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Whoever came up with the saying ‘beauty is pain’ was likely talking about hair removal. With the exception of shaving and tweezing, most other methods of removing unwanted fuzz—waxing, electrolysis, laser hair removal—come with a certain unavoidable ouch factor. But, is it in fact unavoidable? If you’ve ever had laser hair removal, you’ve probably experienced a numbing cream.
“Topical numbing creams work by blocking sodium channels, so the nerves that supply sensation to the skin can’t send pain signals,” explains Dr. Jennifer MacGregor, a board-certified dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology. They’re often used before professional laser hair removal treatments because they allow you to get more dramatic results that come from using a more powerful setting on the device, adds Kristina Kitsos, an aesthetic nurse injector and laser hair removal expert in Beverly Hills. (She also points out that they are sometimes used before facial treatments, such as microneedling).
We asked these experts to share the best numbing creams you can buy over the counter, sans prescription. Read on for their picks—plus important tips on how to use numbing cream safely at home.
Kitsos calls this is “a good non-prescription option, with 5% lidocaine.” She also points out that because it has an aloe vera base, it could also help with soothing and inflammation, making it a good option for waxing.
“This is the only over-the-counter option I would use,” says Dr. MacGregor. (Though she underscores that in general, she would warn people against applying any numbing cream at home without first talking to your doctor). The derm-developed product contains a 4% concentration of lidocaine.
Another one of Kitsos’s picks, this too combines 5% lidocaine with aloe, vitamin E, and lecithin to help combat both inflammation and redness. Per the brand, the effects last about one hour.
Risks to Consider
Numbing creams come with the potential for some very dangerous side effects, particularly when they’re not used correctly. “Some of the numbing cream gets into the bloodstream, which can affect the heart and be toxic and even fatal if too much is absorbed. There are even reports of numbing creams causing death,” cautions Dr. MacGregor. Kitsos agrees and points out that the FDA warns that, without medical supervision, people may apply too much numbing cream to their skin and this can lead to life-threatening side effects. At the risk of sounding alarmist, this is some scary stuff; numbing creams are one product you should use with caution.
How to Apply Numbing Cream Safely
Read the label: If you want to use numbing cream at home without supervision from a professional, there are a few paramount things to keep in mind. First, make sure you are in fact using an over-the-counter product, and not a prescription-strength version that was floating around somewhere on the Internet. Most of the topical numbing creams used by professionals contain a mix of lidocaine, benzocaine, and tetracaine, explains Kitsos. They’re compounded in pharmacies so that the amount of each ingredient can be carefully controlled, she adds. Similarly, Dr. MacGregor points out that when numbing creams are used in an office setting they’re also precisely measured to ensure you’re getting the right dose.
Stick to waxing: The good news is OTC numbing creams can only contain a maximum 5% concentration of lidocaine; the prescription-strength stuff is usually about 20%, notes Kitsos. If you do want to use one, do so only for waxing. Save laser hair removal for the pros, and don’t use a numbing cream with any type of at-home microneedling treatment either, cautions Dr. MacGregor. (The small holes left in your skin can lead to unwanted, increased absorption of the product).
Don't apply it everywhere: Never, ever apply it to mucous membranes like your lips or genitalia, or onto broken, lasered, or needled skin, warns Dr. MacGregor. You also never want to put it on your armpits or groin—these areas have folds of skin that can occlude the cream and increase the penetration, she cautions. On that note, while you may see things on the Internet suggesting covering numbing cream with plastic wrap, just don’t. Yes, this type of occlusion increases the efficacy of the cream, but it also greatly ups the likelihood of those risky side effects.
TL; DR: Proceed with caution when using at-home numbing creams. When in doubt, talk to your doctor.
Meet the Expert
Dr. Jennifer MacGregor is a board-certified dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York City. She has fellowship training in both cutaneous laser surgery and dermatologic procedures. Her expertise covers various laser procedures, as well as laser hair removal.
Meet the Expert
Kristina Kitsos is a registered nurse, aesthetic nurse injector, and medical cosmetic expert in Beverly Hills. She’s well-versed in all aesthetic needs, from laser hair removal to cosmetic injectables, and has over 15 years of experience working on Hollywood’s elite clientele.
According to our Diversity Pledge, 15% of products in our newly-published market roundups will feature Black-owned and/or Black-founded brands. At the time of publishing, we were not able to find any numbing creams from a Black-owned and/or Black-founded business. If you know of one we should consider, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will evaluate the product ASAP.