In our experience tattoo numbing products are usually not the solution you might expect; there are very mixed results, effectiveness varies wildly and the hassle often outweighs the benefits.
They tend to work only for a relatively short period (usually less than an hour) and once worn off people seem to really struggle – this is possibly physiological, possibly psychological but is consistently the case.
They may be of limited use if the tattoo is around 30 minutes or less; but there are other risks to observe.
These can cause problems for the artist. Creams can cause the area to swell which will lead to distortion when applying the stencil, making the tattoo look incorrect once that swelling is gone.
They can also cause the area of skin to become hard, rubbery and difficult to tattoo therefore extending the time taken to complete.
Lidocaine based sprays can be used during tattooing and can be reapplied multiple times, helping with large-scale tattoos.
They do, however, only numb the skin for a short time, only after it has been broken and sometimes with only very slight relief.
The stronger sprays have been shown to affect the healing process – possibly due to affecting the blood flow (they act as vaso-constrictors) or possibly because they allow a tattoo to be overworked.
They don’t tend to work on small tattoos.
Anaesthetics and “numbing” piercings is something we get asked about a lot. Most people are under the impression that piercings hurt a LOT more than they actually do – but when you’re a bit scared, doing something new or just plain don’t like the idea of pain, asking for numbing is understandable.
Ethyl Chloride Spray (Chloroethane) – “Freeze Spray”
The first anaesthetic most commonly seen in piercing is an ethyl chloride spray (Chloroethane) often called a “freeze spray” – this is a pressurised glass tube with a metal cap which, when pressed, gives out a stream of clear liquid (often causing the tissue to go white). The skin/tissue is “frozen” before it is pierced. The effects last about 15-20mins and then you will feel any after-pain from the piercing.
The issue is that while the skin/tissue is “frozen” it will contract, thus meaning that a piercing that looks straight and well-placed may end up crooked or too deep/shallow as the skin expands with the circulation returning to the area.
Any blood vessels in the area will also contract, meaning that they are not visible and could be pierced. As the tissue is frozen for several minutes, no bleeding will occur until the client has left the studio.
Piercing frozen tissue requires a lot of force, is much harder to do, takes a fraction of a second longer and, as the effect wears off, you will feel the after-pain. In Winter, if you go out in the cold with no gloves on, then go into a warm house, your fingers often tingle and sting as the blood flow returns – this is what happens when using any type of “freeze spray”.
Ethyl chloride also cannot be used for facial piercings due to the risk of it getting in the eye area.
Xylocaine Spray (Lidocaine)
The second type of anaesthetic commonly seen in piercing is Xylocaine Spray (Lidocaine), an oral (for use in the mouth) anaesthetic most commonly used by dentists and lasting about 20-30 mins.
The risks include biting the tongue/cheek without noticing due to it being numb. Lidocaine must also be used with caution on anyone who had any heart defects or irregularities. As with any medication, there’s a risk of allergic reaction and if swallowed, it can cause vomiting (not good over a fresh piercing!) and in some cases, Lidocaine can cause veins to enlarge – meaning you’re running a much higher risk of hitting one.
Clients sometimes take it upon themselves to use the topical numbing creams more commonly seen in tattooing (see above). These creams would generally not work well enough to numb a piercing, as they do not penetrate deeply enough to fully numb the area – making their use somewhat futile and meaning that the risks taken (allergic reaction, problematic healing etc.) are for nothing, it wouldn’t be numb and you’ve added a whole host of obstacles to what was originally a pretty straightforward procedure.
Anaesthetics can cause longer healing times and there is no way to know if a client will be allergic to an anaesthetic – an anaphylactic shock would require medical treatment, and the use of anaesthetics presents an additional unnecessary risk to the procedure, which is why we don’t use them.
Piercings aren’t for everyone. It’s going to hurt, but only a bit and only for a split second. Piercing is quick, we’re talking a second or so for the needle to go through and stop moving and then another second or two for the jewellery insertion. After that it will feel tender, tingly and/or warm, but not painful – just a mild discomfort.
One phrase every piercer has heard time and time again is “it was nowhere near as bad as I thought it would be!” Ask friends and family about their piercing experience, find a piercer you trust and feel comfortable with and take the plunge!