Tattoo Bubbling Vs. Infection

Image editorial credit: Arthit Premprayot /

Although most modern tattoo artists are extremely conscious of hygiene and the risk of infection from a tattoo, it is a rare occurrence to experience a tattoo bubbling or becoming infected. What is the difference between tattoo bubbling vs. infection?

Tattoo bubbling happens when you soak the tattoo scab by bathing or applying excessive lotion. The scab starts to lift instead of naturally falling off as the healing progresses. Bubbling is not an infection, but it can quickly turn into a skin infection if not corrected.

Knowing how to take care of the tattoo will help when getting your next tattoo to prevent bubbling and avoid causing an infection. We will discuss the difference between tattoo bubbling vs. infection and give tips on what to do.

Tattoo Bubbling Vs. Infection – What Is The Difference?

If you have never experienced a tattoo bubbling, it could easily be confused with an infection. However, the two are very different and easily identified if you know what to look for.

After getting a new tattoo, the scab must dry thoroughly to heal properly. Typically you would apply the lotion once or twice a day to keep the scabbing moist but not wet. If the scab becomes wet, it will start looking gooey and slimy. The scab will start to discolor and become lighter.

In some cases, the bubbling may look like pimples or a small postule at first. It may itch and spear red, and if the scabs are very soft, it is easily scraped off by clothing or rough towel drying of the area. The entire area of the tattoo may appear raised.

A problem with the tattoo bubbling is if it is not treated immediately, it can result in an infection. A skin infection will develop if bacteria are trapped between the soft scab and the skin and the moist surface is the perfect breeding ground for infection.

While bubbling is easily treated without antibiotics, a skin infection resulting from bubbling will be tougher to address and may need a topical or oral antibiotic.

What Causes A Tattoo To Bubble?

The events that can cause a tattoo to bubble are not many but are very readily avoided if the correct research and aftercare are done. It can result due to any one or more of the following reasons –

  • Unsterilized tattoo tools were used to ink.
  • Expired ink or ink that is substandard
  • In some rare cases, the body may reject the tattoo ink
  • Soaking the tattoo in the bath or not drying the tattoo thoroughly before applying the aftercare ointment

Can Bubbling Tattoo Cause An Infection?

Tattoo bubbling can be the cause of skin infection developing. Any time the tattoo needles pierce the skin, there is a risk of bacteria entering the wound. The needles break the skin to inject the ink subdermally, and it causes bleeding.

If the tattoo aftercare is not taken seriously and the scab is soaked, it may start to bubble, and the scabs may lift from the skin prematurely, exposing the broken skin. This is a perfect environment for a skin or staph infection to develop.

The first 3 to 5 days are crucial to let the scab dry and allow the skin to settle. The next 7 to 14 days after a tattoo is crucial for the natural scabbing process.

Can You Fix A Bubbling Tattoo?

A bubbling tattoo can be fixed, provided you act fast. The important thing is to avoid further damage to the skin, ink, or infection risk. You can attempt the following steps to fix a bubbling tattoo –

  • Avoid soaking the tattoo again.
  • Pat dry and do not rub the area
  • Avoid at all costs touching the tattoo
  • Do not pick at the scabs; they must naturally fall off even if it is hanging.
  • Only use the ointment as directed by your tattoo artist.
  • Monitor the area for signs of redness or heat
  • Pay a visit to your tattoo artist to monitor the healing.

Can Tattoo Bubbling Damage Your Tattoo Permanently?

If the tattoo bubbling is minor and is treated immediately, any permanent tattoo damage can be avoided. Unfortunately, if the tattoo bubbling is severe and is not successfully treated or becomes infected, there is a chance it may permanently damage the tattoo.

What To Do With An Infected Tattoo?

If your tattoo bubbling developed an infection, the best action would be to take immediate steps. If the infection just developed, go to your GP or the ER and have a doctor look at the area. They may prescribe a topical ointment that can be treated at home.

At first, the doctor will do a skin swab to determine which type of bacteria is causing the infection and then prescribe a more specific antibiotic treatment.

An oral and topical antibiotic may be needed to deal with the infection as fast as possible in more severe cases. This may take several weeks to heal fully. If your doctor is concerned, they may admit you to the hospital for an intravenous course of antibiotics.

Certain bacteria like MRSA – Methicillin-Resistant Staphyloccocus Aureus – are notoriously difficult to treat. Should an abscess form, it will be drained, or if the MRSA causes necrosis, the skin may need to be surgically removed, and skin grafts applied.

Signs of an atypical mycobacterial skin infection are bumps on the tattoo area that itch and reappear after being dormant. This type of lingering infection needs to be treated long-term.

What Does An Infected Tattoo Look Like?

All tattoos are red, swollen, and tender for the first few days after the session. Every skin and person is unique, and not everyone heals the same.

Persistent redness that lasts more than a week and heat may indicate something else, so let’s look at how to identify a potential infection –

  • Red, raised skin around the tattoo or the entire inked area
  • A fever that is above 100 F
  • Hot and cold shivers
  • Weeping pus from the tattoo
  • A red streak running upward on the arm from the tattoo area
  • Hard tissue areas
  • Red lesions on the skin around the tattoo area

The danger of an untreated tattoo infection is the development of the MRSA, and these are the common signs you need to look out for –

  • A fever that is above 102 F
  • Stiff muscles and joints
  • Impetigo rash  – looks like crusted honey on the skin
  • Constant thirst
  • Puss filled sores on the tattooed area

A staph infection can spread to other areas if you touch it and then touch another body part, so getting treatment as fast as possible is vital. MRSA can cause arthritis, sepsis, and TSS ( toxic shock syndrome)


Properly caring for your new tattoo is vital to prevent any harm to your skin. The tattoo artist will give you the best advice and an aftercare program to follow. Please consult your artist immediately to prevent a potential infection if bubbling occurs.

Some of my favorite designs, tattoo books, and aftercare products, selected for you

working on tattoo at my studio
Working at the studio on one of my projects

Thank you for reading my article, I hope that you have found it helpful. If you would have trouble finding ideas for your tattoo, wonder what is meaning of design that you have found or what to buy for aftercare, to make sure that your tattoo will be healing quickly and easily, here are some of my favorite products in one place, hope that this will also help.

Design and tattoo ideas

For some ideas you can have a look at those 3 books with hundreds of designs that I use with my clients, they are available on Amazon for Kindle or in classic, paper version (links below):

Tattoo meaning

If you would like to read more about the meaning of different tattoo styles and designs before you will decide what you would like to have, I can recommend a book that was really useful for me when I was starting my tattoo adventure – it’s “Conscious Ink: The Hidden Meaning of Tattoos” by Lisa Barretta (through the link you can find it on Amazon for around $10).

Tattoo aftercare

The skin at the tattoo site often dries out. To prevent it and speed up healing for my clients, I usually recommend one of those tattoo aftercare balms (you can find them on Amazon):


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