When people are tattooed they may be surprised to find that while the body art is healing, the most irritating part will be itching that can go on for days. This may make some curious as to why a tattoo would itch. When one looks at the process of tattooing and the type of wound it creates and compares it to the process of dermatological healing, it becomes apparent why tattoos itch.
What is a Tattoo?
Tattoos are applied with a series of puncture wounds to the epidermis that allows ink to be placed under the top layers of the skin. Because it is essentially a wound, the healing process is a very important part of tattoo knowledge and care. It should be treated as a minor wound--the way sunburn might be treated--and the phases of healing for the tattoo will seem to mimic that of a bad sunburn, as well, due to injury of the skin at a similar level.
In wound healing, there are different phases that bring about different symptoms. The first phase is inflammatory. For a tattoo, this means the area will be red and swollen and may remain sore for the first couple days. The longer the tattoo session, the more trauma there will be to the skin; therefore, longer tattoos will have more soreness than smaller tattoos that took less time. This is also influenced by how heavy-handed the tattoo artist is when applying the ink.
Soon, the skin will begin to repair itself. The tattoo will remain sore but less inflamed, and may begin to feel tight and dry. This indicates that new skin is beginning to generate and the top layer is beginning to scab. Since the injury to the skin is superficial, in many cases it will not appear to be scabbed. This is another way in which people often compare the tattoo healing process to that of sunburn.
Since the skin is being pulled taut and regeneration is occurring beneath the top layer of injury, this is often when the tattoo will begin to itch (about three days into the healing process). A tight, dry feeling also indicates that it will begin to peel, which contributes to the itchiness of the sensitive new skin.
After the tattoo has peeled, the skin will still be new and sensitive. Over the next couple weeks, the repair process will occur and the skin will toughen to the strength of the surrounding area. It is at this point that a tattoo is fully healed, but once it has peeled it is not pertinent to continue with wound care procedures.
Relieving the Itch
During the inflammation phase, the best approach is to use an anti-bacterial ointment applied in very thin layers. This will both hydrate the skin and fight against infection.
Once the tattooed area begins to feel tight and dry, ointment can be replaced with unscented, mild lotion applied two to three times daily. Lotion will help immensely in reducing the itching associated with the healing process. When the tattoo is peeling, lotion will also help to lubricate the dead skin so that it slides off without causing further trauma to the sensitive, new skin underneath.