How to Apply Numbing Cream

How To Apply Numbing Cream
Credit: Sarah Harvey

No matter how tough you think you are, there’s no getting away from the fact that pain is inevitable when it comes to tattoos. Many of us don’t know what to expect when we go for our first tattoo, so it’s best to be as well informed and prepared as possible – both in terms of pre-care and post-care.

One thing that helps immensely is a good numbing cream. Here, we caught up with dermatologist Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse to discuss everything you need to know about numbing creams, from potential side effects to the best ways to use them. We’ll share specific brand recommendations, including the latest CBD offerings, and give a step by step guide on how to apply numbing cream.

Why numbing creams?

First and foremost, why numbing creams? “Local anesthetics are helpful because they temporarily reduce local pain sensation without altering the structure of the skin, or requiring injections or downtime associated with general anesthesia,” says Dr. Shainhouse.

How do numbing creams work?

It’s important to understand that topical anesthetics do not reach the deeper layers of the skin and underlying tissue, Shainhouse explains. Because of this, they’re a better option for superficial procedures, like lasers, and shallow needle pricks [tattooing]. “When left on for 60 minutes, some anesthetics can reach 2.5-3mm deep. When left on for 120 minutes, some can reach 4.5-5mm deep,” she says. “Most topical anesthetics are available in cream, ointment or are gel based. The better they can penetrate the skin to reach the cell membranes of the underlying nerves, the better (and longer) they will work.”

What to know before applying a numbing cream

Shainhouse suggests increasing the absorption of the anesthetic ingredients deeper into the skin by exfoliating first, then wrapping the application area with plastic wrap (which will trap heat). She also suggests using a more lipophilic product during the incubation period like liposomal encapsulated lidocaine. “Be sure that you do not exceed the recommended amount and allowable body surface area per session, to prevent potential neurologic and cardiac side effects over absorption of the product,” she warns. “Just because it is a topical does not mean that none of it gets absorbed into your bloodstream.” She also cautions to wash the area of the anesthetic before starting the tattoo process. “Otherwise, you could possibly push some of the product deeper into the skin, which might enhance absorption and potentiate side effects,” she explains.

What side effects should I watch out for?

The initial symptoms of anesthetic-induced toxicity include lightheadedness, lip or tongue numbness, double vision, and ringing in the ears, Shainhouse says. “Many adverse reactions also appear to be related to the inclusion of epinephrine within the anesthetic mixture,” she says. Another thing to note: Shainhouse says that the ester class of anesthetics are known for their association with allergic contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis is a red and itchy rash that is caused by direct contact with a substance, or an allergic reaction. The rash may not develop after the first application, but may develop after subsequent or regular use, she says.

Choosing your numbing cream

Shainhouse has many tips to help you pick the best numbing cream for you. Of course, avoid ingredients if you know that you have an allergy to a specific one. If you have a heart condition, she says to avoid products with vasoconstrictors and/or ask your cardiologist before using one. Note that liposomal encapsulated lidocaine and other very lipophilic preparations will continue to have an effect even after they are washed off, since they penetrate deeper. The anesthetic affect is still temporary, but can last for hours beyond the procedure.

CBD and pain relief

CBD tattoo numbing creams are quickly becoming customer favorites within the industry. Cannabidiol, or CBD, is a popular natural remedy used for many common ailments. It is one of the 104 chemical compounds known as cannabinoids found in the cannabis or marijuana plant, cannabis sativa. However, unlike THC, CBD is not psychoactive.

Why choose a CBD tattoo numbing cream? “CBD is a general anti-inflammatory healing product that’s perfect for recovering from a tattoo,” says Ali Munk, spokeswoman for Infinite CBD, a Denver company that makes hemp-derived CBD isolate and recently started selling two tattoo-related products – an antiseptic wash for use before the tattoo and a healing oil for use after. “CBD knocks out a lot of inflammatory cells,” says Dr. Jeanette Jacknin, a San Diego dermatologist who recently gave the first-ever talk on cannabidiol to a meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Need some recommendations?

• EMLA Cream (lidocaine 2.5%/ prilocaine 2.5%) is easily available with a prescription and is safe for most adults and kids.
• Lidocaine 5% liposomal encapsulated gels are good. Many brands include this.
• The S-Caine patch is also back on the market. This is a gel that dries to create a peel-off patch or mask. She says to peel it off after 40 minutes for significant pain reduction.

Precautions to keep in mind

  • Avoid using a numbing formula that is too strong. Ensure that yours has no more than 5% lidocaine
  • Avoid using numbing cream on any open areas or broken skin, as the product can enter the bloodstream
  • Topical anesthetics are for external use only
  • Avoid using a heating pad to generate heat for activating numbing cream. Use plastic wrap
  • Don’t wear the cream for longer than the directions instruct
  • Consult your physician if you have sensitive skin, a medical condition, or are taking medication before using numbing cream

How to apply numbing cream

1. Wash the area – Wash and scrub the area of skin you wish to use the numbing cream on before applying it. This should remove dirt and oil from the area, thus making the numbing cream more effective, as it will be easier for your skin to fully absorb the cream.

2. Put on a pair of waterproof gloves – Latex gloves that completely block out water and moisture ensure that the tattoo numbing cream won’t seep through and cause your hands and fingertips to go numb. No one wants that.

3. Apply the cream – Read the instructions provided to find out how much cream you should apply to the area.

4. Cover the area in plastic wrap – Although not all creams require or ask for the area to be wrapped, the heat generated through the plastic wrap helps activate the cream, speeding up the numbing process. The plastic wrap can be secured with medical tape.

5. Remove the wrap – Keep the plastic wrap applied to the area for about 30-45 minutes, until you can feel the numbing effect begin to work. Once fully numb, the wrap can be removed. Wash the area well after the procedure to remove any residual cream.

And with that, you’re good to go. You’ve got this! Enjoy your new ink.

Related: Where’s the Most Painful Place to Get a Tattoo?

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