Topical anaesthetics are used to temporarily numb your skin. They’re usually applied before a minor procedure, like a blood test or an injection. If you’re nervous about needles or sensitive to pain, they can make the experience much easier.
You can also use topical anaesthetics ‘off-label’ before a tattoo, cosmetic procedure or piercing. Off-label means they’re not licensed to be used like this, but we know it works. You just have to chat to a clinician first.
Topical anaesthetics usually come as a gel or a cream, so you just spread it straight onto the area before you have the procedure. Then it desensitises the area and you’re ready to go.
How do topical anaesthetics work?
Topical anaesthetics are absorbed into the skin through the top layer of skin and into the dermis, the thickest layer of skin which has all the nerve endings. Topical anaesthetics focus on the nerve endings and block the sensation temporarily.
It makes the membranes of the nerve cells harder to pass through. This means electrical impulses can’t travel as easily from one cell to another.
When should I use topical anaesthetics?
Topical anaesthetics are licensed to numb the skin before minor medical procedures like blood tests, injections and removing warts or bumps. It’s also used for more involved treatments, like removing the skin on a leg ulcer or having a cervical biopsy. In these cases, you should ask the practitioner performing the procedure if they can give you a topical anaesthetic.
They’re also used for cosmetic procedures. Some of these include dermal fillers, botox injections, laser hair removal, waxing, piercings and tattoos. This isn’t a licensed use, so you’ll need to tell your clinician so they can advise you. You should also tell whoever is performing the procedure that you’re using a topical anaesthetic.
When we present you with stats, data, opinion or a consensus, we’ll tell you where this came from. And we’ll only present data as clinically reliable if it’s come from a reputable source, such as a state or government-funded health body, a peer-reviewed medical journal, or a recognised analytics or data body. Read more in our editorial policy.
What types of topical anaesthetics are there?
Most topical anaesthetics have active ingredients from one of two types of chemical compounds, esters and amides. Some examples of esters include procaine and tetracaine, and some amides include lidocaine and prilocaine. All of these have local anaesthetic effects.
Topical anaesthetics usually come as creams or gels, like EMLA Cream and Ametop gel. There are also topical anaesthetic sprays, often containing lidocaine. This is usually sprayed straight onto the throat before a dental procedure. It’s not usually used on the skin, because it isn’t absorbed as well as creams and gels.
Which topical anaesthetic should I use?
The type of topical anaesthetic you use will depend on what you’re using it for. That’s why it’s good to chat to a clinician first before you use them. There’s some evidence to suggest Ametop gel works better than EMLA cream for procedures that pierce the skin using needles, like blood tests.
For laser and microneedling, LMX4 has been shown to outperform both Ametop gel and EMLA cream. So it can really vary. Creams like EMLA and LMX4 are most commonly used for tattoos. It’s often easier to apply a cream than a gel over wider areas.
Remember that lots of topical anaesthetics have different active ingredients, so one might suit you better than another. For example, EMLA cream has lidocaine and prilocaine in it, while LMX4 Cream only contains lidocaine at a higher concentration. So if you’re sensitive to prilocaine, you might want to use LMX4 Cream instead.
How is topical anaesthesia different from other types of anaesthesia?
Topical anaesthetics are a type of local anaesthetic. Local anaesthesia means it affects only a specific area of the body and doesn’t lead to loss of consciousness. Topical anaesthesia is unique because it has the same properties as local anaesthesia, but it’s absorbed through the surface of the skin.
There are a few other types of local anaesthetic, like epidurals, where the anaesthesia is injected into your spinal cord to numb specific nerves. There’s also general anaesthesia, which causes unconsciousness, pain relief and memory loss and stops you from moving. This is usually used for more serious surgeries, because it comes with risks.
How to use topical anaesthetics
Topical anaesthetic gels and creams are usually applied 30-60 minutes before the procedure to allow the skin to desensitise. You shouldn’t apply it on cut or broken skin, or somewhere you have a rash. You’ll cover it with a dressing until it’s time for the procedure, to allow the anaesthesia to fully absorb into your skin. When it’s time for the procedure, just take off the dressing and wipe your skin clean. If your skin isn’t numb yet, ask the person doing the procedure if you can wait.
When should I get help with topical anaesthesia?
If you’re having a serious procedure, you should talk to the person performing the procedure about using a topical anaesthetic. A clinician should also apply topical anaesthesia for you if you’re using it on your genitals. If you are having pain of an unknown cause, don’t use topical anaesthetics to treat it. Talk to a clinician about your pain so they can figure out what’s creating it and help you find the right treatment. It's not a good idea to use topical anaesthetics too often, and you don’t want your symptoms to get worse.
Can I use topical anaesthetics for vaccines?
In many cases, topical anaesthetics are a great option for reducing any discomfort that comes with getting a vaccine. They’re effective for numbing the skin before a needle puncture, so if you need a vaccine, they can make it a painless process.Be careful about mixing a topical anaesthetic with a live vaccine, like the MMR and tuberculosis vaccines. There are concerns it can make live vaccines less effective, so you should follow up later to make sure it works. Evidence suggests there’s no real risk of this, but it’s safest to check with a clinician.
FAQ: Topical anaesthetics
Have something specific you want to know? Search our info below, or ask our experts a question if you can’t find what you’re looking for.
Are there any risks of using topical anaesthetics?
Topical anaesthetics are generally very safe. The risks are pretty low, because not much of topical anaesthesia is absorbed into your system. It’s still good to chat to a clinician first, so you can make sure you’re not allergic to any ingredients and that you use it properly.
Because they numb your skin, topical anaesthetics can make it hard to notice if you injure the area you’ve applied it to. So make sure to treat the skin carefully after the procedure until all your sensation returns. This is also why you should let the person performing the procedure know you’re using topical anaesthetics, so they can be careful.
How long do topical anaesthetics last?
How long exactly your topical anaesthetic lasts will depend on which one you’re using and how much you apply. Depending on the type of treatment and how much you use, topical anaesthetics can last anywhere from 30 minutes to six hours.
Make sure you apply your topical anaesthetic cream or gel in plenty of time before the procedure, so it has time to numb the skin fully. If your skin is still numb when it’s time for the procedure, you can ask the clinician if they can delay it.
Why should I buy topical anaesthetics online with Treated?
We’ll get you ready for your procedure, tattoo or piercing. All you have to do is tell our clinicians a few details about your health and we’ll let you know your options. Then you can order from us and have your treatment delivered straight to your door.
We’ll give you advice on how best to use it, so everything goes smoothly. We’ll also check in with you afterwards to make sure it went well. Let's make this procedure as painless as possible.
Disclaimer: The information provided on this page is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any questions or concerns about your health, please talk to a doctor.
This treatment category isn't suitable for the gender you have selected.
If you made a mistake on the gender selection, you can amend this by pressing 'Cancel' below and changing your gender. If you entered the correct gender but made a mistake on the treatment category selection, you can choose a different category by pressing 'Choose other treatment' below.