I’ve just begun a Masters in nursing and its proving illuminating when it comes to tattoo healing. I’ve been writing for the tattoo trade for nearly a decade and one issue that comes up time and time again is side effects from tattoo aftercare products. When tattoo healing doesn’t go as expected, the first port of call to park the blame is the aftercare product that’s been used.
As part of my introduction to nursing we have to do mandatory training that covers the basics of nursing care. These include taking blood pressure, medication dispensing and wound care. It was during my wound care practical that I began to realise that when it’s comes to issues with tattoo healing, the least likely culprit is the aftercare product used.
Now for the disclaimer; when I’m saying it’s not the aftercare that’s the main culprit for causing healing complications it can of course be to blame. Let’s be honest it comes down to what product you are using; which emphasises the importance of using a quality aftercare product. It seems everyone and there mum has their own “special method” for healing their new tattoo; and believe me over the past 9 years I’ve heard them all. From goose fat to nothing at all, its fascinatingly spooky what people will stick on their tattoo in the hope of rapid healing and a lifetime of fresh, bright, bold colours. So let’s cut the crap and say it how it really is: if you want to heal your tattoo safely use a good quality tattoo aftercare product. I’d rate Yayo as the best on the market but there are also other quality brands out there. So investing in good aftercare is the first way to ensure a tattoo heals without complications.
"Tattoo is a surgical procedure, a cosmetic surgical procedure, but none the less it is surgery."
So you’ve bought a tub of Yayo and you’re about to use it; before we look at how to apply the cream we need to rewind time to you sitting in the tattoo chair as the needles break your skin for the first time.
Tattoo is a surgical procedure, a cosmetic surgical procedure, but none the less it is surgery. Now if you’ve been into an operating theatre the place is squeaky clean; even the air is filtered on a regular basis, to eliminate any potential avenues of infection. Staff wear sterile gloves, scrubs, masks and hair covers. All the equipment is sterile and of an extremely high grade. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of a tattoo studio.
Now before you get on your high horse and start sending in letters of complaint, I’m not bashing the cleanliness of tattoo studios. Yes some are shit holes and must be the breeding ground for all sorts of nasty infections, but the great tattooists pay as much attention to infection control as they do to their artwork. But no matter how much effort they put into maintaining a safe and clean environment they cannot match that of an operating theatre; and legally are under no obligation to do so. So if your tattoo starts to swell, turn red, sprout spots or weep funny things it could be due to the fact there was an airborne pathogen in the room you were getting tattooed in. That pathogen could have come from your breath as you munched on a Greggs and swigged Cola as the first needles punctured your skin, breaking the sanctity of the body.
Another aspect of tattooing that the pubic don’t know about is that not all of the equipment used is sterile. Gloves always should be single use but they are not sterile; neither is the tattoo machine grip unless it can be autoclaved and has been autoclaved. You cannot autoclave a tattoo machine. You can wipe it down, sterilise it the best you can but you can’t subject it to the intense heat and pressure of an autoclave that is needed to kill 100% of bacteria, viruses and spores. There are some spores that can survive an autoclave and when it comes to prions, the infectious protein that causes mad cow disease, the only way to destroy them is to subject them to sustained heat for several hours at extremely high temperatures of 900°F and above; the type of heat that would destroy tattoo equipment.
When a nurse dresses a wound they rinse the wound in saline; this is generally not a procedure tattooists follow. What about the tattoo machine needles and the ink being used? Is it quality ink and are the needles high grade surgical steel or are they cheap nickel needles from China and low grade ink that is prone to causing skin irritation. Allergic reactions can be instantaneous or they can take time to present themselves. So when you are blaming the aftercare for that itchy, red tattoo maybe cast a thought back to the tattoo process. Did you ask your tattooist to confirm what inks and needles they were using?
When a nurse is changing a dressing on the wound of a patient there is the rule of one sterile hand and one dirty hand. The two must never make contact when changing a dressing. If they do then cross contamination has occurred and the nurse must change gloves, wash their hands, dispose of any contaminated equipment and begin cleaning the wound again. This kind of ultra hygienic practice is essential to ensure nasty bugs like MRSA don’t get into a wound. So next time you blame your aftercare products for a problem healing process, just take a moment to reflect on the above. Did you or your tattooist follow such stringent infection control practices?
"A tattoo is essentially a graze that aims to put ink into your skin."
When changing a dressing all the components that come into contact with the wound are sterile; this is not possible when tattooing. One of the biggest culprits of this is what the tattoo artist wipes your tattoo down with. Blue roll, kitchen roll and the like are not sterile and they weren’t designed to be. They were designed to clean up spillages in kitchens not to be rubbed over freshly broken skin. They are also quite abrasive, even when lubricated with disinfectant fluid and have the potential to shed fibres into the wound. Perhaps the skin irritation you are suffering post tattoo is a result of the Bounty that’s been scrubbing your tattoo.
A tattoo is essentially a graze that aims to put ink into your skin. I imagine we’ve all grazed ourselves at some point. I remember my first grazed knee like it was yesterday; when I got the edge of my Batman flares caught in the chain of my Grifter and tumbled to the tarmac. When healing, grazes are prone to itching, swelling and being rather red and sore. Perhaps the “allergic reaction” you’re experiencing is nothing more than the body responding to the damage the tattooists has caused, in the only way it knows how, by flooding the area with white blood cells, ready to fight infection and protect surrounding tissue. What you see as a side effect of your aftercare could be nothing more than the body healing itself.
Now we come onto the classic bug bear of tattooing; cling film. No matter how far the industry has moved on from its primitive roots, cling film, just won’t go away. I still see many, many tattooists wrapping their freshly created masterpiece in plastic wrap that was design to go over your dad’s sandwiches. Is cling film a surgical grade dressing; no. Is cling film designed to be applied to the human body to aid wound healing; no. Is cling film designed to be used in catering; yes. Cling film may well be clean enough to put on food but it’s not suitable for a fresh wound. Instead tattooists should be using a specialist tattoo dressing or surgical dressing.
So you have your tattoo and there have been no issues with the studio, the inks and needles used, the cleanliness of the tattoo machine and the kitchen roll and cling film. You get home and begin the aftercare process. Now this is another major time in the tattoo healing process where problems can occur. Let’s just say you have forgone the goose grease and are using either a medical grade aftercare product or a reputable tattoo aftercare cream. If you are using a medical grade cream you must ensure it’s suitable for short term topical application. Creams such as Savalon are fantastic at helping to keep a would clean but if you are applying it several times a day for multiple days it can be a bit harsh on the skin. Bepanthen is a wonderful cream at providing a moist environment to facilitate healing but it’s not vegan and too much can clog pores resulting in complications. Sudocrem is also great but it is thick and can be difficult to apply in small amounts without causing friction on the wound, which can irritate the area and slow healing.
Products like Yayo’s aftercare range are fantastic as they are light, easy to apply and guaranteed to have been produced in a safe environment to the highest standards. Unlike topical medical creams, Yayo aftercare balms can be easily applied in layers to ensure the tattoo doesn’t get clogged and bogged down in cream. The main area where people go wrong when healing a tattoo is apply too much aftercare. More is less when it comes to tattoo aftercare creams and the other big factor is the age of the cream and cross contamination.
"Before applying your aftercare you must wash your hands under hot running water, with soap for at least 20 seconds."
Before applying your aftercare you must wash your hands under hot running water, with soap for at least 20 seconds; thoroughly cleaning all of your hands. You must then ideally use a hand dryer to air blast the moisture off your hands. If an electric hand dryer is not available you must use a fresh clean towel or hand towel. It is very easy to introduce bacteria to a tattoo, when applying aftercare, by not observing appropriate hand hygiene.
Now the next consideration is the age and sterility of your aftercare cream. If it’s from a tube ensure you do not touch the nozzle of the tune, when squeezing it out. This could result in contaminating the cream. If you do contaminate the nozzle, bin the cream and buy a new tube. If using a tub you must ensure you take the cream out with clean fingers (see above paragraph). If you take the cream out with dirty fingers it's game over for that tub. Chuck it in the bin and buy a new one. Also if the tub of cream has been hanging around in your bathroom cabinet for a while then chuck it away. In fact I’d recommend a fresh tub of Yayo for every new tattoo you get. This will ensure you’re not growing nasty bugs in your tub between tattoos. A tattoo is for life; so don’t ruin it by scrimping on tattoo aftercare products.
So you and your tattooist have stuck to the rules and ensured a safe and sterile tattoo process, the aftercare cream is brand new and you’re sticking to hand hygiene practices. Now you need to ensure you heal that tattoo as best as possible. Keep it clean, avoid tight fitting clothing, don’t go swimming, change your bed sheets regularly and for god sake don’t go to the beach.
If you have stuck to the rules there is still one area where complications can arise and result in an infection or irritated tattoo; and that’s you. Your general state of health can have a big impact on how a tattoo heals. If you turn up to get your tattoo, hungry, sleep deprived, stressed and dehydrated your body is already under considerable stress and is not in the best position to heal a tattoo. Make sure in the week building up to your tattoo you look after yourself. Eat well, keep hydrated, exercise, get enough sleep and avoid drugs and alcohol. The same applies post tattoo, you will heal quicker and better if you take care of yourself. And make sure you get enough protein in your diet to ensure your body has the building blocks to make new skin.
If you observe all of the above your tattoo should heal fine, but if you do experience problems then there is action you can take. If your tattoo swells you can take anti inflammatory drugs to reduce the swelling, ease the pain and help you sleep. If the tattoo is swollen, itchy and red you could take anti allergy medication to reduce symptoms. If the worst happens and an infection takes hold, and this is possible despite every effort, go see a doctor and get some antibiotics prescribed. The quicker you kill the bugs in the tattoo the less damage they can do.
So if your tattoo healing doesn’t go to plan, take a moment before you blast your aftercare cream on social media. Perhaps it isn’t to blame after all.
Final thoughts: "The human body is an incredible biological machine. It fights off infection hour after hour but if we don't help it along the way then tragedy can strike. That's why when you get a new tattoo you should always heal it with Yayo. If you want the best results then use the best aftercare; use Yayo!"
Images Yayo and Matt Haddon-Reichardt
STAY SAFE AND WASH YOUR HANDS!