My Tattoo “Survival Kit”

So here we are a week later and my fresh ink is about 90% healed. Yes, in just that short of a time it’s almost healed completely. No, I’m not an unusually fast healer (in fact, the opposite is true) but I just have the right things in my survival kit, so I’m going to share those things with you so you can have the best tattoo experience possible.

Getting your first tattoo is no doubt a daunting experience. Hell, it can even be daunting for the seasoned veteran. Tattoos are stressful and painful and then aftercare can always be a royal pain in the ass unless you have the right tools at your disposal. So here are the products I recommend you have in your “survival kit” so that you can have the best tattoo and healing experience possible. I’m including both during tattoo and after tattoo products.

1. Numbing Gels/Creams

OK, I know, I might take some heat for this one but damn is it ever necessary. As someone with a low pain tolerance, numbing creams are a must for me. Some artists and tattoo enthusiasts frown upon them but just because someone has a low pain tolerance doesn’t mean that he/she shouldn’t be able to get a tattoo, especially if that tattoo is deeply meaningful to that person.

As far as numbing creams, there are a number to choose from that work relatively well. In most parts of the world you can get EMLA cream over-the-counter at your local pharmacy. Unfortunately, in the United States EMLA is only available by prescription. A couple of alternatives available in the US that work well are Dr. Numb and LidoCream (pictured above). Hush gel (also pictured above) is also popular, but people have had mixed results with it (I’ve used it myself with fairly good results, but it doesn’t last two hours I tell you) and because it’s menthol-based it burns like hell when you initially apply it. My personal recommendation is anything with a 5% concentration of active ingredients. Anything less than that in my experience doesn’t give the desired effect.

Personally, for areas with low-to-moderate sensitivity and for smaller pieces I find I no longer really need the above products (and if you have an average to high pain tolerance you might not need them at all), but for large pieces on highly sensitive areas you better believe I’m lathering up before the session. I should say don’t expect complete pain relief, but it will take a substantial amount of “the edge” off.

It should also be noted that the above products are also great for facial and body piercings, shots/injections, blood draws, IV placement, etc.!!! These do have multiple uses.

2. Vasocaine Numbing Spray

Vasocaine numbing spray is pricy but worth it. It picks up where the previous product(s) leave off, but it won’t work on unbroken skin so it’s not useful for the beginning of a session.

Vasocaine contains 5% lidocaine plus epinephrine. When sprayed onto broken skin it absorbs quickly, completely numbing the area and reducing swelling. I find it especially useful for marathon sessions and pieces that require several passes over the same area over time. I’ve only had to use it twice so far (on the flower piece on my left leg and on the ribs) but I’m sure I’ll have to use it again. Whether or not you use the initial numbing products above and no matter how tough you think you are, we all have our limitations and when we hit those limitations they must be respected.

No tattoo shop should be without Vasocaine but some are so I keep some on hand myself.  As mentioned, it’s pricy but oh-so-worth it.

3. Witch Hazel (brand doesn’t matter much)

Immediately after the tattoo is finished, a quick cleanse with some witch hazel is just what the doctor ordered. It’s cold, refreshing and almost immediately relieves that “sunburnt” feeling immediately after getting tattooed. My local artist turned me onto this stuff and I’ve been using it immediately after the conclusion of a session ever since, and before I apply the next product in my survival kit, which is none other than:

4. Saniderm/Tegaderm

Saniderm is hands-down the best tattoo aftercare product on the market. No need for washing multiple times per day, messy lotions or ointments that can cause infection or anything special really. Saniderm locks in your body’s natural healing fluids so that you heal quickly and naturally, dramatically reducing itching and completely eliminating scabbing. It also provides a barrier between your fresh tattoo and the outside world so it keeps irritants and infection out. Many also report that Saniderm preserves blacks and colors better than traditional healing methods, leaving you with a tattoo that looks studio fresh.

Using this stuff is super simple – just cut a piece big enough to cover the tattoo and have some in contact with undamaged surrounding skin, round the corners (it does stick better if you do) and apply it following the directions included. It’s a bit tricky at first so try a couple of small pieces on undamaged skin before you try to apply it to your tattoo.

Wear the first bandage for about a day while body fluids and excess ink accumulate under the bandage, remove (recommended in a hot shower to loosen the adhesive) and apply a new bandage to wear for a week. When you remove the 2nd bandage you are all but home free. In the meantime, go about your business as usual. Just shower as normal is all the cleaning you need and you can even swim in Saniderm and it’s fine (don’t try that with the old healing methods!!!).

If you’re averse to buying online or you don’t have Saniderm available in your local tattoo shop, you can get 3M Tegaderm at any pharmacy or drug store, which is the exact same thing. They just come in small sheets so you’ll have to overlap multiple sheets for large tattoos.

5. Aveeno (or equivalent generic) Daily Moisturizing Lotion

Once the Saniderm comes off your tattoo will peel as with other healing methods, but it will be much less bothersome and much quicker. During this time, I transition to the above product to help the peeling process. Just apply a very small amount to the peeling tattoo to help it along.

As I have hormonal teenager skin, most lotions and creams break me out. This is the one I’ve found that does not so long as I use it sparingly (which you should be doing anyway). Even after I’ve fully healed, I continue to apply a small amount to my tattoos every few days to keep them looking bright and studio fresh.

(Note: I normally get generic on this product. Works just as well.)

6. Neutrogena Clear Face SPF 55 Sunscreen (or equivalent generic)

If you want your tattoos to last, sunscreen is your best friend. Any time you’re going to be outside in the sun for any more than a few minutes you should put sunscreen over your tattoos as nothing will break down the ink particles faster than UV exposure. Think about it – laser tattoo removal is more or less an accelerated version of this process.

All tattoos fade over time but this process can be slowed down by simply protecting them from the sun. I use the above sunscreen for its high SPF number (anything above 50 is really theoretical so 55 is more than adequate) and because of the fact that it won’t cause breakouts. I’ve never had a problem with breaking out, even with frequent reapplication and I never even get sunburns at the race track where I’m exposed to not only the sun but the heat radiating back off the asphalt.

Of course, as with the above, if you don’t have any breakout problems just any broad-spectrum high SPF sunscreen will work fine, but this stuff has been a godsend for me.

So there we have it, my tattoo survival kit. Again, this will probably become a page for future reference, but for now here is this in post form. Damn, I feel almost girly writing a beauty-themed post here but I guess it works. Hopefully you can bank upon my experiences and make your tattoo experience as great as possible.

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