Understanding the Science Behind Tattoo Numbing Creams


Tattoos have been a significant part of human culture for thousands of years, serving as personal expressions, cultural symbols, and artistic creations. However, getting a tattoo involves a series of tiny needle pricks that penetrate the skin, which can be painful. For many, this pain is a major deterrent. Enter tattoo numbing creams, a solution that promises to make the tattooing process more bearable. But how exactly do these creams work? Let’s delve into the science behind tattoo numbing creams.

The Basics of Tattoo Numbing Creams

Tattoo numbing creams are topical anesthetics designed to reduce or eliminate the sensation of pain during the tattooing process. These creams contain active ingredients that temporarily numb the skin, allowing individuals to undergo tattoo sessions with minimal discomfort. The most common active ingredients in these creams include lidocaine, prilocaine, benzocaine, and tetracaine.

How Do They Work?

Tattoo numbing creams work by blocking nerve signals in the skin. When applied to the skin, the active ingredients in the cream penetrate the epidermis (the outer layer of the skin) and reach the nerve endings. These ingredients then inhibit the sodium channels in the nerve cells, preventing the nerves from sending pain signals to the brain. As a result, the sensation of pain is significantly reduced or completely eliminated in the treated area.

tattoo numbing creams

Active Ingredients Explained


Lidocaine is one of the most commonly used local anesthetics in numbing creams. It works by blocking sodium channels in the nerve cells, which prevents the nerves from transmitting pain signals to the brain. Lidocaine is fast-acting and can provide relief within minutes of application. Its effects typically last for about one to two hours, making it ideal for shorter tattoo sessions.


Prilocaine is another effective local anesthetic used in numbing creams. Similar to lidocaine, prilocaine blocks the sodium channels in nerve cells. It is often combined with lidocaine in formulations like EMLA (a well-known numbing cream) to enhance its numbing effects. Prilocaine has a slightly longer onset time compared to lidocaine but offers extended relief, which can be beneficial for longer tattoo sessions.


Benzocaine is a less potent local anesthetic compared to lidocaine and prilocaine but is still widely used in numbing creams. It works by inhibiting nerve signal transmission through the same mechanism of blocking sodium channels. Benzocaine is often used for minor procedures or in combination with other anesthetics to enhance their effectiveness.


Tetracaine is a potent local anesthetic with a longer duration of action. It is often used in medical settings for more invasive procedures. In tattoo numbing creams, tetracaine provides long-lasting numbing effects, which can be beneficial for extended tattoo sessions. However, its potency means it should be used with caution to avoid potential side effects.

Application and Effectiveness

Proper Application

For tattoo numbing creams to be effective, proper application is crucial. Here are the steps typically recommended:

  1. Clean the Area: Ensure the skin is clean and dry before applying the cream. This helps in better absorption of the numbing agent.
  2. Apply a Generous Amount: Apply a thick layer of the numbing cream to the area to be tattooed. Do not rub it in; instead, leave it on the surface.
  3. Cover with Plastic Wrap: To enhance absorption, cover the treated area with plastic wrap. This traps the heat and moisture, helping the skin absorb the active ingredients more effectively.
  4. Wait: Allow the cream to sit on the skin for at least 30 minutes to an hour before the tattoo session begins. The exact time may vary depending on the specific product.
  5. Wipe Off Excess Cream: Before starting the tattoo, wipe off any excess cream to prevent it from interfering with the tattoo process.

Factors Affecting Effectiveness

The effectiveness of tattoo numbing creams can vary based on several factors:

  • Skin Type: Different skin types may absorb the numbing agents at different rates, affecting how well and how quickly the cream works.
  • Tattoo Location: Certain areas of the body, such as those with thinner skin or closer to bone, may be more difficult to numb effectively.
  • Tattoo Duration: The length of the tattoo session can influence the choice of numbing cream. For longer sessions, creams with longer-lasting effects are preferred.

Potential Side Effects and Considerations

While tattoo numbing creams can be highly effective, they are not without potential side effects. Moreover, common side effects include skin irritation, redness, and swelling. In rare cases, more severe issues such as allergic reactions or systemic toxicity occur. This is particularly true if the cream is used improperly or over large areas.

tattoo numbing creams

Allergic Reactions

Allergic reactions to numbing creams can manifest as itching, redness, swelling, or hives at the application site. If you experience any of these symptoms, it is important to wash off the cream immediately and seek medical attention.

Systemic Toxicity

Systemic toxicity is a rare but serious side effect that occurs if the bloodstream absorbs too much numbing cream. Symptoms may include dizziness, confusion, blurred vision, and in severe cases, seizures. To minimize the risk of systemic toxicity, it is crucial to follow the recommended dosage and application guidelines.

Consultation with a Professional

Before using a tattoo numbing cream, it is advisable to consult with a professional tattoo artist or a healthcare provider. They can provide guidance on the best product to use based on your individual needs and ensure it is applied correctly to minimize risks.


Best numbing creams have revolutionized the tattooing experience for many, offering a way to significantly reduce the pain associated with getting a tattoo. Understanding the science behind these creams, including how they work, the active ingredients they contain, and how to use them properly, can help you make an informed decision about their use. While they offer considerable benefits, it is important to use them with caution and awareness of potential side effects. With the right approach, you can enjoy your tattooing experience with minimal discomfort.

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