In the quest for a permanent piece of body art, many of us have asked the questions: How much do tattoos actually hurt? Although the experience is different for everyone—depending on factors like pain tolerance (which may be lower around your period), the tattooist's skill, the needles used, and the tattoo's placement, some level of pain is to be expected.
To determine how much tattoos hurt, and what to do to avoid the pain, we spoke to two experts: Brian Keith Thompson, of Body Electric Tattoo and dermatologist Dr. Brendan Camp, of MDCS Dermatology.
Meet the Expert
- Brian Keith Thompson is the proprietor and Chief Piercing Officer of Body Electric Tattoo, a Hollywood landmark situated on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. Thompson has provided services to a long list of celebrities including Beyoncé, Ariana Grande, Cardi B, and Christina Aguilera.
- Dr. Brendan Camp is a double board-certified dermatologist practicing at MDCS Dermatology in New York.
Pain to Expect from a Tattoo
Every person has a different threshold for pain. What one person considers not painful at all could be devastating to another. "As far as pain is concerned, I wouldn't really say it's not going to be anything extraordinary that you can't handle," says Thompson.
Some people describe the feeling of getting tattooed as a hot scratch. Others describe it as annoying. You might feel stinging or burning when the artist outlines or details your design. If you're getting a bony spot inked, you might feel a vibrating sensation. The most common feeling, however, is a low-grade pain that's moderate enough for you to be distracted from by talking, watching TV, or listening to music. In any case, most people say the discomfort was not nearly as bad as they feared—and entirely worth it.
Do People Cry or Faint During a Tattoo?
You might have heard horror stories about people passing out or crying from the intense pain. Pain, however, is usually not the culprit when someone faints during a tattoo. More often, it's due to a drop in blood sugar caused by not eating, or simply a reaction to the stress of anticipation.
As far as crying goes, some people do find the pain too much to bear, but this is unusual. Don't assume you're going to be one of them. Sure, an eight-hour session of inking might be more discomfort and stress to bear without a few tears, but more than likely, you are not going to be facing that (especially for your first tattoo). So don't give in to the hype. Remember: People who share horror stories online often do so because those experiences are unusual or extreme in some way. Ordinary, typical stories get far less interest and attention.
What to Do If You're Scared of Needles or Blood
If you have a thing about needles, getting a tattoo isn't going to be easy. Before you nix the idea, however, keep in mind how superficial tattooing really is. Tattoo needles do not enter the skin very far—actually, only about 1/16 of an inch. Take a look at a ruler, and you'll see just how insignificant that is.
If you just can't get past your fear of needles, get your tattoo somewhere on your body where you will not be able to watch the work going on. If you can't see it, the process won't feel like what you expect.
As for any ick factor about blood, don't worry about this much. The needles move in an up-and-down motion, carefully pushing the ink just below the surface of the skin. The damage to the skin is so minimal that many people don't bleed at all (or they bleed very little). The tattoo artist also will be constantly wiping up your skin to clean off any traces of blood; it's all done in a very clean, professional manner. Excessive bleeding might happen when the patron has been drinking alcohol or taking some kind of blood thinner (like aspirin).
Tips for Avoiding the Pain
Get Some Rest
Before heading in to the tattoo parlor, be sure you're relaxed and rested, rather than a bundle of nerves. "Being well rested at the time you get a tattoo will help your body be prepared for the inking and associated pain," says Dr. Camp.
Take Acetaminophen or Use a Numbing Cream
If you're worried about pain, do what you can to prevent it. "Consider taking acetaminophen beforehand; while not a blood thinner, ibuprofen can increase the risk of a bruise," says Camp. "Discuss the use of a topical numbing cream with your tattoo artist prior to the treatment."
Avoid Certain Ingredients Beforehand
There are a few things to avoid before getting a tattoo, particularly if you want to lessen your chance of pain, bruising, or bleeding. "Alcohol and certain supplements, such as vitamin E, garlic, ginger, gingko, ginseng can increase the risk of bleeding and bruising," says Camp.
Camp adds to ensure the area being tattooed is clean and clear. "Make sure the treatment area is free of infection, including warts, because a tattoo can cause the infection to spread," Camp says.
Take Care of Your Fresh Tattoo
Another way to ensure you avoid infection? Taking care of your tattoo while it's fresh. "Don’t plan on swimming in water until after the tattoo has healed, and avoid sun exposure because the ink may fade and the treated skin may be more photosensitive," says Camp.
Keep Things in Perspective
How you experience pain has as much to do with your mind as your physiology—talk to almost any mother, and she'll tell you she'd go through the pain of childbirth all over again. Ask her about a toothache, though, and you'll get a different answer. Pain with a purpose hurts differently than pain from illness or accidental injury. Pain in a situation that's perceived as positive may be easier to bear. Stay focused on the beautiful piece of art you'll soon be wearing, and you're likely to find that the pain is more than tolerable. "If you really want to get it, just get it and don't worry about the pain. Don't pick your piercing placement by pain level, because the pain is so short-lived," says Thompson.
Learn as Much as You Can Beforehand
Knowledge is power. Want to get ahead of your pre-tattoo anxiety? Learn all you can about what you're getting into. Research everything you can about the process, from the viewpoints of both patrons and artists.
If you take the time to educate yourself about the process and choose a reputable, professional artist whom you can trust completely, you can walk into the tattoo parlor with confidence and calm. And afterward, you'll walk out with a beautiful, meaningful piece of body art—and the pride of having faced a fear.
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