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Tattoo Aftercare Instructions for Foot Tattoos

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Sand and two tattooed swallows on woman's feet
ballyscanlon/The Image Bank/getty Images
Not all tattoos are created equal, and neither are the methods required to heal them properly. Tattoo aftercare instructions are usually one general set of rules, but some tattoos require specific care. Foot tattoos are one of the most difficult to heal for some, and others shy away from getting a foot tattoo because they’re afraid it will be a horrible experience. This article will help you overcome those obstacles. I have both of my feet tattooed, and trust me – it was worth a few days of pain and a few weeks of inconvenience.

Timing is Everything
Proper tattoo aftercare sometimes requires sacrifice. Once you get a foot tattoo, wearing shoes is off limits for at least a couple of weeks. That means you probably won’t want to get it done in the middle of winter. There are two major reasons why shoes are bad for a healing tattoo: One is that the shoe creates friction against the surface of the foot, which can cause irritation or even remove some of the ink and leave you with a faded tattoo. The other major problem is that it suffocates the tattoo, building up sweat and not allowing it to breathe. The combination of sweat, irritation and lack of air is the perfect environment for bacteria and infection.

If you have a job or participate in activities that require you to wear restrictive shoes every day, then a foot tattoo might not be a good idea - unless you can do it during vacation time when you have at least two weeks to keep the shoes off.

Timing also has to be considered if you’re a swimmer. You have to be able to stay out of the water for at least two weeks, so you'd need to work that around your swimming schedule. The same applies to vacationers and lifeguards who sit in the sun and could be called to enter the water, both of which are bad on any new tattoo.

Size Matters
The size of your tattoo will have a direct effect on how painful your foot will feel after getting tattooed. If you’re just getting something small like the size of a large coin or less, your healing will probably be pretty easy as long as you keep it clean and try not to wear shoes for a couple of weeks. On the other hand, if you’re getting something larger that spans across a good portion of your foot, that’s when you’ll really need to pay attention to this article.

One Foot, Two Foot
If you plan on getting both feet tattooed, don’t do them both at the same time. You’ll want to have at least one foot that isn’t in pain to hobble around with. Once any major swelling and pain has subsided, then you can go ahead and get work done on the other foot. My feet each needed two sessions to complete, so I went back and forth between them, but you could also just wait until one is complete and then begin the other foot. It’s up to you.

Red Foot, Blue Foot
Some swelling and minor bruising is to be expected for the first few days after getting tattooed. It may not hurt much the day of the tattoo, but the following day can be rather brutal. Even if it doesn’t hurt, you should go home and immediately apply ice to your tattoo after you leave the shop. Put your feet up and read, play video games; whatever it takes to distract you from wanting to get up and move about too much. That will start you off on….cough…the right foot. (ha) If you insist on being up and about after getting your foot inked, you’re likely going to pay dearly for it the next day. I don't recommend washing or applying any ointments to your tattoo on this first day. Just give it some time to calm down; if you went to a clean, reputable artist, then they already washed it and applied ointment before sending you out the door and you’ll be fine until the following morning.

Easy Does It
When it’s time to start washing your foot tattoo, it’s important to be gentle. Using only your hand, apply a small amount of mild cleanser (non-scented, chemical-free) to the tattoo and slowly work the cleanser into the tattoo with a circular motion. Rinse with cool water. While you’re washing your tattoo, you may feel something slimy on the surface – that’s plasma, and you’ll want to be sure that it’s completely gone before you’re finished washing. Keep applying cool water and making circular motions with your hand until you don’t feel the slippery plasma anymore. If you don’t, the plasma dries on the surface of your skin like scabs and it can be very painful.

Once your tattoo is clean, you’ll need to apply something to keep it moist – either ointment or lotion. It’s pretty much a matter of preference as long as you make sure whatever you use doesn’t have any fragrances or harsh chemicals. The presence of petrolatum as an ingredient has been debated for years on whether or not it can actually draw ink away from the tattoo. My personal experience and observances make me believe that a small amount of petrolatum is okay (straight petroleum jelly, however, isn’t) and that it’s the overuse of such products that usually cause the problem. People tend to want to slather the stuff on way too thick, and that’s when ink loss is experienced. So, this is my rule for ointment/moisturizer application: apply a thin coat, rub in well with your fingers, and then take a clean paper towel and dab off whatever remains. Your tattoo shouldn’t look glossy when you’re done.

Pump It Up
Swelling in the feet is usually due to water retention and poor circulation. People who carry extra weight or have a disorder that slows the circulation of blood have the highest risk of severe foot swelling. Drink lots of water (at least a gallon a day) and your body will allow you to flush the water instead of storing it. Feel free to elevate your feet and apply ice as needed – you may need to do this for an hour a day for a week, and that’s okay.

Even while you’ve got your feet elevated, it’s important to maintain good circulation. Proper blood flow and oxygen distribution plays a huge role in how quickly your tattoo will heal. Do leg pumps, leg lifts, crunches, arm lifts and anything else you can do to get your heart beating even while reclining.

When To Be Concerned
Swelling, redness, bruising, and pain are all normal for foot tattoos during the first few days. If it hasn’t subsided after four or five days, or if it did subside but then became painful and swollen again, it might be time to see a doctor. Foot tattoos are so prone to bacterial invasion – they’re low to the ground and come in contact with huge concentrations of bad germs. If your feet don’t get good circulation, a small infection could turn bad very quickly. A visit to the doctor – even if you don’t have insurance – will cost you a lot less than a visit to the hospital later on.

Three is the Magic Number
It takes three months for the human skin to completely restore itself after being tattooed. During that time, it builds up millions of cells that cover over the ink that’s been implanted underneath. Until that process is finished, your tattoo is vulnerable. After those first two critical weeks, you can begin to wear shoes when needed but you still need to baby your tattoo. Get the shoes off as soon as possible and then wash and treat the tattoo immediately. Keep it out of the sun as much as possible, and apply strong sunblock if you do need to expose your feet to the elements. Friction and UV rays can still cause serious fading, so until it’s been three months you need to be extra careful.

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