What to Know About Skin-Numbing Cream

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Skin-numbing creams work by blocking sodium channels, so the nerves that supply sensation to the skin can’t send pain signals. These creams may be used during cosmetic appointments, before minor surgery, before receiving a tattoo, or others times when the skin may be exposed to pain.

person rubbing skin numbing cream on side of knee

Alexandra Troyan / EyeEm / Getty Images

Skin Numbing Cream Uses

Because numbing cream desensitizes the skin to pain, it can be used for a variety of different applications, including:

  • To prepare an area for minor types of surgery
  • To relieve local pain such as in areas where tattooing or body piercing has been performed
  • To relieve severe itching such as from exposure to irritants like poison ivy
  • To relieve pain from dermatologic procedures such as dermabrasion, Botox, filler injections, and laser procedures
  • To minimize pain in hair removal procedures such as waxing or laser hair removal
  • To relieve pain from a minor skin injury, rash (such as dermatitis), or sunburn

Active Ingredients

If you’re familiar with skin-numbing creams, you’ve likely heard of lidocaine, the active ingredient in most brands. Lidocaine is very effective and has the benefit of providing quick results for pain relief. Lidocaine can be found in skin-numbing creams like Dermoplast, LidoRx, and Lidoderm.

Other active ingredients in skin-numbing creams can include:

  • Benzocaine (Solarcaine, Dermoplast, Lanacane)
  • Pramoxine (Sarna Sensitive, Proctofoam, Prax)
  • Dibucaine (Nupercainal, Rectacaine)
  • Tetracaine (Ametop Gel, Pontocaine, Viractin)

Medical vs. Over-the-Counter Numbing Creams

Over-the-counter (OTC) skin-numbing creams may differ from prescription variations in strength and concentration of the medication. Also, most OTC medications are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but some are marketed as compliant when the company follows the applicable FDA regulations.

Prescription preparations of lidocaine are available in a 5% concentration of the active ingredient, but many OTC products contain a much lower concentration.

Other differences in numbing agents that are available OTC (compared to those that require a prescription) involve various types of mixtures. For example, some topical numbing creams are mixed with hydrocortisone cream. One brand name for this mixture is Peranex HC. Peranex HC is only available by prescription. 

Side Effects

Several different side effects may be caused by using skin-numbing cream, depending on the type you use.

Signs of an Allergic Reaction

Examples of side effects that may indicate an allergic reaction/medical emergency include:

  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Blurred vision
  • Breathing problems
  • Chest pain
  • Rapid (or irregular) heart rate
  • Itching or rash on the skin
  • Swelling of the lips, face, or throat

Note, the above side effects require immediate medical intervention. If you have any of these side effects, call 911 or immediately go to a hospital emergency room.

Side effects that do not require immediate emergency medical intervention include:

  • A change in the ability to sense hot or cold
  • Swelling or redness on the skin where the cream was applied

This is not a complete list of side effects. If you have any other symptoms, it’s important to consult with your healthcare provider.

Warnings and Interactions

Important safety factors to follow when using skin-numbing cream include:

  • Avoid allowing the cream to come into contact with your eyes.
  • If numbing cream accidentally gets into the eyes, rinse thoroughly with water right away.
  • Only use numbing cream on the skin, do not take it orally (by mouth).
  • Do not apply numbing cream to any open areas of the skin (including abrasions or scratches).
  • Be cautious about accidentally injuring areas of the skin that are numb (such as accidentally coming into contact with very hot surfaces).

Seek immediate emergency medical intervention if numbing cream causes any signs of an allergic reaction, such as:

  • Hives
  • Trouble breathing
  • Swelling of the face, lips, tongue, or throat

Stop using numbing cream right away and contact your healthcare provider if you have any other side effects, including:

  • Severe burning, irritation, or stinging at the application site
  • Swelling or redness
  • Dizziness or drowsiness after the medication is applied to the skin
  • Blurred vision
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Strange sensations in temperature
  • A change in the skin color in the area the medication was applied

It’s important to know that using too much lidocaine and prilocaine can cause an overdose, which can potentially have fatal side effects.

Topical medication is absorbed through the skin and if the amount or frequency of application exceeds the recommended dosage (per the package insert), serious symptoms could occur, including:

  • Slow breathing
  • A fast, uneven heart rate
  • Seizures
  • Respiratory failure

Use the smallest amount of medication possible to numb the skin, and avoid covering treated areas with a bandage or any type of plastic covering (unless ordered by your healthcare provider to do so).

Pediatric Warning

In 2014 the FDA released a warning about serious adverse reactions of children 5 months to 3 years of age who received oral viscous lidocaine 2% solution for mouth pain. Consult with a healthcare provider before using lidocaine in infants or young children.

How to Use

Follow the advice of your healthcare provider and the prescription label or product insert when using numbing cream.

You may need to apply numbing cream at home several hours before a surgical procedure (when your surgeon advises you to do so). Your healthcare provider will advise you about how much to use and how long to leave the numbing cream on the skin.

Other important instructions on how to use numbing cream include:

  • Use the smallest amount of cream required to numb the skin.
  • Avoid applying numbing cream over a large area of skin.
  • Do not use numbing cream on sensitive areas of the skin (such as the lips).
  • Avoid applying heat to the area where numbing cream has been applied.
  • Avoid using bandages or plastic wrap over areas of the skin treated with numbing cream.
  • If you need to cover the skin that has been treated with numbing cream (to keep the cream in place), be sure to first consult with your healthcare provider.
  • Avoid using numbing cream on open wounds.
  • When applying numbing cream to a child, be aware that dosages are based on the child’s weight.
  • Never let a child use numbing cream without adult supervision.
  • Store numbing cream at room temperature, away from heat and moisture.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the ingredients in skin-numbing cream?

    The active ingredient in skin-numbing cream can vary by brand. Common anesthetic agents include lidocaine, benzocaine, pramoxine, dibucaine, and tetracaine. Creams also have non-active ingredients, which can vary.

  • Can you buy lidocaine over the counter?

    Yes, low doses of lidocaine and other skin-numbing creams are sold over the counter. Stronger preparations of lidocaine require a prescription.

  • How long does topical numbing cream last?

    Topical numbing creams, such as lidocaine and benzocaine, can last up to three hours. The topical anesthetic should be applied 30 minutes to an hour before a shot or procedure.

  • Can you use lidocaine before getting a tattoo?

    Yes, you can apply lidocaine or another skin-numbing agent to your skin before getting a tattoo. For best results, apply the cream to the area 30 to 60 minutes before your appointment. Lidocaine can last up to three hours.

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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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