Body Art: No Pain, No Gain

Are Numbing Agents Like Emla and Lidocaine Appropriate?

A tattoo artist doing a tattoo on someones back
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When I attended the NTA (National Tattoo Association) convention in 2000, there was a booth there with two ladies representing the company for Emla Cream. One of them, in particular, was overheard pushing these products as the only way one could possibly survive a tattoo. She told "horror stories" of the pain involved and encouraged tattoo artists to carry these products in order to draw in more customers that were afraid of the pain. To listen to her, one could be convinced that getting a tattoo is a severely traumatic experience and could be treated as nothing less than minor surgery.

Do They Work?

Let's consider how Emla works. The cream or patch is applied to the skin and you have to wait 30 minutes for it to take effect. Once it starts working, it only lasts for about 30 to 45 minutes . An average sized tattoo takes about two hours. This would mean that you would have to:

  1. Apply the cream to 1/4 of the area to be tattooed.
  2. Wait 30 minutes.
  3. Begin tattooing, and stop after 30 minutes when it starts to wear off.
  4. Apply the cream to another 1/4 of the area.
  5. Wait 30 minutes.
  6. Tattoo this section for half an hour.
  7. Apply the cream to another 1/4 section of the area. 
  8. Wait 30 minutes.
  9. Tattoo for another 30 minutes.
  10. )Apply the cream to the last quarter of the tattoo.
  11. Wait 30 minutes.
  12. Finally finish the tattoo.

You have just turned a 2-hour tattoo into a 4+ hour project.

Not only that, but there is another downside to Emla Cream. Lara White-Carl is co-owner of Jacksonville Tattoo Studio with her husband, Jim "Finster" Carl in Illinois. She is also a nurse, and speaking of Emla she says, "Not only does the Emla dull for only a half an hour or so, but also when the sensation returns, it is a shock to the system and the discomfort felt from being tattooed becomes more painful. Without the Emla it would have been annoying and possibly even a discomfort; whereas with the Emla, the returning sensation is ten-fold what would have been felt without the use."

I've never used Emla, but my twelve-year-old daughter gets blood draws and IVs on a regular basis during doctor visits for her diabetes. One time she was given the option of using the Emla patch to reduce the pain of the IV. She tried it, and said it was much more trouble than it was worth and now prefers to just forego any pain prevention before her blood draws.

What About Lidocaine Injections?

Still think you couldn't get a tattoo without some kind of pain prevention? What about Lidocaine? This question was posed on the message boards, and here is what some of the members there said about it:

  • "I've heard some of the guys at the shop say that when you put Emla Cream on or anything else to numb the area that it distorts or swells the skin and makes it harder to do the tattoo." (susieq846)
  • "I tell [my customers] it would raise the price of the tattoo/peircing. I wouldn't let anyone but a doctor shoot someone up with that stuff. Also, it ain't worth the effort. The shot would hurt more than the tattoo/piercing, and if it don't hurt, how do you know you're getting tattooed/pierced? Really, if they need a shot to get [a tattoo], then they probably don't need one."(kittycrazy)
  • "Wow, I can't imagine using something to numb [the skin] for anything. That is the whole purpose of tattoos and piercings - they involve pain. I personally get a total rush from the pain. My endorphins kick in and I actually get sleepy during my tattoos. Pleasure beyond the pain." (smilieone)
  • "Anyone that can't handle the pain can't handle the seriousness of getting a tattoo or piercing anyway!"(nipplesnmore)​

The fact of the matter is, getting a tattoo or piercing just isn't that bad! But it is a "right of passage" that many feel should be earned by dealing with the discomfort that may go along with it. If you are not willing to do that, maybe a tattoo or piercing is not right for you. If you really want a tattoo or piercing, there are other ways you can "survive" them without going through all the trouble of these numbing products.