Your tattoo will go through many phases while it’s healing, and it’s normal if those phases aren’t pretty. Your tattoo may weep, itch, or peel. These are important parts of the healing process; they’ll be over with before you know it.
There may be times when the healing process doesn’t go as smoothly as you want it to. Cracking can be a sign that something’s up, and you need to know what to do if you notice cracks.
What Is Tattoo Cracking?
Tattoo cracking is when your whole tattoo gets dry, and the top layer begins to crack. It can look like the parched ground in the desert heat, the pattern of a turtle shell, or alligator skin. It may or may not look scabby. Cracking tattoos often look hard and shiny in the spots where they’re cracked.
They don’t usually look crusty or oozy, so many people don’t realize that cracking is a sign that something is wrong. At first glance, it may just appear that your tattoo is getting ready to peel. Peeling is a normal part of the healing process.
The difference between cracking and peeling is that a peeling layer is thin and translucent. If you ever put school glue on your hands and peeled it off when you were a kid, you already know what peeling should look like. With a cracking tattoo, the top layer of the tattoo stays thick, and the edges won’t lift.
What Causes Tattoo Cracking?
Tattoo cracking is caused by dry healing skin. Like most other wounds, tattoos heal better if they’re kept a little wet.
Your tattoo artist’s aftercare instructions likely emphasized keeping your tattoo moist with some kind of wrap, balm, or ointment. If things didn’t go as planned, you likely wound up with a few healing issues.
Is Tattoo Cracking Normal?
Tattoo cracking isn’t normal. Peeling is normal, but cracking means your tattoo isn’t healing properly. Signs of cracking, redness, or irritation on your tattoo mean something went amiss.
Don’t freak out. It’s uncomfortable, but it isn’t the end of the world. If you catch cracking early, you can do a little damage control. Worst case scenario, you’ll need a little touch-up.
If the cracking continues for a long time, it will eventually turn into hardened scabs that will fall off. These will take the ink with them, and your tattoo may lose pigment and scar up. The key is to intervene before things get to that point.
How To Prevent Tattoo Cracking
Your tattoo artist’s aftercare instructions are designed to promote healing. Following their instructions to the letter makes you less likely to experience tattoo cracking. Your artist’s instructions will likely involve keeping your tattoo covered for a few days, avoiding the gym, staying out of the pool or hot tub, and taking a shower instead of a bath.
When your wrap comes up, you’ll need to wash and moisturize your tattoo a few times a day.
What To Do if Your Tattoo Is Cracking
If your tattoo is cracking, you should act immediately to help your tattoo heal properly. You’ll also want to handle some of the discomfort you might be experiencing.
Tell Your Tattoo Artist
You might be afraid to tell your tattoo artist that your tattoo is cracking, especially if you know you didn’t exactly follow the aftercare instructions. Think about the common goal you and your tattoo artist share: you want to salvage their work.
Your tattoo artist will always be an ally to your tattoos. They’ll tell you what to do and help you assess the situation. They’ve seen it before, and they may have some helpful advice.
Nourish Your Skin
Cracked skin is very dry. If you see any cracking or flaking anywhere on your body, that’s the biggest indicator that you need moisture. Don’t forget to drink plenty of water to plump up your skin and keep it hydrated from the inside. As for the outside, nourish your tattoo with a healing protective balm.
Be generous with your application. Your skin is very thirsty, and you’ll likely need a lot more balm than you thought. Keep gently massaging it in. When you're done, your skin should feel slightly wet to the touch.
You want the balm to stay on your tattoo. If you put on a shirt, lay in bed, or sit on the couch, it will transfer. Consider wrapping your tattoo with plastic wrap for an hour or two to trap the moisture and encourage your cracked tattoo to drink it up.
Ease the Discomfort
A cracked tattoo might feel tight and uncomfortable. It may sting or burn when you move. You can ease the discomfort with over-the-counter anti-inflammatory meds and topical numbing cream.
Keep It Going
You’ll need to keep your tattoo clean and moisturized until the cracking stops and your skin no longer feels dry. Avoid hash soaps, swimming in chlorinated pools or hot tubs, and exposing your cracked tattoo to sunlight while nursing it back to health.
The Final Word on Cracked Tattoos
If your tattoo is cracked, you need to keep an eye on it. It’s better to prevent cracking than to deal with it after it happens. You should always follow your tattoo artist’s aftercare instructions. If you lose them or if you don’t understand them, it’s better to ask. Your tattoo artist will be happy you came to them for clarity rather than winging it.
If your tattoo is severely cracked, you might need a touchup to fix the places where the tattoo scarred or lost pigment. Don’t jump to the worst-case scenario immediately, but be mindful that a little repair work might be in your future.