Can I use numbing cream before a tattoo

Can I use numbing cream before a tattoo? Is it okay? Pros and Cons

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If you’re considering getting a tattoo, you may have wondered if it’s possible to use numbing cream before the appointment. Numbing cream can help reduce pain during the tattooing process, but there are pros and cons to using it.

In this blog post, we’ll discuss when numbing cream is and isn’t recommended, as well as what tattooists think about it. We’ll also look at how well it works for small tattoos versus large tattoos.

Numbing cream sounds like the perfect solution if you are worried about coping with the pain of getting a tattoo. But does it work and can you use it. You are probably wondering, can I use numbing cream before a tattoo? Is it okay and what are the pros and cons?

Numbing cream can work for small tattoos. For large tattoos it can wear off and make the tattoo more painful as the nerves come back to life and become sensitive. You must talk to your Tattooist before using it. It can make the skin jelly like and hard to tattoo and they may refuse to tattoo you. 

Numbing cream can work in some circumstances but did you know that it can actually increase your pain if used wrongly? Artists may also refuse to work on you if you turn up at the tattoo shop having already applied numbing cream as hit can interfere with the tattoo process.

Read on to discover how to avoid this happening to you, when you can use numbing cream and how to use it.

{If you are really worried about the pain you might like to check out this post. Tattoo Pain Chart – 10 Tips to Minimize Your Pain }

Tattoo Pain
The level of Tattoo Pain can depend on the skill and experience of your artist


Can I use numbing cream before a tattoo?

The short answer is yes, you can use numbing cream before getting a tattoo in some circumstances.

However, there are some circumstances where it might not be recommended.

For example, if you’re getting a large or intricate design, numbing cream may not work as well.

Additionally, tattooists refuse to work with people who have used cream before their appointment as it makes the tattooing process more difficult if not impossible. Using it without talking to your artist may lose you your appointment. They will be able to tell that you have used it and may turn you away

On the other hand, numbing cream can be very effective for smaller tattoos.

It’s a good idea to speak with your tattooist about whether or not they recommend using numbing cream. They may have specific instructions on how to use it.

What do tattooists think about numbing cream?

Many tattooists are not fans of numbing cream. This is because it can actually make the process more difficult for them. It can also have an impact on the quality of tattoo they can do.

Numbing cream pulls the blood supply away from the surface of the skin. This makes the skin go white, flabby and jelly like if its over used.

We have all had a client who has turned up after basting their arm in buckets of numbing cream for 4 hours .

Where I used to work we called it “zombie arm”.

The skin is pasty white and floppy and loses all its life and vitality. This soggy floppy quality makes it really hard to tattoo well. It’s like trying to tattoo a dead piece of tripe.

This is going to result in a lower quality tattoo. In this circumstance the artist would have to say no to doing the tattoo as it wouldn’t go well and their reputation would be on the line.

However, no tattooist likes to work with a client who is wriggling and writhing in pain so for small tattoos in the right places, a bit of numbing cream or spray can help.

Can I use numbing cream before a tattoo
Numbing cream left on 1.5 hours. You can see how the skin has gone really white in the spot where it was applied. This skin wouldn’t be good to tattoo.

Numbing creams can actually increase the pain if used wrongly

Most people don’t know that numbing cream can actually increase pain if you use it the wrong way.

Numbing cream can wear off in as little as 40 minutes. This means if you’re having a large tattoo, you are still being tattooed at this time as you may be in the chair for 5, 6 or 7 hours or more.

If the numbing cream just meant nerve endings going back to normal that wouldn’t be too bad.

However, have you ever sat funny on your leg until it went totally numb? Then, when the blood flowed back it suddenly became super sensitive and unbearable to touch?

Well, that can be what happens when the numbing cream wears off if you have used too much for too long.

The feeling in the nerves comes back but DIALLED RIGHT UP!

Also, because you have not been feeling the pain your natural painkillers [called endorphins] have not kicked in. So you have even less pain tolerance than you would have had without using the cream.

You may find yourself an hour into a six hour session with skin that exquisitely sensitive to each line being pulled.

This is NOT a good place to be.

Story Time – Zombie arm guy

When I was an apprentice I had a guy turn up for an appointment to get some heavy black tribal. I went to put the stencil on and his arm looked literally dead!. It was whiter than white and looked like a dead fish that had been left floating at the bottom of a tank for weeks. It almost looked like he couldn’t move it. He must have had a ton of cream on for hours!

I was in the studio on my own and didn’t know what to do. I asked him if he had used numbing cream and he denied it. So being an apprentice and green I started tattooing him. {note. I absolutely would not start a tattoo on this guy now but would rebook him in}.

About 40 minutes into the tattoo his arm suddenly came back to life, with full vengeance. OMG did that guy suffer. It literally became a tug of war with him instinctively trying to pull his arm away and me hanging onto it for grim death whilst trying to get his tribal in. He was pouring in sweat and a weird green colour. Sweat was dripping off the tip of his nose. I finished the tribal and he literally ran out the door never to be seen again.


Does numbing cream work for small Tattoos?

Numbing cream is often recommended for small tattoos because it can work well in this scenario. The smaller the tattoo, the easier it will be to numb with numbing cream – and you won’t need as much of it either!.

Basically a smaller tattoo should be finished before the numbing cream wears off so you wont hit the point where the feeling comes back with a vengeance.

You need to check with your artist as you need to time the application of the cream to synchronise with when they are doing the tattoo so it doesn’t wear off too early. Also make sure that they are happy for you to use it.

There are some small tattoos, such as tattoos on the palm of the hand, where numbing cream could work really well.

Does numbing cream work for large Tattoos?

Numbing cream is not recommended for large tattoos. This is because it can be difficult to numb a large area, and the process may take hours depending on how big your tattoo will be! The numbing cream will have worn off before then, leaving the skin more sensitive

If you’re getting a large piece done then talk with your tattooist about what they think of numbing creams before using any kind of pain relief during their process. They may be happy to use numbing sprays which don’t have such a dramatic effect on the skin. These can be much better for larger tattoos and may help you get through any tricky bits.

Vibration Tattoo Pain
Vibration Tattoo Pain can be an issue for rib and chest tattoos

Why do tattoo artists not use numbing cream?

Many tattoo artists don’t use numbing cream because it makes their job harder. It’s not because they think you should toughen up or they want to get more money out of you. They care about the quality of the tattoo and numbing cream under some circumstances can result in a poor tattoo.

I’ve seen posts on the web suggesting that tattooists don’t use it because they think you should toughen up and that you should feel pain or the tattoo isn’t worth anything.  I’ve even seen it suggested that it’s in order to make the tattoo take longer so they can get more money out of you.

I can say that in 99% of cases this just isn’t true. In fact most tattooists would be incredibly happy if there was a good solution to prevent clients pain.

Clients going through pain wriggle about and are jumpy or even pass out. This makes our day more tricky. Believe me, if there was a good solution to pain many of us would use it.

However, we are not medical professionals so we don’t have access to hospital grade nerve deadeners and local anaesthetics as these have to be given by a doctor or qualified nurse.

We only have access to the topical anaesthetics of numbing spray and cream and these are not perfect solutions as we have seen.

However, a good tattooist will do their best to minimise their clients pain using all the methods available to them which may include psychological methods such as distraction or calming music and environment as well as Tattooing techniques

Should I tell my tattoo artist I used numbing cream?

If you are going to use numbing cream you absolutely have to tell your tattoo artist you have used it. It may make your skin impossible to tattoo and they may refuse to tattoo you. They will be able to tell from your skin that you have had it on so don’t try to do it sneakily without telling them.

They may be OK with you using it but have specific timings and techniques for the initial application that they want you to use. Make sure you check with them first or you may lose your tattoo session appointment.

How does numbing cream work to help with tattoo pain?

Most anaesthetic creams contain the active ingredient Lidocaine at around a 5% concentration.

It may also be known as Lignocaine or sold under the brand name of Xylocaine.

Lidocaine works by blocking the nerve signals in your skin, preventing it from sending pain messages to the brain.

It does this by getting inside the nerve cells and blocking the sodium ions which conduct the nerve signal.

This can help reduce sensations of pain so that you feel more comfortable during a painful procedure.

Lidocaine also causes changes to the blood vessels which alters  blood flow of the area where it is used. This is why the skin goes white and jelly like.

If you are worried about pain during your tattoo you may find this post helpful.
The top 15 Most and Least Painful Places To Get A Tattoo

Can I Buy My Own Numbing Cream?

Yes, you can buy your own numbing cream. You might be able to buy it from a local pharmacy or online without a prescription. Some creams are available over the counter, but other stronger ones may require a doctor’s prescription for purchase.

You want to make sure the one you buy contains 5% Lidocaine for maximum pain relief.

Note, some Lidocaine creams will be marketed for other uses such as for haemorrhoids or ejaculation delay. As long as they contain 5% Lidocaine they are the same thing and fine to use.

How to use numbing cream for a tattoo

In order for numbing cream to work, you need to apply it around 45 minutes before the tattoo is due to take place. Spread a thick layer of cream over the area to be tattooed. Then wrap it tightly with plastic film to ensure the cream is forced into the skin. Unwrap just before the tattoo.

The plastic film or Saran Wrap ensures that the cream is forced into the skin to do its magic work. Check with your artist as they may have specific times they want you to keep the cream on for.

Step 1

Can I use numbing cream before a tattoo
Step 1. Apply a generous layer of numbing cream in the area to be tattooed. Do this approximately 45 minutes before your appointment.

Step 2

Can I use numbing cream before a tattoo
Step 2. Wrap the area tightly with cling film / Saran Wrap. This forces the cream into the skin and prevents it getting wiped off

The Pros of using numbing cream for your tattoo

  • Pre-numbing ointments make tattoos less painful.
  • It can help you to feel more relaxed and enjoy the experience more.
  • It can help you to stay still so your tattoo is of higher quality.

The Cons of using numbing cream for a tattoo

  • The session may take longer as the tattooist is dealing with altered skin
  • It may wear off before the design is finished and then cause intense pain sensitivity
  • Numbing cream can cause the skin to become soft and jelly like – this makes it difficult or impossible to tattoo.
  • It may cause you to have your tattoo appointment cancelled if the artist refuses to tattoo you
  • Overuse is dangerous and can cause heart problems and arrhythmia.
  • Overuse can cause the skin to be overworked and the tattoo heal badly.

What about numbing spray. Is that an option?

This is an option that isn’t often talked about. There are numbing sprays available on the market which contain the same ingredient Lidocaine in a liquid form.

Numbing sprays work in a similar way to numbing creams – by blocking nerve signals and preventing pain messages from reaching the brain. However, they can be more effective because they’re sprayed directly onto the area being tattooed rather than rubbed in like creams are.

However, the problem for you is that they only work when sprayed onto the tattoo as its being done. The skin has to have been opened by the act of tattooing it for the Lidocaine to get in and do its magic work.

For this reason it has to be done by your tattooist and not yourself. So you need to have a discussion with them and ask if they use numbing spray and if they would use it with you.

Like all topical anaesthetics, it isn’t perfect but it can take the edge off if you are going over particularly painful spots.

Can there be side effects from using numbing cream?

Skin numbing cream is not as harmless as it may seem. The main ingredient, Lidocaine has an effect on heart rhythms.

If you have a heart condition or related medical condition, it is not recommended that you use the cream.

Creams can also cause allergic reactions in some people especially those with sensitive skin types. These reactions include flushing or redness of the skin, as well as swelling and itching at the site where you applied the ointment (this will usually go away after using it).

This means that while numbing cream is often recommended for small tattoos, it’s not always the best choice – especially if you’ve got sensitive skin or another health condition.

You need to use it carefully to avoid having a negative side effect.

How long does numbing cream work for?

The numbing effect of cream can last for up to two hours, but this varies depending on the strength of the cream and how much you used. However, in many cases the numbing effect wears off after about 45 to 60 minutes. Wrapping the area in clingfilm when applying the cream will make it last longer.

What if my artist says I can’t use numbing cream?

Dont panic or despair if your artist says that you can use any kind of numbing product. There are many other things that you can do to minimise and handle the pain. These include

  • Music – Calming music on headphones helps to relax you
  • Meditation. Listen to a guided meditation
  • Distraction – Listen to podcast or watch a film
  • Get a tattoo in a less painful place – Tattoo location makes all the difference to pain levels
  • Get a Dot Work tattoo – Dotwork is one of the least painful styles of tattoo. See this post – Are Dotwork Tattoos Less Painful?
  • Take painkillers before you go – Taking an over the counter painkiller such as Tylenol will take the edge off your pain

What is the least painful place to get a tattoo?

Pain tolerance varies from person to person. If you have high levels of sensitivity and struggle with pain you will be pleased to know that whilst there is no such thing as a painless tattoo session there is a lot that you can do to minimise the pain.

Avoid placements such as the ribs, stomach tattoos and the inner thighs.

Women and men also have different pain tolerance. You can see a Tattoo Pain Chart for Females here

Theres also a lot of info on how to minimise your tattoo pain using various methods here including a tattoo pain chart for men

FAQs about numbing cream and tattoos

Does numbing cream fade tattoos?

 Numbing cream does not fade tattoos. However, if over used it can cause problems with healing. The tattoo artists may be able to over work the skin and the blood supply may be disrupted leading to the tattoo healing paler than normal. This is rare however and careful use should heal normally.

Story Time – The Faded Hand

I had a friend who got a hyper realistic tattoo on the back of their hand. They had a long full day session with the tattooist in question, a pretty well known and respected realism artist.

As the back of the hand is a sensitive area, the tattooist applied numbing cream. He also sprayed the guys hand with numbing spray every half hour or so over the course of the eight or nine hour session.

The hand became exquisitely sensitive as the day wore on and it was all my friend could do to carry on with the tattoo. The tattooist then kept applying more and more numbing spray to keep him going. He gritted his teeth and got to the end.

By the end of the tattoo his hand was absolutely white and like a soggy lump of jelly. He also felt pretty rough and jittery and staggered out of the studio.

The tattoo looked great initially but the skin had been super over worked. Only by using the numbing cream and spray had the tattooist been able to keep going over the same area again and again.

I don’t think the lack of blood to the skin over a nine hour period had helped either

By a couple of days in, the tattoo had scabbed up a huge amount and big chunks fell off it. By the end of two weeks it looked like a faded old photo that had been left out in the sun. All the detail had been lost. You couldn’t tell what it was.

The artist offered to retouch it but that would have pretty much involved redoing the whole tattoo. The experience had been so painful that my friend couldn’t face going though it again. He left it and now has a weird faded thing on the back of his hand.

The artist still has the photo of the freshly done tattoo in their portfolio. The healed tattoo looks nothing like it.

So overdoing it with the cream and spray can lead to skin damage and cause a tattoo to heal pale or look faded.

However, if you are using normal amounts on a small tattoo you should be just fine and it shouldn’t cause problems with healing and tattoo aftercare.

Do tattoo artists care about numbing cream

Tattoo artists do care about numbing cream because it changes the texture of the skin. This can make their job more difficult or impossible. However, it’s better for tattoo artists if their client keeps still and doesn’t wriggle in pain so they may be happy to use it to make their life easier.

Why don’t they numb you before a tattoo

Some tattooists may refuse to numb you before a tattoo. This isn’t out of spite. It’s because numbing products can cause problems with doing the tattoo. They can make the skin jelly like or rubbery, cause allergic reactions or make the area more sensitive. This can all make it impossible to tattoo.

Conclusion : Can I use numbing cream before a tattoo?

If you’re getting a small tattoo and want to minimise the pain, numbing cream may be a good option for you. For a big tattoo it probably wont be able to be used.

However, it’s important to talk to your tattoo artist before using any kind of numbing cream – they will know how long it needs to be left on for and whether or not it will affect the final outcome of your tattoo.

If you are worried about the pain, tell them. They will be able to suggest the best way to approach it so that you can get your dream tattoo..

We hope this guide has helped you understand more about tattoos and how to make them as pain-free as possible.

The information on the site is for entertainment only. Anything you do is at your own risk. Consult with your own Tattooist, Piercer or Doctor for advice.
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