Tattoos are very painful for some people, while others may experience less pain. Tattoos can also hurt more on certain body parts.
For a permanent tattoo, the tattoo artist will inject tattoo ink, which contains tiny colorful particles, into the dermis layer of the skin. The microneedle injections of ink into the skin can cause a burning or stinging sensation during the tattoo procedure.
Keep reading to learn about what it feels like to get a tattoo, which areas are more sensitive, and how to reduce pain before, during, and after a tattoo.
Depending on the location of the tattoo and an individual’s pain tolerance, people may have different experiences when getting a tattoo.
While the tattooist injects ink into the skin with the tattoo pen, the person may experience burning or stinging on the area.
The tattooist draws the outline of the tattoo design with the tattoo pen, then, depending on the design, they will shade in some areas with color or contrast. Some people describe the feeling of the outlining as more painful than shading, but each person will have their own experience with tattooing.
Permanent tattoos and permanent makeup are two types of tattoo that require needle injections of ink into the skin. Permanent makeup is a type of permanent tattoo that people use around the eyes, lips, or eyebrows to look like makeup.
Tattoo artists use needles to inject ink into the dermis layer of the skin. This method of tattooing is permanent, though medical procedures such as laser treatment can remove a tattoo from the skin.
Applying tattoo ink into the dermis layer damages the skin and causes blood clots to form, which creates bruising. The person will need to take care of the area after the tattoo is complete to prevent infections.
After getting a tattoo, the damaged skin swells up. This is the body’s natural mechanism for protecting the skin from further damage and helping it heal. However, this swelling can make the area feel more painful or tender.
Other tattoo methods, such as henna tattoos and decal temporary tattoos, are not painful. These are not permanent tattoos.
Factors that affect how painful it is for a person to get a tattoo include:
- the location of the tattoo
- the size, shape, and composition of the tattoo design
- the person’s individual pain threshold
- the person’s sex
Some people report that the outline work is more painful than the shading of color. Others may find the shading and coloring work more painful. This depends on the person’s tolerance to pain.
Some researchers suggest that males and females experience pain differently. Specific studies on pain from tattooing are lacking, but increasing evidence supports the idea that females have increased sensitivity to pain compared with males.
The biological explanation for this difference is currently unclear.
People tend to believe that tattooing an area that has little fat is more painful than tattooing an area with more fat. Although this may be true, these claims are based on personal experience rather than scientific evidence.
According to anecdotal evidence, tattoos on the following areas seem to hurt less:
- the outer and upper thighs
- the buttocks
- the forearms
- the shoulders
- the back
These areas tend to have more muscle and fat, which can help reduce the painful sensations of tattooing.
Areas that have more nerve endings may be more painful to tattoo.
These areas might include:
- the head, neck, and face
- the armpits
- the rib cage
- the ankles and shins
- the fingers, hands, toes, and feet
- the knees
- the spine
- the groin
These areas may be more painful due to increased density of nerve endings, the presence of a major nerve, or because the skin is very thin with little fat.
The pain associated with tattooing should be most intense during the procedure itself. Once the procedure is complete, the person may feel bruising and soreness on the affected area from swelling. Swelling can last up to a week.
The pain may last for longer if the tattoo becomes infected. Learn how to identify a tattoo infection here.
Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen, may help ease the pain following a tattooing procedure. However, it is unclear if acetaminophen can effectively prevent pain from tattooing procedures.
Instead, some tattoo artists recommend topical skin-numbing products. These products may contain 5% lidocaine.
That said, there is a possibility of experiencing a contact allergy from products such as these. A person should have their tattoo artist apply the product to a small area of skin 24 hours before the procedure, to see whether or not it causes a reaction.
It is also important to follow manufacturer directions for the maximum dose limits, especially when applying topical products to large areas of the skin.
Once the procedure is complete, the tattoo artist should provide self-care steps and explain how to deal with any pain after the procedure. The pain should decrease with time and resolve after about a week.
If the pain persists or worsens, the person may need to see their doctor.
People who want to get their first tattoo should do their research beforehand. Different tattoo artists and different parlors have different protocols.
Make sure that the artist is a licensed tattoo artist and that the tattoo parlor is clean. However, the American Academy of Dermatology explain that people can still develop complications even with all the proper hygiene and sterilization protocols.
Choosing an appropriate location for the tattoo may help if a person is worried about the pain associated with tattooing. Smaller tattoos often take less time to complete and therefore cause less pain.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have not approved any inks for tattooing. The FDA also do not regulate practices in tattoo parlors. State or local health authorities are usually responsible for these practices.
The FDA monitor problems from tattoos and alert the public when a problem occurs, such as a recall of a particular ink. People who want to get a tattoo should research issues concerning tattoo parlors and ink products that may be dangerous.
Following the aftercare tips the tattoo artist provides should also help prevent infections.
Some suggest that tattoo removal is more painful than getting tattooed. Again, although this may be true, it is based on personal experience rather than scientific evidence.
Dermatologists usually use lasers to remove tattoos because of the permanent nature of a tattoo. Laser treatment is the most common tattoo removal technique.
Lasers work by targeting the ink particles suspended in the skin with light waves that heat the particles and cause them to break down. Once the particles are in small enough pieces, the body’s immune system will clear them away.
People typically need more than one laser treatment to remove a tattoo. Some colors are more difficult to remove, so one treatment may not remove them entirely.
Some people describe laser treatment as “like having a heavy rubber band snapped against the skin repeatedly.” Before laser treatment, however, people can apply topical skin-numbing agents to reduce the pain.
Surgical techniques are also effective in removing tattoos, but these may also involve pain. Surgical techniques include:
- chemical peels
- surgical excision
Tattooing tends to be a painful procedure because tattoo artists use needles to inject ink into the dermis layer of the skin. The injections cause localized swelling and damage to the skin.
Once the tattoo procedure is over, the area may be sore for about a week before the swelling goes down.
Some areas of the body are more painful to tattoo than others, and some people may be more sensitive to pain than others.
Anyone with persistent or worsening pain after a tattoo procedure should seek medical attention.