Healing a fresh tattoo can be a stressful experience. Scrupulous aftercare can help prevent many, if not all potential problems, but even those of us who take aftercare as a near-religious calling can still run into trouble. One particular problem that can crop up are tattoo pimples. These little gems are sneaky because they tend to appear several days after you have been tattooed, at a time when you are just starting to feel like you are on the road to recovery. What starts out looking like a single bump easily written off as a random thing can blossom over the course of a day into a serious outbreak, making your fresh tattoo look like the face of a particularly unfortunate teen with acne. Are these actual pimples? And what the hell are they doing on your tattoo?
Tattoo pimples are small cysts that form when the surface of your skin becomes clogged – essentially just like a regular pimple. The difference with tattoo pimples is that they can appear on the body in areas where you generally don't get pimples. This can happen for several reasons. The most common is over-application of an ointment. Your healing tattoo needs to breathe and if you slather it with ointment – including artist-approved ointment – you are smothering it. This can lead to bacteria building up in the top layers of the epidermis, which then get inflamed and result in small pimples clustering around the tattoo.
Another cause is bacteria introduced to the healing tattoo. Maybe your wrap got dirty or you left it on too long; heat combined with the bacteria built up underneath create the perfect environment for infection, resulting in an outbreak of pimples, redness, and swelling. Before you panic and run screaming for the hills, take stock. Not all tattoo infections are dire enough to make you the next cringe-worthy "tattoo fail" on the internet. All pimples are a type of inflammation, and most of them resolve themselves and go away quietly after several days. This includes tattoo pimples.
When should you worry? Pimples accompanied by excessive swelling, oozing pus and/or turning into open sores, a high fever, or radiating red lines from the tattoo all point to serious infection and need to be treated by a medical professional immediately. Barring those horrors, what should you do about a rash of pimples around and on your healing tattoo? The hardest thing of all… nothing. You need to do absolutely nothing and leave them alone.
Don't pick, squeeze, touch, OR "treat" those pimples. Do NOT use acne creams or ointments of any kind. You need to let the area dry out and heal naturally. Keep showers short, and soaping and scrubbing to a bare minimum. Do not use abrasive washcloths or loofahs. It will take your body up to a week or more to resolve this outbreak. If you leave those pimples alone, they will not affect your tattoo. If you pick and squeeze them, all bets are off. By picking them, you create an open wound on top off your healing wound. This can lead to an even more serious infection like staph and/or damage the tattoo with scarring and ink pull out. Cover the area with lightweight, clean, loose, 100% cotton clothing and wait it out.
In a couple of weeks, you should be all healed up and those pimples will be a distant memory. And next time you heal a tattoo, don't leave your wrap on too long and don't use too much ointment! Be sure to keep yourself and everything around your new tattoo extra clean.