The Ultimate Guide To Dealing With Tattoo Rash

Written by Arshiya Syeda

Developing a rash on your tattoo is not that uncommon. Despite taking all the necessary precautions, some people may still experience a tattoo rash even weeks after getting inked.

If you have recently gotten inked and are experiencing unexpected side effects, this article is for you. We will look at what causes a tattoo rash, the signs of infection, side effects, as well as treatment options available. Let us jump right in!

What Is The Difference Between Redness And A Rash?

A new tattoo is very likely to cause some kind of irritation. After all, injecting ink into your skin is bound to elicit a reaction from your immune system. You may experience redness, swelling, sore skin, itching, and flaking. However, in most cases, these symptoms go away once your skin cells get the time and space to adjust to the ink. This is a classic case of tattoo redness and is a normal part of the healing process.

A rash, on the other hand, may develop over time – sometimes weeks or even months after you get a tattoo. A tattoo rash is typically characterized by itchy bumps, increased pain, redness that becomes darker with time (as opposed to becoming lighter), and swelling (1). Additionally, the rash may sometimes look similar to acne, having pus-filled pimples that leak if you end up scratching them.

Now that you have understood the key difference between redness and a rash, it is time to deep-dive into the types of tattoo reactions.

Different Types Of Reactions To Tattoos And Possible Causes

Generally speaking, you may have a reaction to your tattoo due to:

  • A response from your immune system.
  • An underlying skin condition that gets aggravated.
  • Overexposure to light or other allergens.

That said, let us understand the different kinds of tattoo reactions that you may experience:

1. Infection: An infection may occur immediately or even after a few days/months, depending on how your body reacts to the tattoo. This happens when infectious bacteria enter the tattooed area while the wound is still healing. Alternatively, you can get a bacterial or viral infection through an infected needle (1).

The typical signs of infection include:

  • Redness, bumps, rash, and swelling around the area
  • Intense itching or burning around the tattoo
  • Pus oozing out from the tattoo
  • Hard, bumpy tissue

Note: These symptoms may appear even beyond the tattooed area and may be accompanied by fever or chills.

2. Allergic Reaction: You may have an allergic reaction to a specific color/chemical in ink immediately or even years later. In most cases, red ink has been known to cause an allergic reaction. However, other colors may also cause such a reaction.

Additionally, you may experience an allergic reaction if you have recently had a medical treatment such as antiretroviral treatment for HIV or if you have had joint replacement surgery (2). The typical signs of an ink allergy include:

  • Redness and swelling
  • Itching and skin flaking
  • Small pimple-like bumps
  • Raised, scaly patches around the tattoo
  • Deep lumps and skin tags
  • Blisters and crusty skin
  • Watery pus/fluid build-up around the tattoo

If you experience the following symptoms, you have a more severe reaction, so make sure to speak to your doctor immediately:

  • Intense itching/burning/swelling around the tattoo
  • Pus oozing from the tattoo
  • Hard, bumpy tissue
  • Chills or hot flashes along with fever
  • Swelling around your eyes
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Racing heart
  • Tightness in your chest
  • Dizziness
  • Stomach ache
  • Flushing or hives

3. Sun Allergy: This type of reaction occurs when the ink in your tattoo gets exposed to the rays of the sun. It is known as photodermatitis in medical terms. Inks containing cadmium sulfide are most likely to react to sunlight as they contain certain reactive oxygen species that can cause heat reactions and break down the skin (3).

Note: that the allergic reaction can appear within minutes or hours of sun exposure, particularly with the use of black and blue inks.

The common signs of a sun allergy include:

  • Swelling/redness around the tattoo
  • An itchy rash of tiny bumps
  • Oozing
  • Skin flaking
  • Blisters or hives

4. Underlying Skin Condition: If you have an underlying skin condition such as eczema or dermatitis, getting a tattoo can make it worse. In other words, the tattoo ends up acting as a trigger for severe skin flare-ups or when irritants touch your skin after the tattoo has healed, as is the case with contact dermatitis.

Considering that most skin conditions happen due to a weakened immune reaction, it can lead to itchy rashes, hives, and/or bumps. If you get a tattoo done in such a scenario, your skin may be more susceptible to viruses and bacteria and may be unable to ward off foreign invaders. The typical signs of an aggravated underlying skin condition (think: eczema, psoriasis, etc.) include:

  • Dry and cracked skin
  • White bumps
  • Scaly, tough, and peeling skin
  • Sores or lesions
  • Discolored skin areas
  • Bumps or warts

Possible skin conditions that might get triggered include:

  • Psoriasis
  • Eczema
  • Vitiligo
  • Keloid
  • Scars
  • Sarcoidosis
  • Skin cancer

Note: If you end up getting a tattoo in an unhygienic environment, your chances of developing a bacterial infection or viral infection skyrocket. You may experience the underlying skin condition within 3-20 days of getting inked, or in other cases, it may take years to appear. In fact, in rare cases, skin cancer may appear within the tattoo.

5. Acne Breakout: Pimples are small, fluid-filled bumps that occur when oils, dirt, bacteria, dead skin cells, etc., end up blocking the follicle openings. So when you get a tattoo done, your skin is exposed to foreign matter that can get stuck in the hair follicles and cause an acne breakout. Some of the common symptoms of an acne breakout include:

  • Whiteheads/blackheads
  • Red bumps
  • Bumps with fluid or pus
  • Swollen painful bumps

Now, let’s look at what actually happens when tattoo ink is injected into your skin.

What Happens When Tattoo Ink Is Injected Into The Skin?

Here is what happens when the tattoo artist inks your skin:

Step 1: The tool that the artist uses pricks your skin at about 100x a second.
Step 2: This swift action helps to deliver the pigments deep into your skin and ensures that the tattoo stays permanent.
Step 3: Since the deeper layer of your skin has blood vessels and nerves, the cells of the immune system spring into action and engulf the pigments.
Step 4: Typically, a majority of the pigments stay within the tattooed region, getting trapped between the skin cells and the immune cells. In rare cases, the pigment may get carried to the lymph nodes and get deposited there, causing serious health hazards in the long run.

Now that you have the basics in place, let us look at the various treatment options available at your disposal.

Top Treatment Options Available For Tattoo Rash

Let’s at the treatment options available for every kind of tattoo reaction we have covered so far:

1. Infection: To treat an infection, reach out to your doctor right away. They will examine the condition and prescribe antibiotics to offer relief and help clear out the infection.

Additionally, make sure to:

  • Give your body ample rest so that your immune system can fight off the infection.
  • Make sure to use a cold compress to get rid of the associated symptoms such as pain, swelling, and fever.
  • Clean your tattoo regularly to keep the bacteria at bay.

2. Allergic Reaction: To treat an allergic reaction to a tattoo, here’s what you need to do:

  • In case of a mild reaction, reach out to your tattoo artist and ask if there is any OTC that you can use. If the reaction persists for more than 1 to 2 weeks, go see a board-certified dermatologist.
  • In case of a more severe reaction, speak to a doctor immediately and take an over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamine to get relief from the symptoms.
  • Apply a topical ointment such as a hydrocortisone or a triamcinolone cream, which can provide relief from local inflammation and irritation.

Note: If these treatments do not work, consult your doctor for a stronger dose of medication.

3. Sun Allergy: To treat a tattoo rash due to a sun allergy, you can:

  • Apply a cold compress to relieve some of the discomfort.
  • Apply fresh aloe vera gel to soothe the sunburn while moisturizing your skin at the same time.
  • Take an antihistamine medication to reduce itching and other allergy symptoms after consulting with your doctor.

Additionally, as a precautionary measure to prevent a rash from sun exposure, follow the steps outlined below:

  • Apply sunscreen at least 15-20 minutes before you step outside. Make sure that the sunscreen is SPF 30 or higher, offers broad-spectrum protection, and is water-resistant.
  • Wear clothes that cover your tattoo before stepping outdoors.
  • Stay in shaded areas to reduce sun exposure as much as possible.

4. Underlying Skin Condition: After getting a tattoo done, make sure to keep the following pointers in mind to tackle any underlying skin condition that may occur:

  • If you are prone to getting scars or already have keloids, reconsider getting a tattoo as scarring can ruin its appearance.
  • If you notice any of the signs of a skin condition (as mentioned in the previous section), speak to a board-certified dermatologist immediately. They can assist you with the right diagnosis and help create a treatment plan.
  • To get immediate relief from the pain, rash, and swelling, you can use a cold compress. Simply take a clean towel and soak it in cold water. Then, press it against your skin for about 10-15 minutes three times a day.
  • You can also take an antihistamine to reduce the itching and other allergy symptoms, but make sure to consult your doctor first.
  • You can apply an OTC anti-itch ointment to reduce inflammation and other symptoms such as irritation and redness. Possible options include hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion.
  • Always moisturize your skin after taking a shower. Plus, make sure to use a gentle, unscented moisturizer.
  • If you wish to soothe any blisters and get relief from the severe rash, use a colloidal oatmeal lotion or indulge in a warm oatmeal bath.
  • If you continue to experience symptoms of contact dermatitis, see your doctor. For severe or more widespread symptoms, they may prescribe short-term oral or topical steroids to help control inflammation.

5. Acne Breakout: If you have an acne breakout on and around your tattoo, follow these steps:

  • Make sure to get clear-and-cut aftercare instructions from your tattoo artist.
  • Do not use any kind of acne products on your tattoo. Otherwise, you risk interfering with the natural healing process.
  • Make sure to shower consistently to prevent the skin from getting too oily or sweaty.
  • Gently wash around your tattoo and only use unscented soap and warm water.
  • Avoid wearing tight-fitting clothes around your tattoo till the acne clears out.
  • If your symptoms persist, visit a doctor and follow the treatment plan prescribed by them.

Note: Often, pimples go away without any treatment. So, wait a few days for the pimple to clear out on its own.

Next, it is time to look at the top tips to prevent a tattoo rash altogether. It is time to get proactive!

Tips To Prevent A Tattoo Rash

Before getting a tattoo, it helps to take a few steps to learn about any possible reactions you may have. So, here are a few good tips to follow:

  1. Figure out if you have any existing allergies. You can always make an appointment with an allergist and get an in-depth report. This will allow you to identify the triggers/ingredients to steer clear of.
  2. Figure out if you have any underlying skin conditions such as psoriasis, eczema, etc., which may become worse after getting inked.
  3. Do not get a tattoo if you have a weak immune system or are sick as it can cause a tattoo rash.
  4. Do your homework and choose a reputable as well as a certified tattoo artist.
  5. Ensure that the tattoo shop has a valid license and is following all the health and safety standards.
  6. Check out online reviews of the shop. You can ask people who have tattoos for recommendations.
  7. Enquire about the kind of ink/ingredients the tattoo artist will use.
  8. Speak to the artist about the aftercare and do not skimp on the aftercare steps.
  9. Communicate your health history with them before getting a tattoo.
  10. Ensure that the tattoo artist wears a new pair of gloves and uses sterilized tools before starting the process of tattooing.

At this stage, the most important question circling your mind might be…

When Should You See Your Tattoo Artist Or Doctor?

If you are worried about the post-tattoo rash and the associated pain, swelling, and/or oozing, visit your tattoo artist first. Talk to them about your symptoms so that you have a clear understanding of the kind of ink that they have used and the steps that they have undertaken while doing the tattoo. Make sure to take notes to get the specifics right.

Once you have all the information, visit your doctor right away and communicate to them all the information you just gathered. The little details will help your doctor to understand what might have caused the rash and recommend the right treatment option.

If you are wondering about how long the allergic reaction is likely to last, keep reading.

How Long Does It Take For A Tattoo Allergic Reaction To Go Away?

Typically, a mild to moderate tattoo rash clears up within two weeks. If your rash persists beyond that, consult a doctor.

Note: If there is scarring or swelling in the tattoo area while healing, do not worry as long as they disappear within a week and do not return. Otherwise, you may need to consult a doctor.

The Final Take

In rare cases, people may experience an adverse reaction to their tattoo in the form of a rash, swelling, redness, etc. Before you get a tattoo, make sure to understand your health history and go to a certified tattoo artist. Additionally, pay special attention to post-tattoo aftercare to prevent severe reactions. A little precaution goes a long way in preventing a tattoo rash.

3 Sources

Articles on StyleCraze are backed by verified information from peer-reviewed and academic research papers, reputed organizations, research institutions, and medical associations to ensure accuracy and relevance. Read our editorial policy to learn more.

  1. The Risk of Bacterial Infection After Tattooing
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5290255/
  2. Tattoo reactions in an HIV patient: Autoeczematization and progressive allergic reaction to red ink after antiretroviral therapy initiation
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4809398/
  3. Tattoo reaction: Case series
    https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/c169/4a508891673431ed45fa017d8f395a88067b.pdf
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Arshiya Syeda is an editor and certified counselor. Ever the lover of the written word, she served on the editorial boards of her school and college newsletters. Writing articles on hairstyles, hair care, and nutrition helped her combine her love for reading, writing, and research. As an editor, she helps her team members deliver polished and meticulously researched content. Arshiya is fluent in English, Urdu, and Hindi and aims to become a multilinguist by learning German and teaching herself American Sign Language (ASL).