I was asked by a friend of mine in Canada recently about the use of plastic-wrap to wrap a tattoo. Her previous experience with tattoos had always involved a medical-grade bandage until this most recent experience, and she was concerned that her artist for her last tattoo had made a mistake.
Depending on the shop locations, some states (provinces, districts, counties, or other equivalent) have regulations that require a bandage. Where I live (Texas, USA), we are required to wrap the tattoo with something; either a bandage or plastic wrap. The reason for this is not for the protection of the client. Instead, it is for the protection of everyone the client might encounter with what otherwise would be an open wound. The state does not want you potentially infecting others with a blood-borne pathogen that you may be carrying.
Let's talk about pathogens for a moment. Every pathogen needs a particular kind of environment to survive, but there are some commonalities. Moisture, warmth, and darkness all make for excellent bacterial and viral growth. This is an important part of the bandage vs. plastic wrap debate.
The Pro Plastic Wrap Argument
The reason given by many artists for the use of plastic wrap is human nature. When your tattoo is finished, it will be wiped clean with medicated soap, covered with a thin layer of a mild topical antibiotic, and then wrapped. Whether with a bandage or with plastic wrap, what has been created is a fairly clean and sealed environment over your open wound.
Once you leave the tattoo studio, the care of your tattoo is in your hands. If you are going home, then there really isn't an issue, but if you are going out afterward you are going to show-off your new tattoo. A bandage is opaque, so you will need to lift the bandage off to show your ink to whoever asks. That nice, clean environment that was created before putting the wrap on will be destroyed, and you trap whatever is in the air in that moist, warm, dark environment under your bandage when you replace it.
Thus increasing your likelihood of an infection.
If you could be trusted to leave the bandage on, then the bandage would be ideal. Human nature, however, will be to remove it in order to see the tattoo. The covering will be on for no more than an hour or two, so plastic wrap cuts down on the likelihood of external infection by allowing people to see the tattoo while not removing the barrier.
The Pro Bandage Argument
The problem with plastic wrap is that it creates an occlusive seal, meaning that no air gets in or out, and it doesn't actually seal properly. The point of a wrap is, again, to protect others from the client's open wound. Plastic wrap may cover the tattoo, but it does not absorb those fluids. Blood-plasma and ink leak out from under the edges of plastic wrap in a relatively short time, exposing the public to the risk that the wrap was meant to prevent.
Meanwhile, under the wrap the skin temperature can reach 103 degrees (no air is getting in or out), which means that any bacteria that was under the wrap has an ideal breeding environment. The temperature also causes the pores of the skin to stay open, allowing more ink to weep out (leading to fading).
It is up to the tattoo artist to educate the customer and express how necessary it is for them to leave the bandage on. If the client leaves the bandage on during the initial dry-out of the tattoo, they will have fewer problems. The bandage more effectively does the job required; absorbing excess fluids.
The debate goes back-and-forth, with each side arguing the pros and cons and expressing their opinion as the "professional" technique. In reality, both processes are selected by the artist as the best way they feel to prevent infection. Both methods have risks and benefits. Each is based almost entirely on anecdotal evidence; what they have heard works and what they have experienced.
Ultimately, though, a tattoo is a wound. Doctors do not treat wounds with plastic wrap, they use a bandage. States like Hawaii, California, and Vermont require a sterile bandage be used on a tattoo. Plastic wrap simply is not a sterile bandage. While I will not go as far as to say that plastic wrap is the wrong way to wrap a tattoo, it seems to me that a sterile bandage is more right.
Jason Sorrell is a writer, tattoo artist, satirist, artist, and generally nice guy living in Austin, TX. He loves answering questions about tattoos. Shoot him a message at https://www.facebook.com/tattoonerdz/