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Can I Exfoliate My Tattoos? And Other Questions About Tattoo Care.

We do hope you’re already washing your healed tattoos… Photo: Maxine Builder

This story first appeared on Wednesday, March 27, in The Strategist Beauty Brief, a weekly newsletter in which our beauty writers share their must-tries, can-skips, and can’t-live-withouts. But we liked it so much we wanted to share it with all of our readers. If you want more first impressions of buzzy launches, quick takes on what’s trending on TikTok and Instagram, and deep dives into the week’s best beauty launches, sign up hereThe Strategist Beauty Brief is delivered every Wednesday.

At the end of every installment of The Strategist Beauty Brief, we invite you, our readers, to write in with products you want us to test or trends that you want us to fact-check. And a couple of weeks ago, a reader submitted a question asking for “a deep dive into what beauty-care products help, hurt, or are just plain okay for tattooed body skin” that was very comprehensive and left us, quite frankly, a little stumped — so our writer Dominique Pariso took a swing at answering it here. If you’ve got your own question for the team, send us an email at strategistbeautybrief@nymag.com and we may answer it in a future installment.

While I don’t have any tattoos myself, I have written about caring for tattooed skin before, so I’ve learned quite a bit about the topic. However, to make sure my info is as up-to-date as possible, I also chatted with two board-certified dermatologists: Dr. Hadley King and Dr. Azadeh Shirazi. The good news is the professional advice for tattoo care has basically stayed the same over the past five years, and what’s good for your skin — specifically hydrating and protecting yourself from sun damage — is good for your tattoos. But in the interest of service journalism, I’ve broken down our reader’s original email question by question, so you know exactly what you need to keep your tattoo looking as vibrant as possible for as long as it’s on your body. (So, forever.)

Most tattoo artists recommend a healing protocol: Wash with a gentle soap like CeraVe, follow up with a few days of Aquaphor, then another safe lotion like CeraVe or Lubriderm. But what about healed tattoos?

After the initial healing phase is complete, which generally takes a few weeks, you can switch from the heavier occlusive ointments, like Aquaphor, to lighter lotions and creams. You want something that will still keep the skin hydrated and strengthens the skin barrier to keep your skin — and your tattoos — looking their best, says Shirazi, so look for formulas that are rich in replenishing ingredients like ceramides, fatty acids, and niacinamide.

For a body wash, consider Necessaire’s, which is hydrating and safe for sensitive skin. And once you’re out of the shower, try Naturium’s body lotion. It’s a favorite among our staff because it’s chock-full of omega fatty acids and shea butter, which deeply moisturizes the skin. It’s also fragrance-free and affordable. But really, any body wash or moisturizer that keeps the skin nourished will work fine for keeping healed tattoos at their finest.

So many body-care products have retinol or AHAs. Is it safe to use those active ingredients, either as a body wash or as a moisturizer?

It mostly comes down to timing. “For the first three months, it’s best to avoid harsh physical scrubs, AHAs, exfoliants, or retinols, as studies have shown tattoo ink to initially remain in the outermost skin layers,” explains Shirazi. Since these ingredients function by exfoliating or renewing the upper layers of the skin, they could interfere with the long-term healing of your tattoo. However, after complete healing, which generally happens around the three-month mark, the majority of the ink is located deeper in the skin, and such products are then safe to use, says Shirazi. And it turns out that incorporating an exfoliant or retinol regularly into your routine can actually make your tattoo look brighter, since you’re sloughing off a layer of dead skin cells.

To prevent irritation and dryness, you should only add in an active product once or twice a week, but they can be incorporated in any stage of your routine. For a body wash, I recommend Naturium’s Smoother Body Wash. It has a blend of glycolic and lactic acid to gently exfoliate and red algae to hydrate. If you prefer more of a physical scrub, I’ve used Nécessaire’s Body Exfoliator for years. And for a body lotion, AmLactin Daily Moisturizing Lotion is super-affordable with 12 percent lactic acid. All of these will buff away dead skin cells to keep your skin feeling smooth and your ink looking nice and crisp

What about sunscreen recommendations for tattooed skin?

On to the most important step: sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen. Wear it every day and apply it regularly, since UV exposure will cause the pigments in your tattoos to fade. Plus, using a product with active ingredients like AHAs or retinol will cause your skin to be more sensitive to the sun, so it’s even more important.

And just as with non-tattooed skin, “The right sunscreen is the sunscreen you will wear regularly,” says King. Both dermatologists we spoke with recommended mineral-based sunscreens, because those formulas sit on top of the skin to physically block the sun’s rays. You can dive deep into our sunscreen recommendations here and here; King recommends Blue Lizard’s mineral sunscreen, and Shiraz’s top pick is this SPF 50 from La-Roche Posay.

What about the products designed for tattooed skin, like Mad Rabbit and Dr. Woo. Worth it or skip it?

There isn’t any secret sauce that makes product lines specifically targeted for tattooed skin better than any other skin-care line. A lot of these brands promise to make your tattoos last longer or heal faster, but, at the end of the day, it’s mostly just marketing. Taking care of your skin with a routine you can stick with will get you those same results, so feel free to experiment with what works best for you.

This article originally appeared in The Strategist Beauty Brief, a weekly newsletter from our beauty writers on their must-tries, can-skips, and can’t-live-withouts. Sign up here.

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Can I Exfoliate My Tattoos? And Other Questions