Fellow tattooed folks, I’ve got a question for you. Do ever get very itchy, seemingly for no reason at all? When you scratch, do you feel like your tattoos are raised — like they’re trying to jump out of your skin? It happens to me all the time, and it’s a sensation that’s difficult to explain to people who don’t have tattoos (or, as I like to call them, blank canvases). Thankfully for us, we’re not losing our minds or doing anything wrong — for the most part, itchy tattoos are normal.
Tattoos can be classified as a skin injury, even though they might not look like what you picture a skin injury to be (like a deep cut or burn or scrape). And, as San Diego board-certified dermatologist Melanie Palm explains, a tattoo can result in a “hypertrophic scar or keloid” as it heals. And that’s one of a few reasons tattoos can be perpetually itchy.
Just take it from New York City board-certified dermatologist Shari Marchbein: “When the skin heals [from a tattoo] and scars, a particular inflammatory cell called a mast cell becomes more prominent in this area of the skin, and these cells can release histamine, the same substance which causes allergies, hives, and subsequent itchiness,” she says. “This helps to explain why scars and areas of skin injury in general become itchy.”
And while tattoos can be itchy all on their own, they can also make us extra sensitive to other stuff. “Tattoos are a break in the skin barrier,” Connecticut-based board-certified dermatologist Mona Gohara says. “Little ink particles set up residence between the usual bricks (skin cells) and mortar (nutritional lipids and proteins) that make up the barrier keeping irritants out and moisture in; this makes the skin in this area a smidge more reactive and vulnerable.”
Gohara and Marchbein both recommend that people with tattoos avoid putting products with common irritants or allergens — namely fragrance and alcohol — on their skin to prevent further inflammation. Tattoos are also extra sensitive to sun exposure (which also causes tattoos to fade), so it’s important to frequently cover them with an SPF 30 or higher, like CeraVe Hydrating Sunscreen Body Lotion. Staying moisturized, Gohara adds, is also key to keeping a tattooed skin barrier happy (my personal favorite for fresh-looking tattoos is Nécessaire’s unscented The Body Lotion).
If doing those things doesn’t lend you any relief from super-itchy ink, there might be a bigger problem hiding under the surface. Tattoos (even older, healed ones) can pose a risk of infection, and sudden inflammation can be an indicator of that. “As with all tattoos, infections can happen, both immediately and delayed, as can other reactions to the tattoo pigment itself,” Marchbein explains. “Tattoos create thousands of microscopic holes in the skin in order to deposit the tattoo pigment; in doing so, the skin is now open and is predisposed to various infections, including with bacteria such as Staph Aureus.”