Many people who receive tattoos purposely avoid anesthetics, taking enjoyment in the pain as part of the process. Those receiving complex or large tattoos or who have sensitive skin may desire anesthetic for tattoos to endure the pain of the needle. The different types of anesthetics include general anesthetic, local anesthetic, topical creams and analgesics. Of those types, only creams and analgesics are available for tattoos, and these products only relieve the pain, rather than eliminating it. The best anesthetic for tattoos are over-the-counter or prescription topical creams containing benzocaine, lidocaine, prilocaine or tetracaine.
The most powerful topical cream available is a prescription cream called eutectic mixture of local anesthetics (EMLA). This cream contains 2.5 percent of both lidocaine and prilocaine, common ingredients in local anesthetic injections. Applied to the skin and covered with a dressing for 30 minutes, the upper derma of the skin is adequately numbed to an approximate depth of 0.24 inch (about 6 mm). The numbing usually lasts for an hour or two. Over-the-counter creams are less potent, but may be a sufficient anesthetic for tattoos.
Topical creams should be used with extreme caution. These products are very powerful, and if left on the skin for long periods of time the drugs may pass through the skin into the bloodstream. Some people experience severe reactions to anesthetics, such as difficulty breathing, seizures, drop in blood pressure, and death. Skin creams may also contaminate the sterile surface of the skin. As the needle is injected into the skin, small traces of cream may permeate the inner layers of the skin and cause infection or a severe skin reaction.
Clients sometimes prefer to avoid anesthetic for tattoos, and tattoo artists rarely provide them. During the painful piercing process, the body releases its own natural anesthetic hormones called endorphins. The endorphins provide a burst of euphoria, enabling you to endure the pain of the tattooing process. Analgesics and topical creams may hinder the body's hormonal responses, and the pain of the procedure may actually heighten, rather than decrease, in intensity.
General, or intravenous, anesthetic is not available for tattooing, as medical professionals strictly regulate the dispersion of the powerful drugs and need for a skilled anesthetist. In the same way, local anesthesia contains powerful medications, and their use must be carefully monitored. Medical professions dispensing anesthetics for purposes unrelated to their professional treatment of patients risk disciplinary action or legal trouble.