Tattoo Rashes: Identification, Prevention, Treatments

April 27, 2022
Max Stevens

You’re about to embark on a new journey in your life by getting your very first tattoo. As with any new experience, there is always a risk of something going wrong.

One of the most common risks in the tattoo world is developing a rash from the inks and other materials used. Itching is the most common symptom, but other symptoms include redness, swelling, and pain.

Please read on to know more about tattoo rashes and how to treat them.

What Is a Tattoo Rash?

It’s important to note that all new tattoos would cause some form of irritation in one way or another.

Your body protects itself by fighting pathogens on a cellular level. Dyes in tattoo ink have some form of component that may have the ability to irritate the skin. These are usually from heavy metals in certain coloured inks that are considered “invaders” by the body.

Noticing different irritation causes can help you make a decisive action to alleviate discomfort and help your skin avoid permanent damage.

Is a Tattoo Rash Normal?

Tattoo rashes are relatively normal, especially for newer tattoos. But, some other forms of tattoo rashes may be caused by other means, which can also be a cause for alarm.

Observing the affected area and how your body reacts is essential in determining if what you’re experiencing is normal. If it’s normal, it may be treated by over-the-counter medication (OTC). Still, you should consult with a medical professional if it’s not.

What Causes Tattoo Rashes?

Inflammatory Response

Your body is like a well-oiled machine with its quirks and ways to protect you from harm. One of the ways the body does it is what’s called an immune or an inflammatory response.

Meant to destroy pathogens or microorganisms that can make you sick—sometimes, the body protects you too well. Immune cells may try and fight harmless substances that enter your body.

These vigilant cells are called Macrophages. Macrophages are cells recruited by the body to swallow foreign bodies to destroy them. Sometimes these cells can perform a cellular process of programmed self-destruction—this is also medically called apoptosis.

Localised swelling and redness may occur as the body fights the ink from your tattoo. In one study, about 10% were reported to experience adverse reactions, 4% reported acute reactions, and about 6% suffered from a chronic reaction that lasted up to 4 months.


As this is a normal process when getting a new tattoo, you may opt to let the process run its course. Tattoos are considered raw open wounds and should not be subjected to neglect.

Keeping the affected area clean with anti-microbial soap and water should keep the tattoo hygienic. Applying anti-inflammatory creams can also help, such as hydrocortisone cream.

Allergic Reaction

Allergic reactions happen when there is an innate hypersensitivity of the body to specific elements or compounds that may come in contact with you. Unlike your body’s normal inflammatory response, the immune system goes on overdrive. It may induce a far more severe inflammatory response.

Regarding tattoos, most allergic reactions are caused by certain ingredients in ink itself, which the body recognises as a far more harmful “invader”. The most common offenders of an allergic reaction are heavy metals used as a base present in the inks red, blue, and yellow.

It is also notable that some inks use the same ingredients in industrial paint, like cars and other automobiles.

Red Ink

Red inks use dyes that may contain mercury, which can irritate the skin even further and cause Granuloma when exposed to certain chemicals. Granulomas are hard fibrotic tissue formed beneath the localised area due to clumped-up immune cells that didn’t efficiently destroy a foreign body.

Blue Ink

Blue inks are known to have traces of Cobalt in their dyes which too can cause Granulomas.

Yellow Ink

Yellow inks are known much differently than the other dyes. This kind of ink has been known to have a compound called Cadmium sulfate which can be phototoxic—which means that sunlight can react negatively and produce irritation.


Regardless of the ink colour, some dyes contain amounts of Titanium and Aluminium to produce a more pronounced sheen or finish.

Always be keen on observing the affected area and how the tattoo progresses. Be mindful of:

Severe allergic reactions can happen, and you may need to go to the hospital as soon as possible. Severe signs could manifest as:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Pus oozing from the tattoo
  • Rashes have spread all over the body.


Treatment for ink allergies can vary from OTC antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl). These antihistamines help reduce swelling and itching, which can remove the tattoo.

Suppose the discomfort is too unbearable or painful even with medication. In that case, it’s always a good idea to contact a professional.


Sunlight is known to produce ultraviolet (UV) rays and may irritate the affected area. This does not mean that sunlight itself is the cause of the irritation. Still, the chemicals in ink produce phototoxins in response to the influence of sunlight.

Many chemicals react to the sun or other sources of light—phototoxic components in ink dyes can do so and respond in the skin itself; thus, irritation occurs. This condition is more prevalent in inks containing Cadmium sulfate.

Be mindful If you notice any discomfort from the tattoo-like:

  • sunburn-like signs
  • blisters
  • skin flaking
  • oozing


Photosensitive irritation can be mitigated by applying a cold compress to the affected area and/or applying anti-burn ointments like aloe vera.

But, as always, a far better way is to refrain from exposing a new tattoo to sunlight by covering it with clothing or by simply staying indoors for the time being.

Contact Dermatitis

This type of rash usually occurs when your tattoo is not properly taken care of. This can result from scratching and other irritants that may contact the tattoo, like clothes, bandages, hair, and other objects.

Look out for these signs, especially if you just recently scratched or irritated your tattoo in any way.

  • redness around the tattoo
  • itchiness
  • blisters (more severe)
  • skin peeling


To lessen the discomfort, you may treat contact dermatitis with hydrocortisone creams and non-alcohol-based moisturisers.

The best way is to refrain from exposing your tattoo to constant or rough contact and minimise the odds of developing contact dermatitis.


This type of rash may be more severe and hinder your tattoo’s healing process. Infection commonly happens when general tattoo care and hygiene are not observed.

Microorganisms exist all over the surface of your body. Still, the skin serves as the barrier in between to protect the inside. A fresh tattoo can potentially introduce pathogens inside your body as an open wound.

Opportunistic bacteria or fungi can multiply and wreak havoc in a fresh tattoo. Infected tattoos can manifest in many ways, even affecting your entire body.

Be on the lookout for:

  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Pus oozing from the tattoo
  • Blisters
  • Intense swelling
  • Foul smells

Infections can be bacterial or fungal in origin. These are some microorganisms usually present on the surface of the skin. While a bacterial infection may be more common, a fungal source may also occur if a person is immunocompromised or has an impaired immune system.

Here are some microorganisms present on the surface of the skin.

  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • Staphylococcus epidermidis
  • Micrococcus luteus
  • Corynebacterium
  • Streptococci
  • Candida albicans


Infections are pretty severe and could require medical attention. Consult with a doctor as they can prescribe antibiotics or antifungals that be used to treat the infection.

Taking proper care of your tattoo can help reduce the risk of infection. One way to do this is by cleaning your tattoo regularly with gentle soap and water. Applying moisturisers and petroleum jelly-like (Vaseline) can also help prevent it from drying out.

Underlying Conditions

Various skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis can greatly exacerbate tattoo rashes. As the skin is already subjected to a very delicate state, tattoos can be detrimental.

Some conditions like a weak immune system can also affect how a tattoo reacts with your skin. Your body might not be able to defend itself well and initiate a proper immune response. It may cause an infection otherwise unlikely to happen on normal skin.

Do not get a tattoo if you have:

  • Job Syndrome
  • Agammaglobulinemia
  • Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes

Autoimmune diseases are also reasons to avoid getting a tattoo. These are chronic illnesses that cause your immune cells to target healthy cells in your skin. It literally makes your body attack itself.

Reconsider getting a tattoo if you have the following skin conditions.

  • Eczema
  • Psoriasis
  • Vasculitis
  • Lupus
  • Lichen planus
  • Behcet’s disease
  • Dermatomyositis
  • Lichen
  • Scleroderma


As these diseases exacerbate tattoo rashes and cause harmful results. Therefore, the logical choice would be to avoid getting a tattoo in the first place.

Treatment should be focused on the disease itself and not the tattoo rashes that may happen. Some diseases are more severe than others, so it’s best to know what your body is struggling against. Focus your energy first on getting better or implementing the prescribed procedures or medication to control the disease in question.

Will My Tattoo Rash Go Away?

Your tattoo rashes result from your skin’s way of defending itself. In a typical healing progression of a tattoo—irritation may reduce over time until the tattoo is fully healed. Just remember to always practice general tattoo care and hygiene.

Other conditions may lengthen the healing process considerably or permanently damage the skin. Always be mindful of your body and observe how the healing process is undergoing.

Should I Remove My Tattoo?

Removal isn’t always necessary, as you can always wait for the mild symptoms to pass. Nevertheless, severe complications may occur, and your dermatologist may prescribe removal.

A physician should always have the last say in determining the fate of your tattoo, as they only want what’s best for you.

When To Consult a Doctor?

In reality, you can always consult with a doctor if you ever need a more hands-on approach or if you want to consider a professional eye.

However, you always have the option to observe your tattoo at home if you want to as well. Having a tattoo for the first time can be exciting. You’ll always want to see how it progresses, so being mindful of the signs and symptoms should be your guide in assessing your tattoo. People who’ve had tattoos before will easily judge if what they’re experiencing is normal.

If you find the discomfort too overwhelming, consult a physician. They can help prescribe you medication that could be stronger in alleviating the pain. Better yet, they can diagnose a skin condition you’re not aware you were experiencing.

Final Thoughts

Knowledge goes a long way. Knowledge can protect you. Use these to your advantage and get the tattoo you’ve always wanted.

The pain we experience while getting a tattoo is normal, not the irritation we get after the ordeal. The extra steps and mindfulness of having a tattoo could also factor into the discomfort.

But, when you see your tattoo heal entirely over time and how meticulously you’ve given the time and consideration to take care of it. You’ll be rewarded with a badge of courage to wear for the rest of your life.


Max Stevens

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