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The REAL Reason Your Tattoo Artist HATES Numbing Cream

tattoo artist mat heaphy tattooing a custom sleeve tattoo

Getting tattooed is painful. There’s no way around it. Or is there? Lately there have been a bunch of old and new tattoo companies alike coming out with numbing creams. It has been all the rage on social media, with Instagram reels and Tik Tok’s advertising how “painless” getting tattooed can be. While the active ingredient, lidocaine, does technically work, is it really a good idea? Plenty of artists say it's a hard no. And it’s not because its part of “the ritual” of earning your stripes through pain like the OG’s of the tattoo world. It actually has a much more practical reason than that. 

The first problem with numbing creams is the fact that they soak into the top layer of skin, the epidermis. Tattoos are placed in the dermis, the layer below the dermis. This means that the numbing cream isn’t really a true numbing agent, as it simply takes the edge off the initial needle stroke. Once the needles are deep enough to properly tattoo, your numbing cream isn’t even present. The second problem with applying numbing cream is that it can take up to 2 hours to take effect and has to be sealed under plastic wrap. When artists see their client whip out a bottle of numbing cream and start to slather it on, they are either wasting everyone’s time, or their own money if they don’t wait the full amount of time to kick-in. Another unfortunate outcome is that the artist turns them away, as many are reluctant to tattoo skin with these chemicals on it for some very valid reasons.

The issue here is the fact that numbing agents leave a residue on the skin, creating a barrier between the skin and the stencil. The oily residue makes it a nightmare when it comes to applying a stencil. Even wipe-proof stencils won’t stay wipe-proof because of this oily residue, and your artist will not be happy when their intricate design smears every time they wipe off the excess ink. Not only does it affect the stencil, but it will also affect the way the needle penetrates the skin. These numbing creams change the texture of skin quite drastically, making it bloated, tighten, slippery and rubbery feeling, which will frustrate the hell out of almost any artist as they will have to alter their application method multiple times due to inconsistent texture.

Aside from massively inconveniencing the artist, there are also some pretty nasty outcomes for the client. There is a very real potential for adverse reactions to the numbing product used, and they aren’t easily resolved. Different numbing creams have different ingredients in them and varying amounts of lidocaine. In many people, these combinations of chemicals can cause bad reactions, irritation, and healing issues that could ruin the tattoo. The last thing you want to do is show up to your appointment, and when you peel off the saran wrap, you find odd blisters and red patches all over your skin that weren’t there before. You also don’t want to find out a week later that your skin had a delayed reaction and caused your tattoo to heal abnormally, as it has been desperately trying to process the chemicals it absorbed during the trauma from the needle. At this point, you may need to seek medical attention or consult with a dermatology specialist to resolve your issue before your artist can fix the tattoo (or cover it up if necessary).

Eventually, numbing creams wear off, and you likely won’t want to re-apply and wait another hour or two before starting again, unless you like paying your artist by the hour to sit there and wait for you to be ready. You may start out comfortable and cocky, thinking “hey this is a breeze!” as the line work is finishing. But now the numbing cream is starting to wear off, and the artist is about to start colour packing. You begin to think, “oh no,” and then all of a sudden the pain comes like a slap in the face with a brick. The mental aspect is a huge issue here, as numbing creams often give clients a false sense of confidence, causing them to fail to mentally prepare for the pain. Once that shock starts to set in, the client is highly unlikely to sit still for much longer and usually taps out. 

The scientific reason for this is that when you start a tattoo, your body recognizes the trauma and begins to produce endorphins to compensate for it, releasing adrenaline and gradually helping you get through the pain. When numbing creams are used, your body doesn’t know the pain is coming. It didn’t have a chance to prepare once the trauma began, and now it’s too late for endorphins because you’re already two hours into the tattoo. All of this pain suddenly comes on at once, and when paired with the fresh hot-blade-dragging sensation currently affecting the area, your body physically goes in to shock. You start to panic, sweat, and may even shake uncontrollably. At this point, it’s time to quit. You don’t even want to think about finishing the white highlights. Your threshold has been met and surpassed, and you physically cannot handle it anymore. It’s time to go home.

The best piece of advice we can give you is to check with your artist before your appointment if they are alright with you using numbing creams. Let them know what brand it is, and also test it out on your skin a good amount of time before your appointment to see how you react to it. Don’t jump the gun on the numbing creams, as they are likely to cause more complications than they’re worth. Prepare yourself mentally, get a good sleep the night before, eat a good meal, and show up to your appointment well rested and ready to rock. Once the tattoo is complete, you’ll see that the hours of pain were worth the years of having some great ink.

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