Perhaps one of the most ancient and universal of art forms have always been body art. Tattoos were worn by people for as long as art existed. It is practiced by essentially every culture in the world. Whether it’s a symbol of status, a rite of passage, or personal aesthetic, tattoos have played a part in history no matter where you look.
Nowadays, people continue to get tattoos on their bodies. In fact, tattoos are becoming more and more socially accepted though there are still some out there that don’t agree with it. Either way, you can now get a tattoo just about anywhere in the country.
If it’s your first tattoo, you might be a little wary of the pain that comes with getting inked. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, rest assured. Getting a tattoo does hurt, and if you have a low pain tolerance (and if you get it on a particularly sensitive part of your body), it’s probably going to be an excruciating experience that you have no way of avoiding or at least minimizing.
Or is it?
Here’s some good news for you. There’s actually an over-the-counter cream that you can apply to your skin before getting inked to reduce the sharp pain of the tattoo needles. Tattoo numbing creams are a godsend for people with a low pain threshold but still want to get a tattoo.
There might be some tattoo lovers out there that insist that pain is part of getting your tattoo, but it’s actually not. Everyone’s body is different, and we all handle pain in our own way. That’s why tattoo-numbing creams are so important because they provide people with a more comfortable, less painful alternative while getting tattooed.
If you want to beat the pain and get yourself inked, this article is for you. We’ve got the ultimate guide on the best tattoo numbing creams in the market. But before we get to that, let’s answer a few important questions first.
Why does getting a tattoo hurt?
Just about everyone had tried drawing on their skin with a pen when they were younger, right? Dragging the tip of a pen on your skin isn’t very painful, some even find the sensation relaxing. So why is getting a tattoo so painful? Shouldn’t it just tingle or tickle, like it would when you draw on your own skin?
Well, unlike the blunt ballpoint pen of your childhood years, the tattoo machine that tattoo artists have today use needles to puncture your skin to embed ink just below the surface of your dermis, the tissue under the outer layer of your skin or epidermis. This is so that it will be permanent unlike the ink drawings on the superficial layer of your skin which can be washed off eventually.
Here’s how tattoo artists do it. First, they dip the needle in the selected ink, turn on the motor for the electric tattoo machine, and drive the needles to your skin thousands of times until the tattoo is finished. The needle would prick your skin around 100 to 150 times per second.
The ink needs to get into the dermis which is the more stable layer since the epidermis is regularly renewing itself so the ink will eventually fade there. However, the dermis has a lot of receptor cells that send pain signals directly to the brain. Every second, your dermis is hit by sharp needles a hundred times, sending a constant torrent of pain receptors to your brain – no wonder it’s so painful!
How do Tattoo Numbing Creams Work?
Just as the name suggests, a tattoo numbing cream relieves some of the sharp pain while you’re getting inked. Applying numbing cream could not only make the tattoo session much more bearable for you, but it could also allow the tattoo artist to finish the tattoo in one session. Sometimes, especially if the person can’t stand the pain, tattoo artists will suggest they come back for a second session (or even a third) to finish the tattoo.
The way these numbing tattoo creams work is that once they’re applied to a certain area of your body and left to sit for 45 minutes to an hour, you’ll feel minor to no pain at all for an hour or two.
There are three main types of tattoo-numbing cream according to their active ingredient. These three types work in different ways, so it’s wise to get to know how they work before choosing a cream for your next tattoo session.
The active ingredient here is lidocaine which is a topical local anaesthetic. To prevent you from feeling the pain, this type deadens the nerves in the skin.
Of the three types of tattoo numbing cream, this is the most widely available since it’s used in a variety of minor medical conditions. This can be used to relieve pain or discomfort from scrapes, minor burns, insect bites, and some skin rashes.
Usually, the higher the percentage of lidocaine in the cream, the more effective of a numbing cream it is. Most products you can get at your local pharmacy has around 5% of lidocaine. However, it should be noted that they don’t really penetrate below the surface of the skin – where the tattoo needle hits – nerve deadeners might not be completely effective in relieving pain during a tattoo session. They don’t stop your nerves from sending pain signals to your brain, but they do minimize the pain. They’re mostly to help ease the initial sting of tattoo needles on your skin. At the very least, you’ll be able to avoid flinching whenever the needle makes contact with your skin which is good news for your tattoo artist who needs a steady hand (and client) to complete a perfect tattoo design.
In most cases, in order to increase a nerve deadener’s effectiveness, they are combined with other types of tattoo numbing creams, either a nerve blocker or a vasoconstrictor.
Two other topical local anaesthetics common in tattoo numbing creams are tetracaine and benzocaine. Both function by making the nerves register lesser pain as well as preventing them from sending pain signals to your brain.
Tetracaine is actually used to numb a specific area of the body before either a medical test or medical procedure. Benzocaine, on the other hand, is typically used for pain relief in the throat, mouth, or nose.
They may not completely remove the feeling of pain during a tattoo session, but if you use nerve blockers the right way, they should decrease the pain level from unbearable pain to bearable discomfort.
Nerve blockers are typically combined with nerve deadeners.
Lastly, we have what is widely considered as the most powerful and effective type of numbing cream. The active ingredient in vasoconstrictors is epinephrine which might be an over-the-counter topical anaesthetic but, because it’s such a strong numbing agent, it’s a slightly controversial ingredient.
The way vasoconstrictors works are that it makes the blood vessels tighten up in order to minimize bleeding and swelling from the tattoo needles repeatedly puncturing your skin. Besides that, vasoconstrictors are also known to last longer because epinephrine slows down the absorption of other substances. Essentially, vasoconstrictors are the most effective type of numbing cream.
However, too much epinephrine does come with side effects. It can raise your heart rate which, for those suffering from anxiety, is not recommended.
Besides the ones listed above, there are also numbing products that contain natural ingredients that can boost the anaesthetic effects. Typically, these products contain common ingredients such as tea tree oil, aloe, menthol, comfrey root, and camphor. They can aid in the healing process of your tattooed area. These natural ingredients can reduce bruising and swelling quickly so your tattoo will turn out beautifully once healed.
How to Use Tattoo Numbing Cream
You might think that you can just apply your chosen tattoo numbing a few minutes before your tattoo session and you’re good to go. However, you would be wrong. Topical anaesthetic takes some time to be absorbed by the body so if you don’t apply it at the right time, the numbing cream won’t work and you’ll have to bear the pain throughout the tattoo session.
In order to use the tattoo numbing cream to its full effectiveness, it’s best if you apply a layer of the topical anaesthetic before you even head to the tattoo parlor. Remember to wear gloves when you’re applying the numbing cream. If you don’t, it won’t just be the specific area of your body you’re getting a tattoo that will be numbed for a while. The tips of your fingers – and wherever else made contact with the cream – will be affected too.
Speaking of, you should always inform your tattoo artist when you’re using tattoo numbing cream. That way, the artist will make sure to wear gloves while inking you and avoid getting affected by the topical anaesthetic too.
It takes about an hour for the tattoo numbing cream to kick in so be mindful of the time. Additionally, you can wrap the area where you applied numbing cream with plastic wrap so that you’ll boost the absorption process. This is a lot easier on smaller areas like the hands, arms, feet, and legs though. Larger areas like somewhere on your torso are going to be a challenge to wrap with plastic.
Once you’re in the tattoo parlor and the tattoo numbing cream has taken effect, you’re ready to get your tat. The tattoo artist will first have to wipe the product off your skin. If the tattoo artist has additional numbing products available, you can ask the artist to use the product on your skin to boost the effects of the first layer of numbing cream. Typically, tattoo artists have pain-relieving soap to prep the area of skin. There are also skin cleansers that use lidocaine (nerve deadener) that disinfect the area as well as provide additional numbing effects.
There are also tattoo numbing creams that are fast-acting which need only two to five minutes to take effect. These types of numbing creams can even be reapplied throughout the tattoo session which is great for people with, particularly low pain thresholds.
The most important thing though is proper communication with the tattoo artist. Maybe the artist has their own recommended tattoo numbing creams, gels, or sprays that you can work with. Maybe the tattoo artist has their own combination of numbing creams that they know and trust. It’s always good to know in advance.
What Kind of Tattoos Hurt the Most?
You might be surprised to learn that some areas of the body are more sensitive to pain when it comes to tattoos than others. In fact, it’s actually important to carefully consider where you’re getting tattooed if you can’t handle a lot of pain.
Here’s a quick pain level guide for the common areas of the body to get inked:
Low Level of Pain
If it’s your first tat, the best place to start is either the forearm, outer arm, or upper arm. You can also go for your upper shoulders if you feel the arms are too exposed for your taste. These areas, you may have noticed, are also the most common places that get tattooed. That’s because these areas have a lot of flesh and, because they’re often left exposed to the sun, thicker skin. This means that there are fewer nerve endings in these areas which makes them less painful to get inked.
Your calves and buttocks are also relatively less painful places to get your tat because they are naturally protected by a lot of muscle and fat.
Interestingly enough, the top of your finger is also a least painful area to get inked. Tattoo artists say that the top of the finger (above the knuckles) is a good place to get a tat if you’re into smaller tattoos and less pain. Even better, because the tattoo will obviously have to be small, you’ll only have to endure the sting of the needle for a shorter amount of time than with any other tattoo.
Medium Level of Pain
If you’ve always wanted a tattoo somewhere on your chest or sternum area, you need to know that it’s probably going to be a little painful. The chest and sternum don’t have much fat which means that they’re pretty sensitive areas for a tattoo. What’s more, the chest actually vibrates whenever an electric tattoo machine makes contact which is not a comfortable sensation.
Artists and other tattoo lovers do note that tattoos a little higher on the chest is a bit less painful. But if you don’t deal with pain very well, you can either choose a less painful area or apply tattoo numbing cream beforehand.
High Level of Pain
The areas where it’s really painful to get tattooed are places with a lot of nerve endings. These are the places in your body where the skin is stretched thinly over bone, where there is little to no fat, so obviously getting inked in these areas are going to hurt. A lot. Some people can even pass out from the pain!
The ribcage area, for instance, only has thin skin and bone directly underneath it, so it’s a painful place to get a tat. The stomach, too, is not a comfortable place to get inked. You might think that the stomach area shouldn’t pose that much of a problem since it is protected by a layer of fat and muscle. However, it’s important to remember that just under your fleshy stomach are your internal organs and you will feel them being pressed upon if you choose to get a tattoo there.
Other painful areas are the neck, face, and spine. The inner thigh, though it might seem fleshy, actually has a lot of nerve endings, so it’s one of the more painful places for tattoos. The same holds true for the area near the armpit. The knees, ankles, and feet should also be avoided if you have a low pain threshold. The top of the feet is especially going to sting because you can practically feel the tattoo needle hit your bones.
Erogenous zones are one of the body’s most sensitive areas, so it makes sense that getting a tat on your nipples or genitals is going to hurt big time.
Size of the Tattoo
One thing worth noting as well is that the tattoo size and type are going to determine how painful the session is going to be. Obviously, a tiny, simple, uncolored design isn’t going to take a long time for the tattoo artist to finish, so it’s not going to be that uncomfortable. A large, complicated, colored design, on the other hand, is going to take time and, if you don’t prepare yourself for it properly, you might have to come back for two or three sessions just to get it done.
Quick Picks: Our Top 7 Tattoo Numbing Creams, Gels, and Sprays
Now that you know more about tattoos and tattoo numbing creams, you might be thinking about the next step, which is finding the best numbing cream for you. Choosing the best tattoo numbing cream is extremely important especially if you’ve always hesitated on getting a tattoo because you’re afraid of the pain. However, because numbing creams are topical anaesthetics, it can be pretty easy to get intimidated by all the medical jargon in the product’s description. And with so many creams, gels, and even sprays in the market, finding the right tattoo numbing cream for you is definitely a challenge.
Don’t worry though. We’ve got your back! Here’s our pick of the top 6 best tattoo numbing creams and gels to help you get through your next tattoo session without breaking a sweat.
4 fl oz
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1. Numb 520
Kicking off our list is the new kid on the street. Numb 520 was created by California-based skincare manufacturer Ebanel Laboratories. It has 5% lidocaine which is the highest these over-the-top topical creams can go so you know that this tattoo numbing cream is a fairly strong nerve deadener. Numb 520 has been rapidly gaining popularity and it isn’t difficult to see why.
This tattoo numbing cream is one of the more fast-acting types that starts kicking in at the five minute mark. Give it 20 to 25 minutes and the anaesthetic is in full effect. This bad boy is your pick if you’re looking for something that gets right down to business. When it reaches its peak, Numb 520 can last about an hour before the numbing effects slowly die down. So it will give you just the right amount of time to go through a tattoo session without feeling too much pain.
2. Vasocaine Numbing Spray
This 5% lidocaine liquid anaesthetic solution is not to be trifled with. Vasocaine Numbing Spray might look deceptively simple but it’s a strong contender in our list. What else can you expect from a product made by Dermal Source, an FDA approved laboratory that’s been making anaesthetic products since 2004?
This numbing spray comes in a 4oz bottle and it’s quite easy to apply. It’s recommended that you keep a three inch distance from the tattoo area when spraying Vasocaine. Users have observed that three spray at 20- to 25-minute intervals is the most effective, especially during a long tattoo session.
Anaesthetic sprays are typically a lot more fast-acting than creams and gels because they’re easier to absorb. Vasocaine takes only 90 seconds for it to start showing effects and give minutes for the formula to fully kick in. Talk about fast!
One important thing to always remember though is that once you’ve left the formula on your skin for an ample amount of time, you need to make sure that you clean off any excess before starting your tattoo session.
Just as its name implies, Greencaine is a professional grade topical anaesthetic that’s focused on being environmentally-friendly. Greencaine is formulated with 4% lidocaine hydrochloride that’s combined with aloe vera for a non-greasy feel.
Besides being one of the best tattoo numbing creams, Greencaine’s advocacy for going green is one of the main reasons why people love this brand.
Alma Laboratories, a US FDA-supervised laboratory, purchases unused surplus packaging from other companies, greatly reducing corporate waste. Greencaine’s 4oz tube is actually what’s known as “precycled,” which means it’s pre-consumer recycled.
This tattoo numbing cream should be applied thickly on to your skin an hour before your tattoo session. The waiting time might be a tad longer compared to the other products in our list but, trust us, Greencaine is worth the wait. If you applied it at the right time, your skin will be numb for two hours so your tattoo session is guaranteed to be comfortable and relatively painless.
4. Topicaine Tattoo Numbing Gel
It might come in a fairly small 30g tube but Topicaine Anaesthetic Cream packs a punch! With 5% lidocaine and only a 20-minute wait time for the numbing effects to kick in, this tattoo numbing cream is worth checking out.
The non-greasy formula is easy to apply on your skin and is effective in greatly reducing pain. Though not ‘fast-acting,’ Topicaine doesn’t need more than twenty minutes to take effect either so you don’t have to wait long. It can keep your skin numb for more than an hour, basically enough time for you to get through your tattoo session pain-free.
Topicaine is actually meant to be used for a variety of purposes. You can apply this anaesthetic cream when you’re giving blood or when you’re getting your ears pierced. It’s a handy little cream that is highly recommended by users.
5. Dr. Numb
Of all the tattoo numbing creams, Dr. Numb has the be one of the most well-known and most highly recommended by not just tattoo studios but also dermatology clinics everywhere. It has the highest allowable amount of lidocaine plus vitamin E to give your skin a little boost.
Dr. Numb has a reputation for being a really effective numbing cream. It’s even health-certified.
This tattoo numbing cream can last for about an hour and is ideal for shorter tattoo sessions and even piercings. If you want a tattoo numbing cream that you can trust, you can’t go wrong with Dr. Numb.
Looking for a pain reliever before and after your tattoo session? HUSH Tattoo Anaesthetic Gel has got you covered.
This numbing gel is well known as a great topical anaesthetic that’s perfect for long tattoo sessions. So if you’re going for a big art piece, HUSH is your go-to numbing gel.
The clear, non-oily gel won’t have any negative effect on your tattoo during the procedure and after it’s already healed. HUSH even has a nice blend of botanical extracts such as green tea, aloe, and chamomile – great for relieving discomfort.
7. Blue Tattoo Numbing Gel
Praised all around the world by tattoo lovers as one of the best tattoo numbing gels on the market to date, Blue Tattoo Numbing Gel is an ingenious combination of all the essential ingredients for a great topical anaesthetic.
This numbing gel was developed by an anaesthetic specialist in Oregon, Dermal Source. Blue Tattoo Numbing Gel has 4% lidocaine, 2% tetracine, and even a vasoconstrictor to really make sure your tattoo session will go off without a hitch. If you’re aiming for a tattoo on your inner arms or any other body part that bleeds and bruises easier than others, Blue Tattoo Numbing Gel should be your pick.
You apply this numbing gel on your skin and need only around 5 minutes before the effects kick in. It works fast and lasts long. You’ve got a good two hours before the numbing effects start wearing off.
It’s very important to note that you need to wash off the gel completely before your procedure; otherwise, it might affect the ink and outcome of your tattoo. Additionally, you should never reapply this numbing gel on your skin for that same reason.
Tattoo Artists and Tattoo Numbing Creams
Finally, you might be wondering how tattoo artists themselves feel about using tattoo numbing creams. Well, to be honest, there are some artists (and tattoo lovers in general) that don’t exactly approve of these products. They believe that the pain of getting a tattoo is all part of the experience and if you can’t handle it, you’re not meant to have a tattoo. That line of thinking, of course, isn’t shared by the entire community. There are plenty of tattoo artists that want only their client’s best interest at heart, so they’ll not only allow tattoo numbing creams, they might even recommend the creams themselves.
However, beyond just seeing the pain as a necessary experience, some tattoo artists might not want to use tattoo numbing creams for a variety of reasons. They might not think the tattoo numbing creams are effective or even safe. Numbing creams are, after all, topical anaesthetics sold in pharmacies and technically tattoo parlors aren’t licensed to sell them. Moreover, topical anaesthetics also present certain side effects that the tattoo artist probably doesn’t want to risk.
Whichever the case, always talk with your tattoo artist before using tattoo numbing creams. If they don’t want to use numbing creams and can’t be persuaded to do so, you’ll have to approach another artist.