Why You Shouldn't Freak Out If Your Tattoo Is Peeling

Photographed by Beth Sacca.
After months of scrolling through thousands of Instagram photos for inspiration, you finally did the thing and got your first tattoo. You did the research, you saved up the money, and you booked the appointment. A few days later, you start to notice something strange: The tattoo ink is peeling.
There are few things as alarming as seeing your own skin peel; whether it's weeks after a brutal sunburn has subsided or you just used Baby Foot for the first time, the scene is always straight out of a horror film. Fortunately, peeling skin isn't necessarily a bad thing — in the case of a tattoo, peeling is a good sign, and all a part of the tattoo healing process.
To ease your worries (and understandable panic), we consulted the pros — L.A.-based tattoo artist Daniel Winter (@winterstone) and dermatologist Matthew Lin, MD — for their best advice on what to do if your tattoo is peeling. Their answers, ahead.

Why is my tattoo peeling?

Just like a new piercing, your tattoo causes trauma (even if minor) to the body — the peeling is a response to that, explains Winter. Although your tattoo ink doesn't live in the top layer of skin (it's actually underneath, in the dermis), it does trigger the body to shed as a response to what your body thinks is an injury. Essentially, it's trying to heal itself by sloughing away the epidermis.

How long does it take for the tattoo to peel?

The peeling often occurs about three to four days after you first get the tattoo. "As the epidermis sheds, the skin often develops a whitish, cracked and hazy appearance before subsequently peeling off," Dr. Lin says. The peeling normally resolves one to two weeks later.

Does peeling cause the tattoo ink to fade?

Blessedly, no. In fact, after your tattoo has finished peeling completely, it should make your tattoo appear even brighter and more vibrant. "After the skin has shed, the underlying skin will reveal the sharp and true colors of the initial tattoo," Dr. Lin says. "This is because the tattoo ink is placed in the dermis, and it's only the epidermis which peels."

Is it normal for old tattoos to peel?

Old tattoos don't normally peel, so if yours does, it's best to call your dermatologist and book an appointment ASAP. "It is possible that you may be developing an allergic reaction to the tattoo ink, which is more common with non-black tattoos, or an underlying dermatologic condition," Dr. Lin says.
Photographed by Beth Sacca.

How do I take care of a peeling tattoo?

All tattoos, no matter how big or small, require their own tattoo aftercare routine. The best practices include washing your tattoo every night (gently, with a fragrance-free soap), patting it dry with a paper towel, and applying a thin layer of ointment (Dr. Lin recommends Aquaphor) or fragrance-free lotion to the ink for the entire healing process — which can take anywhere from two to four weeks. You'll know your tattoo is fully healed when it stops peeling and the ink is settled into the skin. If it's not healed within four weeks, then see your physician to make sure you don't have an infection.
Most importantly, do not pick your tattoo. It may itch, but picking it could lead to an infection or scarring, says Dr. Lin. Winter stresses again that the peeling is a totally normal part of the healing process. So relax, sit back, and in about a month, you'll have a beautiful tattoo you can share all over the 'gram.
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