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Numbing The Pain: How To Have The Best Tattoo Experience

by / Friday, 06 March 2015 / Published in Health, Tattoos

It’s often the first question we get asked when a client walks through the door, “Is it going to hurt?”


And while it’s normal to be concerned about the mysterious, unknown pain we’re choosing to inflict on ourselves, problems can arise when we let fear make our decisions. Fear can convince us to get a tattoo that’s smaller than we really wanted, or in a different part of the body than we hoped. At it’s worst, fear can justify taking unnecessary health risks.

There are many ways to alleviate those fears, including a host of pain management techniques. Let’s review some of those options, both good and bad;



Let’s get this out of the way first. Never, never, NEVER (did I say never?) consume alcohol before you get a tattoo. Alcohol thins the blood, which will make you bleed and swell more during your appointment, sometimes to the point where it impedes the artists ability to see what they are doing. The ink can also settle incorrectly or ‘fall out’ in areas, resulting in a sloppy or faded tattoo.

A responsible artist will not be willing to work on you if they suspect that you’re under the influence of alcohol or drugs, which could result in the loss of your deposit, and a lot of disappointment.

Verdict: No, never, not even a little.


Emla Cream 

Emla Cream is a mixture of lidocaine and prilocaine. It’s a local anesthetic, which works by preventing nerve endings from sending signals to the brain about any sensation in the area, resulting in a numb feeling. The cream must be applied to the skin at least a half hour before the procedure, and covered in saran to prevent it from drying out.

There are several concerns about using this method of pain management. First, the cream can cause swelling, distorting the tattoo or changing how it accepts the inks. This is especially detrimental on designs that involves fine detail, or exact line work, such as portraits or geometric patterns. Some artists are comfortable with this, others are not.

The second concern is the actual effectiveness of this method. The cream must be removed so that the skin can be cleaned and shaved, and so that the stencil can be applied. This can take anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes depending on the design, however the Emla begins wearing off as soon as it is removed, and the numbing effects dissipate entirely after about an hour. Some people even report more pain after sensation returns to the area, but that’s difficult to measure accurately.

Lastly, Emla is a drug, and comes with its own risks and health concerns. Emla can react with over 150 different drugs, including common allergy medication and tylenol. It is also only meant to be used in small amounts. Using too much, over too large an area can cause serious side effects if the drugs collects too heavily in the bloodstream.

Verdict: Not particularly worthwhile.


Over The Counter Painkillers

Aspirin/acetylsalicylic acid are blood thinners, bringing with them all of the same concerns as alcohol consumption. (Except for the impeded judgement. If you walk out of the shop with a really lame tattoo, you have only your own poor tastes to blame.)

Advil/Motrin/ibuprofen are designed for pain relief, and also have anti-inflammatory properties. Common side effects include prolonged bleeding, which make them a non-ideal drug to take before you pay someone to poke thousands of holes in you.

Tylenol/acetaminophen are designed for pain relief, and have no anti-inflammatory properties. It is generally acceptable to take before a tattoo appointment (as directed on the bottle, and with your pharmacist’s blessings), as long as your artist is comfortable with that.

Verdict: Some are fine, others are not.

Prescription Drugs 

For the love of god, do not down some random pills you found in your bathroom, or have left over from that surgery you had last year. Do I really need to explain this further? Even if the drugs were prescribed to you, within their expiry date, and don’t have any hindering side effects that you know of, it’s just a bad idea.

If you happen to be on some kind of pain management medication at the time when you want to get a tattoo, you should probably wait until you’re done with those drugs before getting tattooed. At the very least, check with your pharmacist, and your artist in advance.

Verdict: Let’s just no.


The bad news is that we just crossed off a lot of options. The good news is that there are still lots of things that you can do to make your tattoo experience the best it can be.


How To Have The Best Tattoo Experience

It’s no surprise that everyone handles pain differently. What may feel like mild irritation to one person can be excruciating to someone else. Some parts of our body are more sensitive then others, and your overall health and comfort play a big role as well. Take care of your body, and it will take care of you;

  • Rest up! You would be surprised how much a good night’s sleep can do for you.
  • Eat! Having a large meal, and bringing a snack to your appointment will keep your blood sugars level.
  • Hydrate! Drink plenty of water before, during and after your appointment.
  • Get comfy! Bring a pillow, or anything else that will help you remain comfortable for long sittings.
  • Relax! That might mean a dab of lavender oil, or an iPod full of relaxing music and podcasts. (We’ve even had people set up a laptop and watch a movie during appointments)


More Tips

  • For women, consider your cycle and if there are parts of the month when you are normally more susceptible to pain or discomfort. Avoid making appointments during those times.
  •  All artists are not created equal. If someone has a reputation for having a heavy hand, it may hurt a bit more to be tattooed by that person.
  • Larger pieces can be divided into multiple sessions. Instead of sitting through a 4 hour appointment, start with 2 hours, then come back for the other 2 hours another day.
  • Hitch up your gitch, or put on your big girl panties. Tattoos hurt, it’s kinda part of the experience. Be smart and prepared, then get in there and do it.

Lastly, talk to your artist. Always let them know if you plan on using any creams, or taking any pain relief medications, and be sure that they are comfortable with that.

And remember, you’re stronger then you think, and it’s always worth it.

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2 Responses to “Numbing The Pain: How To Have The Best Tattoo Experience”

  1. Sarah Kirk says :

    Excellent advice!!!!!

  2. Barbara dowse says :

    Hi Rakel, had my angel wing tattoo last Saturday April 12, you told me to leave on the see through bandage for six days. When I remove it Friday afternoon, do I just soak it off and pull gently, just wondering . thanks