If you’ve just dropped a lot of money on some new body art, you probably can’t wait to show it off, especially in a swim suit. Sadly, tattoos and water do not mix, at least not until the new addition is completely healed. That means swimming, at the beach or in a pool, is off limits. Same goes for hot tubs and baths.
But, why can’t you swim after getting a tattoo?
There are a few reasons swimming after getting a tattoo is risky, both for your health and the quality of your tat. “A new tattoo is basically an open wound,” says Dr. Shari Marchbein, M.D., a dermatologist and clinical assistant professor of dermatology at NYU School of Medicine. “And that can predispose it to infection.”
Open water, like oceans, lakes, and rivers, no matter how pristine, contain various kinds of bacteria, and when you swim with a fresh tattoo, that bacteria can enter your body more easily, causing an infection. If the infection spreads to your bloodstream, it can be extremely dangerous—even life threatening. In 2017, a man died from an infection caused by vibrio vulnificus, a bacterium related to shellfish, after he went swimming in the ocean with a new tattoo.
Swimming pools and hot tubs can cause just as many issues. If the pool isn’t chlorinated, or it just has low levels of chlorine, there is likely still plenty of bacteria in the water. And highly chlorinated pools, while less likely to give you an infection, can still cause major irritation to your tat, says Dr. Noelle S. Sherber, M.D., a dermatologist, co-founder of SHERBER+RAD, and clinical assistant professor at George Washington University. “You should avoid chlorine—the chemical can cause peeling or red itchy bumps on your tattoo,” says Sherber, which can make it more susceptible to infection and cause issues with healing, altering the appearance.
Exactly how long do I need to wait and how do I know my tattoo is healed?
The general recommendation is to wait at least four weeks (or until your tattoo is fully healed) before submerging it in water. If you have a compromised immune system, due to medications or illnesses, you may need to wait longer, since your risk of infection is even greater, says Sherber.
You’ll know your tattoo is healed when it stops flaking or peeling, and any scabs have fallen off, says Dr. Debra Jaliman, dermatologist and author of Skin Rules. Look out for these signs of infection: Increased pain or swelling, redness on or around the tattoo becoming darker or spreading instead of lightening and diminishing; itchy, red, painful bumps in the tattoo, drainage, pus or open sores in the tattoo, fever, chills or shivering. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, get to a doc STAT to get the issue ID’ed. Most infections can be cleared up with an antibiotic.
So…can I get my tattoo wet or sweaty at all during those four weeks?
It’s hard to avoid moisture completely (hello, you still gotta shower!), but it’s important to be smart about your contact. If you can keep your tattoo dry while you shower, by covering it with waterproof bandages and plastic wrap or holding it outside the stream of water, that’s ideal. Skip baths and avoid workouts that cause you to get super sweaty, like hot yoga. “If you’re sweating excessively, the drips can carry germs into the open tattoo,” says Jaliman.