As you sit and stare at your first tattoo design idea, you can't help feeling a healthy mixture of excitement and absolute terror. We've all been there. You can't wait to have the tattoo, but you have no idea what to expect from the process or how much it'll hurt. So, you're wondering about numbing creams, what they are, and if you should use them.
Great, so all you need to do is get some numbing cream, and then your tattoo experience will be great, right? But, unfortunately, it is more complicated. You may want to refrain from using numbing creams for several reasons. And even if you're set on using them, there are some essential facts you should know.
What is tattoo numbing cream?
Before deciding whether you want to use numbing creams, it is probably a good idea to understand what they are.
If you have ever undergone a minor medical procedure, especially one involving the skin, you've likely been exposed to some form of numbing cream. In essence, numbing cream is a topical anesthetic.
Or, to put it less medically, a numbing cream is an ointment that dulls the nerves. This makes that area of the skin feel less of just about anything, from sensitive touch to pain.
How does numbing cream work?
So, how does the cream achieve the magic trick of making the pain disappear? Well, most numbing creams use lidocaine as the active ingredient.
When lidocaine is applied to the skin, it blocks the sodium channels through which nerve signals travel. In other words, lidocaine places a roadblock in the path between your skin and your brain.
The effect is that many of the "cars" transporting the pain package never make it to your brain's delivery point. Pretty neat, hey.
Does tattoo numbing cream actually work?
The big difference between tattoo-numbing cream and prescription topical anesthetics is its strength.
Most over-the-counter creams, except for some potent ones, use 4% of lidocaine. But prescription creams use more and add a whole batch of other equally effective ingredients, increasing the cream's potency.
That being said, many people wonder whether tattoo-numbing creams actually work, and the answer is yes. But it's "yes" with a caveat.
Firstly, while they will numb the pain, they won't completely eliminate it. So if you were hoping for a completely painless experience, you could be in for a prickly surprise.
Secondly, they don't last indefinitely. As soon as you wipe off the cream, the clock starts ticking as your feeling gradually starts returning. This means that if you are sitting down for a long tattoo session, it is doubtful that the cream will have your back the whole way through.
Are there any side effects to using it?
Unfortunately, tattoo-numbing creams are not without their downsides. Firstly, there is a common theory that these numbing creams could stall the healing process. Of course, not everyone agrees on this, but it is well worth noting.
When you get a tattoo, the pain signals that rush to your brain tell it the same thing; "hey, Brain, we've got a problem here; you need to help." The brain responds by activating the body's defensive and repair systems, which triggers the healing process.
So, the theory is that if the brain doesn't get the initial message of pain, the healing process doesn't begin immediately. And this could lead to nasty marks or scarring.
The second downside, and definitely more worth noting, is that many artists don't want to use numbing cream. This is because the cream uses adrenaline to keep the lidocaine in line.
According to some artists, this adrenaline makes it harder to get the ink in between the cells. This makes it harder for them to get consistent results. For this reason, some artists will void the "free first touch-up" if you insist on using numbing cream.
On the other hand, many artists don't mind-numbing cream and even prefer it because it helps you sit still. So, check with your artist of choice if they are happy with you using it or not.
Are there any health risks to using tattoo numbing cream?
As with any medicinal cream, tattoo-numbing cream has a list of potential medical side effects.
The most obvious risk is an allergic reaction to the ingredients of the cream. Not only will this be painful and irritating, but it could mean putting off your tattoo appointment until your skin heals.
There are a few other nominal risks like irritation and swelling etc. But the most significant risk is that too much lidocaine getting into your bloodstream can have several nasty effects, including some cardiac conditions.
However, this is only really a risk if you cover a large piece of skin in preparation for a massive tattoo.
Pain as a right of passage
Whenever you chat with someone who has a tattoo, you will likely hear them say something along the lines of "pain is an important part of the experience."
In fact, many believe that pain is a kind of "right of passage" to getting a tattoo and that if you can't handle the pain, you shouldn't be allowed to get a tattoo.
While my personal feelings on the matter aren't on the same extremist wavelength, I think there is an argument to be made for the pain. And one to be made for the numbing cream.
Firstly, numbing creams have only recently become popular. This means that the vast majority of people who have tattoos got them without using numbing creams. So, even if you fear the pain, you will be pleasantly surprised at just how tough you are.
I'm not exactly the shining symbol of masculine toughness, and even I managed to sit through a 6-hour session. And that was my first time under the needle. Thinking back, I wouldn't change that experience.
However, that tattoo is on my upper arm, with only small bits of touching sensitive spots like my elbow. In other words, it's not exactly in the most painful place.
Herein lies the argument in favor of the cream. Consider the cream if you are getting a tattoo on a super sensitive bit, like the top of your foot or ribs. Numbing those areas will not only help you cope through the process but make your artist's job easier because you won't be squirming from the pain.
How do you apply tattoo numbing cream?
With arguments for and against numbing cream out of the way, you've decided to go for the cream. Now let's dig into some of the dos and don'ts, starting with how to properly apply the cream.
Step 1 – Get your timing right
Timing is going to be a vital component if you want your cream to work. It will take about 30 to 60 minutes to kick into gear and block those pain signals. This means you definitely don't want to apply it as you walk into your appointment.
Set a timer for one hour before getting inked, and then apply the cream. This will give it enough time to seep down into the pours and work its magic.
Step 2 – Prep the working area
Once you're ready to apply the cream, make sure that you clean the area first. You want to avoid dirt or skin oils preventing the cream from doing its job correctly, so take a few moments to clean the artist's canvas.
Step 3 – Consider getting a friend to help
You could probably manage the application process alone if the tattoo is going on your chest or legs. But if the ink is going on your back or arms, then I suggest asking for an extra set of hands.
Or risk missing a spot and having a surprise panic attack later when the needle hits that unguarded skin.
Step 4 – Prep gloves or a tongue depressor
It should come as no surprise that applying numbing cream with your bare hands will end in numb hands. If you don't mind the feeling, then go for it; just remember to wash your hands thoroughly afterward.
But if you prefer to have hands that don't act like they've had one tequila shot too many, then I suggest using gloves. Or you could use one of those tongue depressor sticks to apply the cream.
Step 5 – Apply a generous amount of cream
Now that you're finally ready to apply the cream make sure you use a generous amount. It's not skin cream that you want to work away into the skin.
Instead, you are aiming to create a layer of cream about one millimeter thick. If you smear the cream thoroughly into the skin, it'll stop working.
Final Step – Wrap it up
The final step is to grab some cellophane and wrap the area like you're prepping a sandwich for a lunch box. This will keep the cream in place and prevent it from spreading to your clothes and furniture. It will also help the cream to take effect quicker and better.
Numbing Cream vs. Numbing Spray - Which is better?
All this effort to apply the cream probably has you wondering if it isn't better to use a numbing spray. You can save the gloves and cellophane and just give the area a quick spray, right?
The answer depends because the spray (and gel, for that matter) are used in different ways than the cream. As we now know, numbing cream works by covering unbroken skin and intercepting the pain messages after it has been on there a while.
Sprays, and gels, on the other hand, typically only work on broken skin. Meaning that you shouldn't apply the spray before the artist starts. Instead, you use the spray after they have begun or during the process.
I can't personally attest to how well they work, but they are generally not considered as effective as creams, and their effect only lasts for a short time. However, the gels apparently work really well.
What I do like about the spray and gel is that it gives you the option to try and get the tattoo without any cream. And, if the process goes on too long, or if you really can't stand the pain, you can add some spray or gel to get you through.
Even though it doesn't work as well, not needing to commit to the cream before the needle has even touched you is a big benefit, I think.
Where can you buy tattoo numbing cream?
When it comes to buying your numbing cream, the process really couldn't be simpler. Tattoo numbing cream is available from just about anywhere. You can buy it from a local pharmacy, Amazon, or even Walmart.
In fact, some tattoo parlors keep stock of numbing cream, so you may even be able to buy it directly from your artist.
The bigger question is, which cream should you get? To help you make a decision, let's look at three of the most popular options.
Option 1 – Ebanel
Ebanel Topical Numbing Cream
One of the leading solutions available, this cream comes with a powerful, natural formula.
Ebanel 520 is a very popular option. It's a water-based cream with a stunning 5% lidocaine, making it very strong for an over-the-counter cream. In addition, the fact that it's water-based makes it a good option for tattoos because you aren't left with a greasy surface area.
It only takes about five minutes to start working and will reach optimal effect after around 25 minutes. Once it kicks in, it should work for about an hour. They also have a spray option if you prefer to give the pain a go.
Option 2 – Uber Numb
Uber Numb Pain Relief
This fast-absorbing cream is highly recommended by both clients and professional artists.
Uber Numb has many of the same features as Ebanel. It's also a 5% lidocaine, water-based cream that takes the same time to start working. Like Ebanel, they also have a spray option.
The two most significant differences are, firstly, Uber Numb claims to last for two hours, and, secondly, it 's usually slightly cheaper than Ebanel.
Option 3 – Dr. Numb
Dr. Numb Topical Anesthetic
A premium option, this cream comes with one of the longest periods of pain relief.
The last popular option is Dr. Numb, which has a whole array of products. For comparison, they also offer a 5% lidocaine, water-based cream. Their claim to fame is that their cream is 100% hypoallergenic and can last up to four hours long. And there are reviews to back up that claim.
However, you're definitely paying for that extra long-lasting effect. That may be expensive, but if you are getting a big tattoo, you will be thankful for the added time.
Tattoo numbing cream is a lidocaine-based topical cream that blocks the nerve signals to the brain, effectively numbing the area. This means that tattoos will be far less painful, making it a good option if you are terrified of pain or getting a tattoo on a sensitive area. However, there are some downsides, so check with your artist before you use it.