Most tattoo numbing creams last between 4 to 6 hours, allowing you to sit comfortably for what is usually a painful experience. And depending on the cream you choose, your skin type, and the size & location of your tattoo, your numbness may vary. These items can affect the strength & duration of your numbness in different ways.
Type of cream
There are three types of numbing creams – nerve deadeners, nerve blockers, and vasoconstrictors. Each of them work differently due to different active ingredients, but nerve deadeners are the safest and most effective among users. If you’re shopping for something for your next piece, pick one with at least 4% lidocaine – Numbed Ink Signature and Signature+ Numbing Creams are both 5% lidocaine).
Skin type & sensitivity
Numbing creams are designed to make your tattoo process as painless as possible. But painless means different things to different people.
If your skin flares up when exposed to new soaps, lotions, and other topical products, even a numbing cream may not be enough to eliminate the needle pain. Similarly, chronic dry skin and poor circulation will make the tattoo process more painful. Speak with your doctor before purchasing any numbing creams and spot test a small area before your session to avoid any adverse reactions at the shop.
If your skin is up to the task but you have a low pain tolerance or experience anxiety at the thought of pain, topical numbing agents will make the tattoo process much easier for you.
Size & location
Though numbing creams work the same for all ink sessions, you’ll notice the greatest change when used for larger pieces on sensitive body parts. These include sleeves and areas like the ribs, chest, back, and even your ankles & wrists.
Larger pieces and sleeves can take hours to complete, especially if you’re writing in pain the entire time. Save yourself and your artist the trouble and use a numbing cream to dull your senses and enable them to work uninterrupted.
What else can you do to reduce tattoo pain?
Numbing creams are the most effective way to reduce tattoo pain, but there are other ways to make your next tattoo hurt less. We’ll start with the most obvious question.
Can I take painkillers before my tattoo?
No, you should avoid pain killers within 24-48 hours of your session. Even over-the-counter pain relievers like aspirin and ibuprofen can thin your blood, making for a bloody session as your blood struggles to clot.
And if you’re thinking about drinking alcohol to reduce the pain, think again. Alcohol is a blood thinner too and many artists find it disrespectful when clients show up drunk or high.
Prepare your skin
You can start preparing your skin for the pain long before the day of your session. If you don’t already have a daily skincare routine, start exfoliating and moisturizing daily at least 7 days before your session. They’ll prevent dry or infected skin from making the process any more painful.
Rest is one of the body's most effective ways to manage pain. In fact, studies show that sleep deprivation increases pain sensitivity. So make sure to sleep at least 8 hours the night before and get plenty of rest for the few days after your tattoo.
Eat & Hydrate
Even if you’re nervous, you have to eat before your session. If you don’t, you’ll likely experience dizziness or lightheadedness during the session, causing even more pain.
Eat a balanced meal at least 1-2 hours before your appointment to give your body the energy it needs to power through the entire session. If possible, try to consume foods like fruits & vegetables that are high in Vitamin C, which increases skin firmness and promotes healing.
If your session is going to last 4+ hours, pack a light snack and some water to maintain your blood sugar. Even something like a granola bar or chocolate will prevent you from feeling weak and passing out.
Fashion over function doesn’t apply to the tattoo studio. Wear clothes that you can comfortably sit in for hours that don’t interfere with the artist or cause any additional discomfort.
For upper body tattoos, wear a short sleeve t-shirt or tank top that lets your skin breathe. And if you normally wear bras, leave it at home during your session.
For leg pieces, opt for loose-fitting shorts or light sweatpants that don’t cover the tattoo area. And if you’re getting some ink on your foot or ankle, skip the socks that day.
Bring a distraction
Tattoo pain is largely psychological. Many people psych themselves out by watching the needle penetrate their skin every step of the way. But experienced artists and ink enthusiasts alike know that distractions are powerful pain relievers. Bring headphones to listen to your favorite music, podcast, or audiobook. If that’s not your thing, watch Netflix on your phone or bring a friend to talk you through the process.
Though distractions, comfortable clothes, and skin preparation are effective methods to alleviate tattoo discomfort, they pale in comparison to numbing creams. They’re the only way to practically eliminate pain so you can sit comfortably numb for your entire session.