As a tattoo commentator and writer, I rely on my personal experience and time working in a tattoo studio.
Although tattoos are experiencing a revival in popularity, the reality is that they damn well hurt! Anyone who claims they "didn't feel a thing" or "fell asleep on the table" is telling porky pies. Tattoos will hurt to varying degrees depending on certain factors such as placement, type of tattoo, and style (i.e. outline versus colour).
One option to relieve some of the pain is to use a numbing cream. A very well-known and effective brand is Dr. Numb, although there are other products available.
Numbing cream comes in two forms: cream (to apply before your tattoo session) and liquid (in the form of gel or spray, for after the skin has been broken). Dr. Numb is for before you commence the actual tattooing and the skin is still intact, whereas the gels or sprays require the skin to be open (freshly tattooed) to penetrate the epidermis.
Sometimes a bit of numbing cream could be the difference between finishing your tattoo and having to come back again for a second or third session. If you know your tattoo will be placed on a particularly sensitive area such as the elbow, you could just use the numbing cream for that particularly sensitive area only. Whatever you do, you should always use numbing cream wisely as there are consequences for incorrect use.
How to Use Numbing Cream and Dr. Numb
As Dr. Numb and other topical numbing creams dull nerve endings, it's important to use the product correctly to ensure that it numbs your skin and to avoid any longterm effects.
How to Apply Numbing Cream Before a Tattoo
- Wash the area of skin you're going to have tattooed with soap and water and let it dry.
- Wearing a sterile glove, using a good amount in your hand, rub the numbing cream into the area that's to be worked on and apply a generous layer over the skin. It should be approximately 1mm thick all over.
- Cover the cream with either cling wrap, cling film or a sterile cheesecloth-like material. You should have it covered 45 minutes to 1 hour before you begin your tattoo. IMPORTANT: Do not leave numbing creams on longer than one hour.
- The tattoo artist (wearing gloves or they'll end up with numb hands) will wipe off the numbing cream with a damp cloth before applying the stencil.
Dr. Numb and various other numbing products are to be used prior to the tattoo artist breaking the skin with the needle on the machine. There are other products specifically designed to be used during the process of getting a tattoo.
What Does It Feel Like After Using a Numbing Cream?
- Once the numbing cream is active and the tattoo artist begins tattooing, you should feel minimal to no pain for the first 45 minutes to an hour.
- The numbing effect with gradually reduce over the next hour or two.
- Think wisely where you use the cream and where it will be most effective, especially if you have a larger design. For example, if you have work to do on your elbows, under the arms, or on the knees, then that might be the best place to begin the tattoo in order to experience the maximum effect of the numbing agent.
Numbing Cream FAQs
For how long does the numbing cream work?
Once you have correctly applied the numbing cream, you will likely experience little if any pain for the first 45 minutes to an hour. After that, you will gradually begin to feel the needle as it works on your skin. You should be warned that some people say experiencing the return of sensation feels more intense than if they hadn't used numbing cream at all.
Will my skin stay numb for longer if I leave the cream on for a longer time?
Leaving the cream on for longer periods of time has no effect and will not increase the feeling of numbness. In fact, it can actually have the opposite effect and cause your nerves to get all "jacked up" (in the words of my tattoo artist), making you even more uncomfortable as the tattoo proceeds. Letting the cream stay on too long can also negatively impact your healing since the numbed area will be more sensitive and it could possibly affect blood flow to the area.
What does my tattoo artist need to know about the cream I'm using?
You should advise your artist of your intention to use a numbing cream and inform them of the name of the product. They may have their own product they prefer to use (at a cost). If they do, you should probably use that product since the artist will be more familiar with how it works and what to expect. As a result, you have a better chance of getting an awesome tattoo.
What if my artist says "no" to numbing cream?
An artist may also decline to tattoo you if you use a numbing cream. This is why it's important for them to know what your plan is and what brand you intend to use. This is important because if it is water-based, it shouldn't be slippery for them while they do your design. They might more inclined to let you use a cream.
Do I need to wear gloves when I put on the cream?
Yes. Remember to always wear gloves when applying or touching the numbing cream as it will numb your fingers. Make sure your artist is also wearing gloves because a tattoo artist with numb fingers is NOT GOOD!
Does it make a difference if the cream is water- or glycerin-based?
It's important to use a water-based as opposed to a glycerin-based numbing cream so your skin won't be slippery while the artist tattoos it. A commonly known cream called Emla is not ideal for tattooing since it is glycerin-based and will make your skin slippery.
What Is In a Topical Numbing Cream That Makes You Numb?
Dr. Numb and other numbing creams are generally known as topical anesthetic creams. They have commonly been used in doctor and dental surgeries to assist with pain relief for injections and doing minor procedures.
Lidocaine: The main ingredient in Dr. Numb and most numbing creams is lidocaine; 5% it is the highest percentage approved by medical authorities.
Prilocaine: Another common ingredient is prilocaine, this occurs at 6-8%.
Which Numbing Cream Is Best?
I like Dr. Numb, but probably any cream that has comparable amounts of lidocaine and/or prilocaine will work. It is important to use a water-based numbing cream (as apposed to a glycerin based cream), as it is not slippery. Some Artists may refuse to allow you to use numbing cream mainly for this reason, so talk to them first.
One commonly known brand, Emla numbing cream, is not ideal for tattooing as it is glycerin-based and makes the skin too slippery.
For More Information About Getting a Tattoo
- Learn about which spots hurt the most (and least) and tips for tattooing pain reduction.
- Know what to do before you tattoo, including what to eat, wear, and bring to the session.
- Discover how long it will take to get your tattoo and a list of things that will affect the length of your session.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2013 Anne
TeTe on March 11, 2020:
I just got a tattoo I had to stop because of the pain and didn’t have numbing cream can I put numbing cream on a fresh tattoo so he can finish
Jean on June 17, 2019:
How much does it actually hurt with the numbing cream and what tattoo places do the numbing cream
Kloe on January 28, 2019:
Hello I’m booked in to have a tatto tomorrow
But I had a phobia with needles I have brought myself some Elma numbing cream. How much pain will I feel?
Kitten on February 14, 2018:
Hey. Thanks for the article. Just a question though...I have been told to look into pain killers (tablets) and was wondering if that would be a smart idea if I am using a gel?
I am wanting to get a stitch (lilo and stitch) colour tattoo on my foot
Mandy. on May 08, 2016:
You forgot perhaps the most important factor, pain tollerence. For example my first tattoo was easy to have done even though I was scared. My second, which took the same amount of time, was much more painful and harder for me to sit for. The only difference between the two tattoos is that my chronic pain had significantly lowered my pain tollerence when I got my second. It is true that placement is a big veriable but a head tattoo will hurt someone with a low pain tollerence more than someone who has a higher tollerence. Know your pain tollerence before you plan your tattoo.
susan hearn on March 18, 2016:
YES, definitely it makes all the difference. I had my outline done without the cream and had to stop him after he had done the outline, i couldnt bear the pain, i was terrified to go back but the tattoo looked and was unfinished so i got some numbing cream on and the difference was amazing. i woudlnt be scared to have another one with the use of the cream . deffo buy some :-)
Halis on October 05, 2015:
If you have a large are to tattoo, you can ask someone home to apply the cream on a body part with 2 hours before the tattoo session starts, and then when u take it off, depending on how long the tattoo will take, you can apply with 2 hours before the next session on a different part. I actually have a very, very low tolerance to pain so I can't do it without numbing the area and I use lidocaine injections because any other cream will not take effect on my skin, but you have to be extremely careful with this one because is very toxic in the blood, my sister is a nurse and she's always there to make the injections, she does a small dosage in a 3-4cm skin (only skin, not muscles, she uses short needles, like for the insulin shots) area and then keeps injecting to cover the whole or half of the full area. It completely numbs the skin and lasts about 2 to 3 hours, you don't have to wait more than 10 mins to take effect. I eat, read, joke and could actually sleep during the tattoo session, the pain is 100% gone.
Sunayani Mukherjee from Kolkata, India on April 09, 2015:
Going to have a tattoo soon. However, its just gonna be a small one. Should I still use numbing cream?