March 17, 2021 6 min read

While getting a tattoo is exhilarating, the process also comes with pain. The amount of pain you’ll experience depends on several things-placement, size, style, and type of tattoo. While some clients can fall asleep on the table, others find the pain of getting a tattoo too much to bear. In fact, many people who really want to get a tattoo shy away because they’re afraid of how bad it’ll hurt. 

Unfortunately, no tattoo process is entirely pain-free. Still, there are options for clients who are worried about the pain of the tattoo process. Numbing creams can help make the tattooing process more comfortable. They don’t take away the pain completely, but they can significantly reduce the amount of pain you experience. 

The procedure of using a numbing cream during the tattoo process depends on the tattooer and how they feel about these products. Do they work? Can they affect the visual outcome of your tattoo? Let’s dive into the topic of numbing creams, and you can decide. 

Do Numbing Creams Work? 

Some tattooers refuse to use numbing creams or sprays during their sessions for two reasons: 

  1. Pain is considered part of the tradition and rite of passage in the tattoo industry. 
  2. Some tattooers have used numbing products before without success.  

To be honest, most of the tattoo community feels that pain is part of the process. It makes your final product more meaningful. Imagine showing off your new tattoo and someone asking if it hurt. Do you really want to admit that you used a numbing cream? Probably not. But the fact remains that some clients have an ultra-low pain tolerance. So, even if you’re against numbing creams, it’s worth using them for those clients who simply can’t tolerate pain enough to get the tattoo they’ve always wanted. 

For those who feel that numbing creams or sprays don’t work, you likely used a product that wasn’t great. That doesn’t mean that all numbing creams don’t work. It just means you’ve tried an ineffective product. So, how do you know what numbing creams to use? First, you need to understand how they work. 

How Do Numbing Creams Work? 

Numbing products come in two forms: creams or gels and sprays. How they work depends on the active ingredient used in the product. The most common are:

  • Nerve Deadeners: Using chemicals like lidocaine, these products temporarily deaden the nerves to prevent them from registering pain. While these are great for the surface of your skin, that’s just about all they do. Since most of the tattoo process works below the skin, these products aren’t practical for tattoos. But when combined with nerve blockers or vasoconstrictors, they can bring your clients closer to a pain-free experience. 
  • Nerve Blockers: These products allow your nerves to register pain, but they keep your nerves from sending the pain signal to your brain. Tetracaine and benzocaine are the most popular nerve blockers used in numbing products. Most tattooers combine them with nerve deadeners to prevent clients from flinching when they feel the surface pain. In fact, some products like Pro Plus cream combine lidocaine and tetracaine to give you both nerve deadeners and nerve blockers. Overall, nerve blockers help provide a close to pain-free experience for your clients. 
  • Vasoconstrictors: These are the most potent numbing agents you’ll find. Most include the chemical epinephrine. They work by forcing the blood vessels to constrict. This reduces bleeding and swelling. When combined with other mixing agents, vasoconstrictors are long-lasting, which is great for the tattoo process. Because they are fast-acting and reduce bleeding, this is the most popular choice for tattooers. Numbing sprays like Vasocaine and Blue Gel combine epinephrine with other numbing agents to be the most effective options on the market today. 

Do Numbing Creams Affect Your Tattoo? 

Numbing creams do not generally affect your tattoo’s visual outcome, but this depends on the quality of the product you use. Some low-quality numbing creams can create a slippery effect on your skin, affecting your tattooer’s work. That’s why you must tell your tattooer if you plan on using a numbing cream or if you’ve applied one before your session. Additionally, some fake or cheap local anesthetics can interfere with tattoo ink and ruin your tattoo quality. 

For the best results, talk to your tattooer when you book your appointment. They will be able to recommend a brand. Since it takes some time for the numbing agents to work, many tattooers will also have their clients apply the creams before they show up to their appointment. 

How Do I Apply a Numbing Cream? 

Applying your numbing cream correctly is the best way to achieve optimal results. It’s also essential to avoid any visual effect on your tattoo. Follow these steps for best results:

  1. Wash the entire area of your skin where you’re being tattooed and let it dry. You can use a numbing wash or any soap. This process removes all dead skin and oil before you apply your numbing agent. 
  2. Apply a good amount of cream on the area of the skin that will be worked on. Use a generous layer and apply using a sterile glove. The cream should be approximately 1mm thick all over the skin where the tattoo will go. 
  3. Cover the cream with cling wrap or a sterile cheesecloth-like material. 
  4. Depending on the thickness of your skin, leave the area covered for 45 minutes to an hour. Do not leave numbing creams on longer than one hour. 
  5. Your tattooer will wipe off the cream with a damp cloth before applying the stencil.  

Once the numbing agent is active, you should feel minimal to no pain for the first 45 minutes to an hour. Over the second to the third hour, the numbing effect will gradually wear off. If you have a larger design or a tattoo that requires a more extended sitting, talk to your tattooer about using a vasoconstrictor spray that’s approved for broken-skin throughout the session. 

Numbing Cream FAQs

Now that you know the basics of numbing creams and how they affect the visual outcome let’s wrap up with some common questions clients ask about numbing creams.

Will My Skin Stay Numb Longer if I Leave the Cream on Longer? 

The amount of time you leave the cream on doesn’t affect how long it lasts or how numb your skin feels. Leaving the skin on longer than recommended can actually have the opposite effect, making your skin feel more uncomfortable as you begin your tattoo. Letting the cream stay on too long can also negatively impact the healing process. That’s why you should never leave your cream on longer than the recommended time and definitely no more than an hour. Doing so can make the numbed area more sensitive and affect blood flow to your skin.

What Should I Tell My Tattooer about the Numbing Agent I Use? 

As mentioned above, it’s essential to let your tattooer know that you’re using a numbing agent. If they don’t recommend a specific product to choose from, let them know the name of the product you plan to use. Since most tattooers have experience with numbing creams, the better they know the product, the better chance you have of getting an excellent tattoo.

What If My Tattooer Refuses to Use a Numbing Cream? 

Some tattooers simply refuse to use numbing creams. Regardless of their reasoning, it’s important to be upfront. Either find a different tattooer or talk to them about applying your own numbing cream before the process. This will ensure sure you don’t use a product that messes with the outcome of your tattoo.

What’s the Difference Between Water and Glycerin-Based Numbing Creams? 

How your numbing cream affects your tattoo’s look comes down to the base, so listen up. If you choose to purchase a numbing cream on your own, stick with water-based. Glycerin-based numbing creams are generally those that give your skin the slippery effect that negatively impacts your tattooer’s work.

What Does It Feel Like After Using a Numbing Cream? 

You should feel minimal to no pain for the first hour of your tattoo if you’ve used a good numbing cream and applied it effectively. As time goes on, the cream will begin to wear off. At that point, you’ll start to noticeably feel the needle working into your skin. 

So, there you have it. Everything you need to know about numbing creams. They sometimes get a bad reputation in the industry because of the negative effect created by low-quality products. The truth is that a high-quality, well-known numbing agent will give you sufficient pain relief if you follow the application process correctly. 

As always, all content has been written by CA Tattoo Supply, based on our 30-year experience in tattooing. If you have read this and feel we have left out any pertinent information, please add your personal experiences to the comment section below.