Some beauty treatments (lasers and waxes come to mind) are just downright painful—but you don't have to suffer through it. One easy way to numb the pain–quite literally–is with a numbing cream. Using a topical product like this can ease the discomfort of your treatment greatly and can make something excruciatingly painful much more bearable. But when it comes to shopping over-the-counter numbing creams, there's a little more to it than just going with whatever formula you find first.
Numbing creams come in all different forms, from sprays to gels, and can be made with different ingredients. To help navigate the world of numbing products, we turned to dermatologist Gervaise Gerstner, MD. Keep reading to learn all about the most common ingredients and OTC products that you can use before your painful service of choice to help relieve the major sting without a prescription.
The first numbing ingredient on Gerstner's list is arguably the most common: lidocaine. Typically used for treatments and procedures such as waxing and lasers, lidocaine reduces pain by blocking the nerve signals in the body. Gerstner says in general, topical creams with lidocaine are safe to use and can be used on multiple areas, though she cautions to only use them in small amounts and on a single area at any given time because lidocaine has the potential to be toxic. Exercise caution when applying the cream, follow the manufacturer's directions, and use the product only on the outside of your body. Gerstner also points out that although it's a normal reaction and not necessarily the sign of an allergy, it should be noted that numbing creams can cause skin redness and hive-like bumps.
Numb Master contains 5% lidocaine, making it one of the strongest topical products available over the counter to banish pain. Whether the cause of your discomfort is a tattoo, an injection, a minimally invasive procedure like micodermabrasion, or a wax—this FDA-approved cream is the remedy for it all. Once applied, allow 25 minutes for the formula to kick in, then take advantage of the hour-long numbing effects. If you're someone with a somewhat low pain tolerance, this is the product to use.
GiGi, a name you see in the rooms of many salons and spas, carries a long line of waxes and accessories. This product, in particular, comes in the spray form, and lidocaine (4%) is also the active ingredient. Although the area will not be completely numb with this anesthetic spray, it temporarily desensitizes skin so that hair being yanked out from the root doesn't hurt as much, even in the most sensitive areas (yes, that means Brazilian and bikini waxes, as well as on other parts of the body). Spray it directly on areas that are going to meet up with wax, but for the face, apply it to a cotton swab first, then to your skin. Wait two to three minutes, then cleanse your skin of all oil before waxing. After the hair has been removed, it can also be sprayed on to help relieve stinging.
Another commonly used ingredient in numbing formulas is benzocaine. Gerstner says this works similarly to lidocaine in that it softens the pain by blocking nerve signals. Though it is available in a spray form and can be applied to the skin, it's often found in oral products as well. Benzocaine also comes with a warning from the FDA of a safety risk of methemoglobinemia and should not be used on small children under two years of age. Exercise caution when using products containing this ingredient and follow the manufacturers instructions for safe use.
No Scream Cream is made by Relax & Wax, a professional company founded and created by a licensed esthetician, Deborah Merhar. It contains 20% benzocaine and is touted as reducing the pain factor between 50% and 90%. This cream works all over the body, whether the area of interest is on your face, legs, armpits, or bikini region. Time the application just right (about 30 to 45 minutes before a treatment) and even hair removal will be a breeze.
After a sunburn when your skin feels itchy but is too tender to scratch, turn to a soothing, numbing spray like this one instead. One of Gerstner's top product recommendations is this anesthetic spray by Americaine. Its active ingredient is benzocaine (20%), which allows it to ease the itch and lessen the discomfort from scrapes, cuts, and burns almost instantly. For those times when your skin is so delicate that even rubbing an ointment over the top sounds like too much, you'll appreciate having an easy-to-apply numbing spray like this on hand.
This numbing method takes a much different approach than lidocaine and benzocaine. Instead of blocking the nerve signals, Gerstner says menthol works by distracting the nerve from the pain. "The peppermint oil in it kind of distracts the skin, so it makes your nerve feel the cold sensation of the peppermint oil and the menthol tingling rather than the pain," she says. "The nerve can really only feel one thing at once, so it’s kind of feeling that mentholated cold sensation versus the pain." According to Gerstner, menthol can be used in different areas of the body and is considered very safe for use for those who do not have an allergy to it.
Not just any lotion, this dermatologist-favored formula (it's even a top pick of Gerstner's) uses a blend of menthol (0.5%) and camphor (0.5%) to calm even the most irritated skin. The cooling sensation of both ingredients works to soothe skin that feels dry, itchy, and inflamed. As a body lotion, it's ideal for covering larger areas, like the arms and legs, and can be used to treat a number of conditions, from bug bites to dry skin.
A favorite of athletes for its effectiveness on sore muscles, Biofreeze is also one of Gerstner's favorite formulas. The 10% menthol works almost instantly and can be safely applied up to four times a day—though, with long-lasting effects like the ones you get from this formula, you won't need to reapply that often. This gel version is easy to apply and also ideal for use on larger areas, like the arms, legs, and back, and works like an ice pack (but better) to the numb the area that's in pain.