The options for ear and body piercings are seemingly endless (industrial bars, helix, snake bite…), but each one has something in common: They hurt. Some more than others, sure, but building a Sistine-Chapel style earscape doesn’t come without at least a little pain. Using a numbing cream ahead of your next piercing appointment can help ease discomfort.
As Dr. Jaimie DeRosa, a double board-certified facial plastic surgeon in Boston and Palm Beach, explains, numbing creams use topical anesthetics like lidocaine, benzocaine, and tetracaine to block the signals at the nerve endings of the skin. She adds, “To be more specific, they block the sodium channels in cells to prevent nerve transmission of the pain sensation.” This numbs the superficial layers of the skin, making them a great choice for cosmetic treatments.
If celebrities like Emma Chamberlain or your cool barista are driving you to jump on a new piercing trend, consider using a numbing cream before your appointment. We conducted hours of research on the best numbing creams, evaluating them on their active ingredients, the level of pain relief, type, and the duration of relief each formula provides.
Zensa Numbing Cream 5% Lidocaine
Intense pain relief
Formulated for all skin types
Instructions aren’t detailed
While we wouldn’t normally consider a numbing cream “luxury,” this vegan formula feels closer to our favorite moisturizer than a topical anesthetic. The creamy, water-based formula glides on the skin without leaving a sticky residue. Meanwhile, 5% lidocaine, the highest percentage available over the counter, works to numb the skin. We also love that it includes vitamin E, an antioxidant commonly found in skincare products that helps prevent inflammation.
Since it's hypoallergenic, Dr. Lauren Penzi, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City, tells us the cream is a good choice for sensitive skin. Plus, if you forgot to prep before your appointment, the fast-acting formula works quicker than other options to numb the skin in as little as 20 minutes. For the best results, we recommend reading reviews since the included instructions are a little vague.
Price at time of publish: $43
Active Ingredients: Lidocaine 5% | Pain Relief: Intense | Type: Cream | Lasts: 2-4 Hours | Cruelty Free: Yes | Size: 1 oz.
Dr. Numb 5% Lidocaine Topical Anesthetic Numbing Cream
Recommended by dermatologists and tattoo artists
Oil-free and non-greasy
Copying Rihanna’s conch piercing won’t come without a hard pinch, which is where a super strong numbing cream like this can help. Used by dermatologists and tattoo artists, its formula contains 5% lidocaine for a pain-free experience. The oil-free formula absorbs quickly into the skin to avoid any greasy or sticky feeling.
Over 2,600 Amazon shoppers are also fans of the numbing cream and have given it an impressive five-star rating. We’ll note that while many people praise its ability to get them through uncomfortable procedures, some reviewers say its effects start to wear off after an hour. However, since piercings are typically quick anyway, we think, in this instance, it's worth the splurge.
Price at time of publish: $49
Active Ingredients: Lidocaine 5% | Pain Relief: Intense | Type: Cream | Lasts: 2 hours | Cruelty Free: Yes | Size: 1 oz
CVS Health Maximum Strength Lidocaine Pain Relief Cream
Available at the drugstore
A little product goes a long way
If we’ve learned anything from face wash and moisturizers, it’s that some drugstore brands perform just as well, if not better, than a pricier formula. Case in point: This CVS brand pain relief cream. Dr. Penzi tells us it’s a “straightforward cream that gets the job done.” Reviewers agree, citing they opted for it over more expensive options.
The numbing cream contains the same ingredients as name brands, including aloe, which helps ease pain post-care. We can’t speak to how long you’ll feel the effects, but we do appreciate it only takes a small amount of product to feel it working. In addition to being affordable, this permits you to reapply the cream often.
Price at time of publish: $8
Active Ingredients: Lidocaine HCI 4% | Pain Relief: Moderate | Type: Cream | Lasts: X | Cruelty Free: Yes | Size: 2.7 oz.
Ebanel 5% Lidocaine Spray Pain Relief Maximum Strength Liposomal Numb520 Numbing Spray
Oil-Free and non-greasy formula
Slight burning sensation upon initial application
Think of choosing a numbing spray over a cream for the same reason you might with sunscreen. They are less messy, easier to apply, and good for hard-to-reach areas (like a nape or belly button piercing). Dr. Penzi points out that sprays and creams contain the same ingredients, too.
Yet, in the case of a spray, you might find the formula feels less greasy. That's why, along with its effectiveness and fast-acting formula, this one from Ebanel is Dr. Penzi’s pick. The spray's formula also includes phenylephrine, an ingredient when used topically in conjunction with lidocaine, can enhance pain relief.
We think it’s worth noting that some customers mention there’s a slight burning sensation when they first apply it, but they say it dissipates quickly.
Price at time of publish: $24
Active Ingredients: Lidocaine 5%, Phenylephrine HCl 0.25% | Pain Relief: Moderate | Type: Spray | Lasts: One hour | Cruelty Free: Yes | Size: 2.4 oz.
Best for Sensitive Skin
Uber Numb 5% Lidocaine Topical Numbing Cream
Good price for the amount of product
This cream ticks off everything we want in a product for sensitive skin: Soothing, healing, and fragrance-free. Dr. Karan Lal, a double board-certified dermatologist at Affiliated Dermatology in Arizona, tells us allantoin is the key ingredient that hydrates and moisturizes easily irritated skin. Most importantly, though, the product is effective and numbs for around an hour after peak application.
Plus, its water-based formula means you won’t have to deal with removing grease stains from your new Brooklinen sheets. Compared to other numbing creams on the market, the amount of product to price ratio is more favorable, too. This is a pro, considering you may need to reapply a couple of times since its effects don’t linger long.
Price at time of publish: $17
Active Ingredients: Lidocaine | Pain Relief: Intense | Type: Cream | Lasts: 1 hour | Cruelty Free: Yes | Size: 2 oz.
Best for Aftercare
Hustle Butter Tattoo Aftercare Balm
Soothes irritated piercings
Hard to spread
Has a fragrance
Congrats, you made it through your piercing appointment. But, like finally slipping off a pair of “comfortable” clogs, the pain doesn’t always end immediately. Hustle Butter moisturizes and calms the pierced area using hydrating ingredients such as shea and coconut butter. Our tip: Warm it up in your hands for a minute before layering it on your skin for an easier application.
The vegan and plant-based formula is safe to slather across your lips, elbows, and other dry areas. Since it doesn’t contain lidocaine, we found it's better for soothing than numbing. The cream helps relieve irritation and acts as a cooling agent against freshly pierced skin.
Customers also love its scent, but if you’re not into fragrances, or have sensitive skin, we say skip this choice.
Price at time of publish: $28
Active Ingredients: Shea, mango, and aloe Butters, Coconut, Vitamin E Complex, Essential Oil Blend | Pain Relief: Subtle | Type: Cream | Lasts: N/A | Cruelty Free: Yes | Size: 5 oz.
Best Intense Relief
Numbskin Numbing Cream
Good for sensitive areas
A little goes a long way
It’s a small amount of product for the price
If you finally decided to go for that painful piercing (think: in a certain Y2K-inspired spot) or have lower pain tolerance, Numbskin has a good reputation for providing intense relief. This 5% lidocaine cream eliminates any uncomfortable feeling in sensitive areas. It kicks in about 30 minutes after application and should last for around two hours before you need to reapply. The formula is oil-free, contains vitamin E, and only takes a pea-sized amount to start working.
Price at time of publish: $38 for a pack of 2
Active Ingredients: Lidocaine | Pain Relief: Intense | Type: Cream | Lasts: 4 hours | Cruelty Free: Yes | Size: 1 oz.
Best Intense Relief, Runner-Up
WELMATE 5% Lidocaine Numbing Cream
Includes vitamin E for inflammation
Jar is hard to open
Dr. Lal recommends Welmate as another stronger numbing cream. What sets the product apart—aside from its intense relief—is that it’s formulated without harsh chemicals. The vegan formula still packs a punch and will keep you numb for quite a while. Like our pick above, it has vitamin E to keep flaky skin hydrated and free from irritation. We'll also note that the jar can be a little tricky to open(a plus if you have little kids around).
Price at time of publish: $35
Active Ingredients: Lidocaine 5% | Pain Relief: Intense | Type: Cream | Lasts: 1 hour | Cruelty Free: Yes | Size: 5.5 oz.
Best Fast Acting
Clinical Resolution Laboratory Numb Master Topical Anesthetic Cream
Absorbs into skin quickly
We understand you’re ready to get your piercing over with. When you want something that absorbs fast and numbs quickly, this cream starts to numb in as little as five minutes, whereas others could take up to an hour. Numb Master formulates it with aloe and lecithin, a hydrating emollient. These ingredients together soothe irritation and, Dr. DeDerosa says, make it suitable for sensitive skin. “Since it’s water-based, it is also easier to remove without leaving a residue,” she adds.
Price at time of publish: $16
Active Ingredients: Lidocaine 5% | Pain Relief: Intense | Type: Cream | Lasts: 1 hour | Cruelty Free: Yes | Size: 1 oz.
Best Moderate Relief
L.M.X.4 Topical Anesthetic Cream
Not for intense relief
Let’s say you want an FKA Twigs-inspired belly button piercing or are finally deciding to double-pierce your lobe. Everyone’s pain tolerance is different, but these areas are generally less painful and may not require something so intense. Dr. Lal suggests this numbing cream because it’s still effective, but it uses 4% lidocaine instead of 5%. For the best results, he recommends applying it one hour before your appointment and using saran wrap to help the medicine penetrate better.
Price at time of publish: $29
Active Ingredients: Lidocaine 4% | Pain Relief: Moderate | Type: Cream | Lasts: 1 hour | Cruelty Free: N/A | Size: 0.5 oz.
Curist 5% lidocaine numbing cream
Good amount of product for price
Not as intense as other creams
Even if the build-up of excitement and nerves feels eternal, getting a piercing is typically a 30-second or less event. Despite that, pressure from your pillow, snagging your new hardware in hair or clothing, and general tenderness can cause aftershocks of pain.
Dr. DeRosa tells us this numbing cream from Curist is a popular choice. Like others on the list, it uses 5% lidocaine to minimize discomfort. Since effects last longer, it's especially beneficial if you get a piercing in an awkward spot you tend to move a lot, such as the nape of your neck.
Price at time of publish: $22
Active Ingredients: Lidocaine 5% | Pain Relief: Moderate | Type: Cream | Lasts: 2-4 hours | Cruelty Free: Yes | Size: 6 oz.
Our best overall pick is Zensa Numbing Cream 5% Lidocaine, a vegan formula safe for all skin types and that works quickly to numb the skin. For a more affordable pick, consider the CVS Health Maximum Strength Lidocaine Pain Relief Cream, a great drugstore find that uses the same ingredients as more expensive creams.
It's best to discuss using a numbing cream with your doctor or dermatologist first and to always disclose to your piercer if you've applied one. Some professionals may prefer if you don't use a numbing cream, so we recommend having a conversation with your piercer before your appointment. Numbing creams are for external use only, and you should only use one as directed. They shouldn't be left on the skin for long periods, or be used in large amounts.
Meet the Expert
- Lauren Penzi, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City. She specializes in medical and cosmetic dermatology.
- Dr. Karan Lal is a double board-certified dermatologist at Affiliated Dermatology in Arizona.
- Dr. Jaimie DeRosa is a double board-certified facial plastic surgeon and founder and lead facial plastic surgeon of DeRosa Center Plastic Surgery & Med Spa in Boston and Palm Beach
What to Look for in a Numbing Cream for Piercings
One ingredient on this list should stand out among the rest: Lidocaine. Dr. Lal explains it's the most popular topical numbing agent and is offered in 4-5% concentrations over-the-counter. "This anesthetic essentially prevents nerve endings from firing when they get activated," he explains.
According to De. Penzi, prilocaine, tetracaine, and benzocaine are other common ingredients found in topical numbing creams.
Safety Concerns and Potential Allergens
Dr. Penzi recommends using caution before applying a numbing cream if you have allergies and sensitive or eczema-prone skin. She explains, “Numbing creams may cause an irritant or an allergic dermatitis reaction in someone with either very sensitive skin or someone with an allergy to an ingredient in the topical numbing cream.”
Although rare, she also adds that “there is always a risk of excessive systemic absorption of topical numbing creams, which could cause cardiotoxic and/or neurotoxic adverse events.” Typically, this is only the case with prescription-strength numbing agents and if you're using it on a large body surface area for too long.
“People with liver conditions and methemoglobinemia also need to be cautious with numbing creams,” she adds.
Creams and sprays have the same ingredients, so from an effectiveness standpoint, there's little difference between the two. However, you might opt for a spray if you need to numb a hard-to-reach area. Since sprays don't require gloves and are less messy, they're also more convenient for reapplication.
How does a numbing cream for piercings work?
In technical speak, “numbing creams are topical anesthetics that act by reversible inhibition of sodium ion influx, which blocks nerve conduction,” says Dr. Penzi. Basically, those ingredients we mentioned earlier like lidocaine block pain signals sent to your brain.
For the best results, she recommends applying a generous amount of cream to the area and covering it with saran wrap to, "help occlude the cream into the skin and prevent it from rubbing off.”
Is numbing cream intended for immediate pain or recovery pain?
According to Dr. Penzi, both. With the immediate pain of a piercing or tattoo, you might opt for more intense relief like the Zensa Numbing Cream 5% Lidocaine (our top choice). You can also apply one during post-procedure recovery to dull pain, like the LMX4 Lidocaine Pain Relief Cream, which contains less lidocaine.
How long does it take numbing cream to work?
It depends on the brand and how you apply it, but on average, Dr. Penzi says it takes 30-90 minutes to take max effect. Dr. Lal adds that prescription-strength lidocaines tend to act quicker, because, “we can compound them in vehicles that allow for better penetration and thus faster onset.”
Why Trust Byrdie
Irene Richardson is a writer covering fashion and beauty trends for Byrdie. For this story, she conducted hours of research on dozens of numbing creams, analyzing each formula. She consulted two board-certified dermatologists and a board-certified plastic surgeon for expert advice and product recommendations.
Phenylephrine - statpearls - NCBI bookshelf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK534801/. Accessed February 13, 2023.
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