What to Know About Skin-Numbing Cream

Skin-numbing creams are medications that function like a local anesthetic, reducing sensitivity to pain in the areas they are applied. These creams work by blocking nerve signals in the body.

The creams are used for a wide variety of purposes, such as before minor surgery, procedures like mammograms, and giving injections to a child. Increasingly, skin-numbing creams are also used before cosmetic procedures such as microdermabrasion, filler injection, waxing, body piercing, and tattoo application.

Some skin-numbing creams are available over the counter (OTC), while others require a prescription. Regardless, it's important to use one under the guidance of a healthcare provider.

This article explains the active ingredients in numbing creams, prescription vs. over-the-counter numbing creams, and how to apply them. It also describes common side effects and those that are worth calling your doctor about.

person rubbing skin numbing cream on side of knee

Alexandra Troyan / EyeEm / Getty Images

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 include:

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

OTC vs. Prescription Numbing Creams

Over-the-counter skin-numbing creams may differ from prescription variations in strength and concentration. For example, a prescription-strength lidocaine patch (like Lidoderm) contains 5% of the active ingredient while a nonprescription variety (like Aspercreme) contains 4% of lidocaine.

Most OTC lidocaine medications are not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, some are marketed as "compliant" when the manufacturer follows the applicable FDA regulations.

Some topical numbing creams are mixed with hydrocortisone cream (for redness, itching, and swelling). One such brand is Peranex, which is available by prescription only. 

How to Use

Follow the advice of your healthcare provider and/or the prescription label or product insert when using numbing cream. Use only as much as is recommended for as long as is indicated.

For example, your provider may ask that you apply a numbing cream several hours before a surgical procedure. Starting the cream before this time is not helpful and can have negative effects.

In general, you will be advised to use the smallest amount possible to avoid the potential of a life-threatening overdose. Be sure you know exactly how much cream you should apply.

Check with your pediatrician before using a numbing cream on a child.

Do not put numbing cream on skin that is red, swollen, sore, cracked, or scraped. When you're ready to apply the cream:

  • Wash the affected area with mild soap and warm water.
  • Blot the area with a soft cloth.

Rinse your eyes thoroughly with water if you touch your eyes after applying the cream.

Storage

Store numbing cream at room temperature, away from heat and moisture. Always keep the tube tightly closed.

Keep numbing creams out of the reach of children and pets.

Poison Control

Numbing creams are for topical use only. If accidentally swallowed, get medical help or contact the Poison Control Center hotline immediately at 1-800-222-1222.

Common Side Effects

Side effects should be minimal to non-existent if you follow your healthcare provider's advice on how to use a numbing cream. This said, it's possible that you could experience:

  • Changes in skin color where the numbing cream was applied
  • Itching or a rash
  • Mild burning

To ease this, run the area under cool water (don't apply ice), then gently dry the skin.

When to Seek Medical Attention

Call your healthcare provider immediately if you (or your child) experience:

  • Bruising or a purple-blackish haze appearing on the skin
  • Confusion, blurred vision, or ringing in the ears
  • Severe burning, stinging, or irritation where the numbing cream was applied
  • Sudden dizziness or drowsiness
  • Swelling or redness

Allergic reactions to numbing creams are similar to other allergic reactions. Call 911 if you (or your child) experience:

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

If too much absorbs through your skin you can experience an overdose, the signs of which include:

  • Convulsions
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Respiratory failure
  • Coma

Call 911 immediately if you experience any of these symptoms,

This is not a complete list of possible side effects. So keep your eyes and ears open and report any unusual physical events or changes to your healthcare provider.

Summary

Lidocaine is the active ingredient in many skin-numbing creams, though there are others. Prescription preparations of lidocaine are available in a 5% concentration of the active ingredient, while over-the-counter products contain a much lower concentration.

It's fair to expect some minor side effects, such as changes in skin color, itching or a rash, or mild burning. Severe burning, irritation, or signs of an allergic reaction warrant medical attention.

Use the smallest amount of cream possible to numb your skin to avoid serious reactions.

A Word From Verywell

Don't just ask your healthcare provider how much of the cream to apply. Ask them to show you, perhaps by using another cream or lotion in place of a numbing cream. This way you can feel confident that you can apply the suggested dose on your own later.

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.

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5 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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