them off with a towel. And don’t soak your tattoo in water to loosen the dead skin.
- If you think you might scratch your tattoo in the night while you sleep, reconsider using Saniderm or SecondSkin to protect it.
Also, you can soothe itchy, inflamed skin with a tattoo aftercare product like the one below.
After Inked Tattoo & Piercing Aftercare Foam Cleanser
If you’ve watched Ink Master or NY Ink, you’ve probably seen After Inked products. They are used and recommended by artists around the world.
We’ve reviewed the After Inked Moisturizer before as it’s one of our favorites, but we also enjoy using the foam cleanser. If you’ve ever used Dial soap on a new tattoo, sometimes it stings, but worse, it dries out the skin. What’s nice is that this cleanser is non-drying. It doesn’t strip the moisture from the skin and doesn’t hurt to use.
The formula contains no drying sulfates, alcohol, parabens, or artificial fragrance. It’s even vegan and cruelty-free.
Aveeno Skin Relief Fragrance-Free Moisturizing Lotion
If you have a bottle of Aveeno’s fragrance-free lotion hanging around, you can use it on your new tattoo. Apply it up to three or four times per day to reduce peeling. It also helps keep an old tattoo bright.
The formula is therapeutic enough to help with eczema, so it can do nothing but good on broken skin. Plus, the pump top bottle that prevents contamination unlike (ahem) open jars of tattoo balm. In either case, be sure to wash your hands before moisturizing.
Why do we harp on about using fragrance-free stuff? It’s because a new tattoo is an open wound and synthetic fragrances are one of the most notorious allergens around. Even if you can walk around wearing Dior Sauvage or Dolce & Gabbana, you wouldn’t spray them into a paper cut, would you?
Why is my tattoo NOT peeling?
Lucky you – some people’s tattoos don’t peel at all. This may happen if your tattoo is small, if you used a tattoo bandage, if the artist used black ink and did line work only… At any rate, don’t panic if your tattoo doesn’t peel.
Continue to clean it and moisturize it for a full two weeks. And keep an eye out for problems like the ones below.
When should you contact a doctor about a peeling tattoo?
You don’t need to call a doctor about your tattoo peeling unless you have the following symptoms (2).
- If the skin is red, swollen, and warm past the first forty-eight hours.
- If you develop a rash or have an eczema or psoriasis flare on or around the tattoo.
- If the skin is super itchy and normal tattoo aftercare doesn’t take the edge off.
- If the tattoo oozes yellowish pus.
- If you develop a fever, vomiting, or have trouble breathing, get medical help immediately.
If you have an old tattoo that starts looking rashy or inflamed, it’s a good idea to contact a doctor about that, too.
In summary, it’s normal for a healing tattoo to peel. The more ink in your tattoo, the more likely you are to see inky flakes falling off. Don’t rub or scratch or try to soak them off. Wash, put on lotion or tattoo balm, and hang in there. The peeling should stop after a couple of weeks when the skin heals.
1. https://faq.saniderm.com/knowledge-base/tattoo-peeling-treatment-minimizing/ Tattoo Peeling: Treatment and Minimizing, updated April 8, 2021
2. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/tattoo-peeling#when-to-contact-a-doctorWhat to know about tattoo peeling, by Zia Sherrell, Medically reviewed on March 30, 2021