Before getting my first tattoo, I looked into how long I needed to wait before getting back into my martial arts training. Here’s what I found.
After a new tattoo, you need to wait 2-3 weeks (or until its healed) before doing Boxing, BJJ, Judo, Wrestling, Muay Thai, or any other martial arts. Your tattoo could take more or less time to heal, but between 2-3 weeks is long enough to wait before returning to training. Do not train before its healed or you risk infection and damaging your tattoo.
Not everyone is as careful with their new tattoos, but there are some key factors to know about before deciding to return to your martial arts training.
Whether you do grappling (like BJJ, Judo or Wrestling) – or striking (like Boxing or Muay Thai) – the risks and fundamentals of good tattoo care are the same.
Let’s break them down.
New Tattoo Vs Martial Arts Training
If you’re anything like me, then after your new tattoo you’ll want it to heal as quickly as possible so you can return to normal training.
Within the first week of getting your tattoo, any form of martial arts training puts you at serious risk of skin infections because of bacteria in your training partner’s sweat getting into the open wound.
In the second week of healing, your tattoo will begin to heal over and scab. Martial arts training – (both striking and grappling) – puts your tattoo at risk of the scabs being pulled off too early, and therefore damaging the look of your tattoo.
Most tattoos will have healed enough at this point to return to training, but may still not be 100% healed beneath the top layer of skin, and therefore could still be at risk of being ripped open (especially in the clinch or while grappling).
When you get a tattoo, the needle cuts straight through the top layer of skin and into the under layer. The average depth a tattoo needle will penetrate your skin is between 1.5 – 2 millimeters.
This type of open wound means – doing any form of martial arts training with a new and un-healed tattoo – exposes you to two distinct risks, which your new tattoo will be vulnerable to.
As mentioned above, the first risk is skin infection, and the second is tattoo damage.
Within the first few days you are most at risk of getting a skin infection because your new tattoo is still an open wound and exposed to bacteria from your training partner’s sweat.
In Boxing, Muay Thai or MMA for example, you are at risk of getting sweat in the wound from both within striking distance of your training partner – and also from within the clinch.
In grappling though, like BJJ, Judo or Wrestling, you also have the added risk of infection from the mats. Although most grappling schools have very high hygiene and cleaning standards, the mats are still a breeding ground for bacteria.
According to Dr. Murrell at HealthLine.com, some skin infections can cause a rash, fever, swelling and shivering and can result in a range of treatments – from antibiotics, or even surgery to remove the infected area.
Skin Infection Summary
- During the first week of healing, your new tattoo is an open wound and most vulnerable to infections.
- Because martial arts training involves close contact with training partners – you’re exposing your tattoo to bacteria from sweat and putting yourself at risk of skin infections.
- Skin infection treatments can range from antibiotics to surgery.
After the first week, your tattoo should have started to seal over and begin to scab (see diagram and timeline below). Although it may be tempting to think you’re now safe and return to training, your tattoo is now at risk from damage.
The scab that forms over the top of your tattoo is your bodies way of fighting off dirt and germs – giving the skin underneath time to heal.
If these scabs are pulled off the wound too early, they can take ink from under the skin with them – resulting in your tattoo appearing faded.
In martial arts training with a tattoo that is in the scab phase of healing, a strike from your opponent could graze your tattoo and pull the scabs off prematurely –and even more risky, the scabs can be ripped off from within a clinch or while grappling.
I personally experienced this while play fighting with someone at work – their nail caught my new tattoo which was still in the scabbing phase, and took the ink and scab clean off – leaving me with a hole in my tattoo which needed to be re-inked.
This is also why you should try not to scratch, pick or peel off your tattoo scabs – no matter how itchy they are.
Tattoo Damage Summary
- As your tattoo begins to scab over – you are at risk of damaging the look of your new tattoo.
- During healing your tattoo will scab over in order to protect itself.
- Martial arts training (both grappling and striking) can remove these scabs too early – leaving your tattoo damaged and faded.
- To avoid damage, try not to scratch, pick or peel off your scabs.
Tattoo Healing Timeline & Aftercare
As your new tattoo begins to heal, you will notice different stages of the healing process.
Check out this timeline below of what you can expect from your tattoo during its healing process, and what you should be doing from day to day to help it heal.
Day 1 (On the day of your tattoo)
- When your tattoo artist has finished, they will apply a moisturizer and wrap it in a clear plastic film.
- Your tattoo will most likely be swollen, sore, hot to the touch, and weeping plasma (You can learn what plasma is with WebMD.com’s article here).
- When you leave the tattoo studio, keep the plastic film wrap on as you continue your day.
- Before you go to bed, it is important to remove the film and gently wash with warm soapy water (Don’t worry if you see ink washing away in the water, this is just ink in the plasma – not from under your skin).
- Re-wrap your tattoo with new, clean plastic film and re-apply your moisturizer.
- Applying moisturizer may sting depending on what type you use (see about moisturizers below for more).
- For your first night, your tattoo will continue to weep plasma – if you don’t wrap it up, the ink in the plasma will end up all over your sheets (I found out the hard way lol). You can also put down a clean towel as an extra layer to protect your sheets.
- You only need to wrap your tattoo for the first night.
- In the morning, remove the plastic film, wash with warm soapy water and re-apply your moisturizer.
- It will still sting to apply moisturizer on day two.
- You should notice much less plasma weeping; therefore, you do not need to continue wrapping your tattoo in plastic film.
Days 3 to 7
- Keep washing and applying moisturizer during days 3 to 7 (twice a day is recommended for moisturizer).
- Your tattoo may continue to feel sore and bruised, but the pain should start to ease off during these days.
- By the end of the first week, you may notice that your tattoo has started to seal itself and scab over.
Days 8 to 14 (Week 2)
- During the second week of healing, your tattoo will start to become itchy and flaky (this is normal and nothing to worry about).
- Keep up your moisturizing routine (twice a day).
- Its important to not scratch, pick, or peel the scabs.
Days 15 to 21 (Week 3)
- Most tattoos will have healed at this point but some may still be in the later stages of healing.
- The itching and flaky skin will most likely have passed at this point.
- If your tattoo looks and feels completely healed, then you should be fine to return to training.
After allowing your tattoo to heal for 3 weeks, you should be good to go. However, according to Dr. Cobb at HealthLine.com your tattoo could still be healing beneath the top layer of skin for up to 6 months.
Tattoo Moisturizing Lotion
Choosing a good moisturizer for your new tattoo is important to both keep your tattoo looking fresh, and to also aid it during the healing process – so you can get back to training as soon as possible.
With my first few tattoos I used an oily ointment type of lotion that is commonly recommended by tattoo artists. However, after someone recommended that I try coconut oil, I was able to reduce the healing time of my tattoos to just one week.
This is because coconut oil is said to contain proteins that have anti-inflammatory and healing properties.
A study on coconut oil’s healing potential by K G Nevin, concluded that wounds treated with coconut oil heal much faster than those that aren’t.
As the coconut is absorbed into your skin though, it will need to be re-applied more often than twice a day – and because it doesn’t stay on your skin for as long – coconut oil is not good for keeping your tattoo moisturized overnight. Therefore, an oily ointment works better at night.
However, if you’re not sure what moisturizing lotion to go for, be sure to ask your tattoo artist and they will give you their recommendations.
“Discover the 5 Best Martial Arts for Self-Defense & Why in our other article“