A tattoo is essentially an open wound, and your first temptation to reduce the swelling and pain might be to grab an ice pack. Though ice can be a part of the recovery process and may help ease your sensitivity to the skin injury, there are right and wrong ways to apply it.
Read on for our safety tips to ensure you don’t compromise the healing of your ink by icing it.
Table of Contents (clickable)
Ice Your Tattoo
Ice or cold compresses can significantly reduce swelling and inflammation, while also helping to slow down the bleeding of an abrasion. They restrict blood circulation which helps with bruising while simultaneously numbing the intensity of the pain.
Swelling of New Tattoos
Swelling is a normal part of the healing process of a new tattoo, but too much swelling can actually be an enemy of the healing process. Swelling is a sign of extra water build-up in the cells that prevent the wound from getting the oxygen it needs to heal properly. It makes sense to want to grab the nearest cold compress to reduce this issue, which can also come with extra sensitivity and pain.
On the other hand, homemade cold compresses with ice from the freezer may contain numerous bacteria that could compromise the healing of our tattoo. In addition, applying it directly to the surface of our skin may rip off essential scabbing that begins right after our first wash.
So how do we ice our tattoo safely?
How to Ice a New Tattoo
If you wish to apply a cold compress or ice to a new tattoo to reduce the swelling, here are a few things you need to keep in mind.
- Never apply a cold compress directly on the skin; always ensure there is a clean and wet barrier, such as a fresh towel, touching the tattoo to prevent tissue damage.
- Try not to use homemade ice cubes so there is no risk of bacteria contamination. If you do, ensure they are bagged.
- Always wash your hands prior to preparing your cold compress.
- Only ice the area for 15 to 20 minutes and then reapply in two hours if needed.
- Keeping your tattoo wet with the cold compress will slow down healing, so you should only do this if the swelling or pain is truly intolerable.
Making a Cold Compress
If you don’t have an instant-ice first aid compress or other cold compresses available, you can make your own which will be safe for your new tattoo.
- Washcloth or cheese cloth
- A plastic bag
- Wash your hands and put the ice in a plastic bag. If you don’t have ice, you can also wet a small face towel and put it in the freezer and then insert that frozen towel into the plastic bag instead.
- Wet the washcloth or cheese cloth with cool water and wrap it around the bag. Dry cloth pressed against your tattoo may get stuck in the injury.
- Place the homemade cold compress on your tattoo for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, and reapply in two hours if needed.
- Always dry the area when you are done by patting it dry with a fresh towel or paper towel. Do not rub the tattoo dry.
Keeping your tattoo elevated also helps reduce swelling.
Your first week of aftercare for a new tattoo is essentially what will set your tattoo up for optimal healing. There are aftercare steps that will help reduce swelling and pain, without the need for a cold compress.
- After you leave the shop - Your artist will have wrapped your tattoo during its most vulnerable period. Leave the wrap on for four to six hours, unless directed differently by your artist. Wash your hands before you remove the wrap.
- Wash your tattoo - Using antibacterial soap, carefully wash your tattoo. You will need to be gentle but thorough to remove all the weeping of your new tattoo, getting rid of blood, plasma, and excess ink from the wound. This is natural; the first wash will be the slimiest and most painful, but be patient and meticulous.
If you are nervous, you can follow our careful steps in our article How Do I Clean My New Tattoo? - An Ink Aftercare Guide.
- Dry the tattoo - When you dry your tattoo during the first three weeks, you should use a paper towel that leaves no produce remnants, or a clean towel to ensure you aren’t putting your tattoo in contact with any bacteria.
- Ice the skin (if necessary) - After the first wash, you can apply ice. Remember to follow our careful guide to make sure you are doing this safely.
- Dry the area again - After you ice your tattoo, ensure you pat the area dry.
- Apply ointment if needed - Ointment can be used during the first three days of your tattoo, unlike lotions or creams which may prevent the tattoo from drying and healing properly. You can apply an ointment to ease the pain or irritation of the new tattoo and reapply it after every wash. Never put ointment on an unwashed tattoo, as you may trap in dirt and grime.
- Elevate your tattoo - If possible, elevate the tattoo while you are sitting or sleeping to reduce swelling to the area.
- Moisturize your tattoo - After your tattoo has stopped weeping on day three or four, you can begin to add moisturizer to your aftercare process. This helps with itchiness, redness, and irritation, and it also helps form healthy scabs.
- Don’t pick your scabs - Around week one is when you will start to see your first scabs or peeling skin start to form. Don’t touch them; let them fall off on their own.
There are some additional factors that will help improve your healing process.
Avoid Blood Thinners
Blood thinners will prevent the clotting of a wound which means it will take your tattoo longer to heal. This is because essential cells will not be able to form around the new tattooed area. You should avoid things like aspirin, coffee, or alcohol. If you truly need a painkiller like aspirin, consult with your artist first.
Avoid Skin-Numbing Creams
Numbing creams should absolutely be avoided on fresh ink. It can actually have adverse effects on your swelling and pain, and may actually compromise the body’s repair process. This could lead to extended healing time, or worse, burning, scarring, or damage to your new art piece.
Choose an Experienced Artist
Cheap tattoos are not good, and good tattoos are not cheap and you’ll be able to notice this immediately if you invest in a qualified artist. They know exactly where to deposit the ink in your dermis and don’t suffer from heavy-handedness, making the entire experience less painful and the healing process a breeze.
Don’t Take Hot Showers
Hot showers not only have the potential to hurt your new tattoo and severely dehydrate your skin, they also increase your blood flow which could negatively affect the healing of your tattoo.
Avoid Pressure on the Area
You should aim to elevate your tattooed area rather than executing pressure on the area because pressure will increase swelling.
Our Final Thoughts
Swelling, pain, and excessive sensitivity is all part of the experience of a new tattoo, but it goes away after the first four days or so. If it’s too painful to handle, you can reduce these concerns by icing your tattoo safely and carefully, in small sessions. Remember not to over-ice the area and to focus on other essential aftercare steps in order to speed up the healing time of your tattoo.