Since tattoo needles do not come in a one-size-fits-all package, knowing which needle you need is paramount to your comfort and safety. If you choose the wrong gauge, your skin could become more sensitive or develop scabs. The sections below outline the best body art needle for each skin type.
How to Select the Best Tattoo Needle
The most important factor to keep in mind when selecting needles is your skin type. Here is how to find the right needle for any tattoo:
Classification of Skin Types and Tattoo Needle Characteristics
Hard skin: This type of skin is thick, loose, and coarse. The best gauge needle to use with this texture of skin is 18. The word “hard,” as used here, does not mean that you have a hard personality! Rather, it means that your epidermis (the top layer of your skin) is more difficult to penetrate. Since the epidermis is resistant, a thicker needle will be less likely to break through it. The thicker needle, 18 gauge or higher, will hurt less when it pierces your skin.
Note: If you have a hard texture of the skin, you should also use a new needle for every tattooing session that you do. Why? Because even a single exposure to the air can compromise the effectiveness of your tattoo. For one thing, exposure to oxygen causes the ink to harden. The last thing you want is for your friendly neighborhood artist to be working with thickened ink! The second reason is that exposure to air builds bacteria on the surface of bodily tools (such as tattoo needles and other popular piercing instruments), which can pass infections on to sensitive skin. In fact, research has shown that 100% of U.S. tattoo parlors harbor potentially deadly bacteria, so you should always treat your body as a temple.
Hard skin may appear on your face, neck, hands, and feet. If you have hard skin on your hands or feet, the needle that you should use is a 14 gauge; this type of needle is perfect for areas of large surface area (like the back and calf) but may not be big enough for your fingertips and toes. If you have hard skin on your face, needle size 14-16 gauge should be sufficient.
Note: If you are not sure whether your skin is thin or hard, it is probably safe to assume that it is hard. Do you think that the artist will want to hurt you with a thin needle? Probably not!
Hard vs Floppy Skin
Some people will tell you that there is an exception to everything and thin skin may not always be a precursor for pain; however, we recommend sticking with the rules for best results.
In general, if you have the appearance of being on the thin side, you should use a lighter needle. Thinner skin is generally more sensitive to pain, so a thinner needle will be less likely to break through your skin if you push it in too hard.
If you are worried about painful piercings, consider using a thinner gauge needle for superficial areas like the back of your neck. A smaller diameter needle can be used for this part of your body without worrying about causing excessive pain.
If you have floppy skin and think that larger needles (e.g., 20 gauge or greater) will cause pain but do not have thick-looking skin, try a heavier gauge like 22 gauge. Or, if you have a loose skin texture, a slightly thicker needle is appropriate.
In the end, it all comes down to your personal comfort level and how much you are willing to tolerate. Some people prefer finer needles (such as 16 gauge) because they don’t like feeling extra pain in their fingertips and feet as they get tattooed. Others prefer something more substantial (such as 18 gauge) to help blunt the pain considerably. Since there is no right answer here, it can be helpful to speak with your artist about which needle is best for your particular needs.
Hard vs Soft Skin
People with hardened skin may complain that their skin feels like the surface of a frying pan after each new tattooing session. The opposite is true of people with soft skin. It is a lot easier to pierce hard-skinned skin with a big needle since the epidermis makes it easier for the skin to be punctured without causing friction burns.
A lot of tattoo artists (especially those who work in more traditional tattoo shops) still use smaller needles for soft-skinned customers because the larger needles are more likely to break through the skin, leading to problems like infection and hyperpigmentation.
The smaller gauge needles used for soft skin are usually much thinner than those used on hard-skinned clients. In many cases, standard tattoo needles like 18 and 20 gauge are not thin enough to pierce the skin without first breaking through it.
It might seem counter-intuitive, but a lot of people who have soft skin are prone to keloids. If you know that you are prone to keloids, consider using a smaller needle for your next tattoo session so that you can avoid unnecessarily stressful situations.
Note: If your skin is extremely soft (e.g., baby’s bottom) and if you don’t mind feeling the pain more than most people do, then it is perfectly acceptable to go with a larger gauge needle-like 20 or 22 for your next piercing session.
Firmness of the Skin
Another factor that may affect your ability to tolerate pain is your skin’s firmness (i.e., resistance to pressure). If you have soft skin, a thicker needle-like 22 gauge will be less likely to break through the epidermis and cause extra pain.
However, if you have hard skin and are concerned about pain, stick with needles like 18-20 gauge.
Body Areas Where Needle Thickness is Most Important
Face: 16-20 gauge
If you have a very thin face (e.g., male model), then use 16-18 gauge needles. If you have a fairly thin face (e.g., male model), then go with 20 gauge. The thicker the needle, the less likely it will break through your skin so you can increase your chances of a relatively pain-free piercing.
Neck: 18-22 gauge
If you have a soft neck (e.g., male model), then use 20-22 gauge needles for tattoos that are applied on the back of your neck or lower face (cheek). If you have a hard or thick neck, stick with a heavier gauge like 18-20 gauge. The heavier the needle, the less likely it will break through your skin and cause pain.
Body: 16 gauge
For larger tattoos on the back, chest, or any part of your body that is not located near the face, use 16 gauge needles so that you can easily tolerate the pain. If you want to feel some discomfort but still need a heavy needle that will not break through your skin easily, you should use 20-22 gauge needles.
If your skin is already thick and appears rubbery or leathery, most tattoo artists won’t use anything smaller than 22 gauge. For example, if you have a new tattoo on the back of your neck and you want it to look thick, then your artist will probably use needle size 22. If you had a similar reaction before and it still hurts too much, then try something smaller like 18 gauge.
Tattoo Artists and Needle Size
It is possible that you may be having trouble with needles before starting a first tattoo session. This may happen because the artist has decided to go with small needles out of concern that they do not want to cause too much pain.
Professional tattoo artists may not feel comfortable using needles that are beyond their comfort zone. If you want to know what a particular needle feels like before getting your next tattoo, arrange to schedule a pre-tattoo appointment with the artist.
If you don’t have any tattoos and want to try out different gauges of needles before getting a new tattoo, ask your artist for some old stainless steel needles so that you can test out the difference at home. You can also use your own 18 gauge tattoo needles if you have them; however, be aware that these needles have been used many times and may lead to infection if you use them on your own skin.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
You can try a few needles before starting a tattoo session. This can help you determine where the needle may break through your skin, so that you can make adjustments for the next session. For example, if two needles are used without breaking through your skin, then you know that one of them isn’t thick enough and should be replaced. Plus, it gives you time to ask questions to ensure that the next needle will provide adequate pain relief.
If the needles are used several times before breaking through your skin, then this may indicate that you have thicker skin than others. In this case, try using needles with smaller diameters (e.g. 18 gauge instead of 2×21).
How much pain do I “threshold” for?
Pain thresholds vary considerably between individuals. Some people are much more sensitive than others to pain. If you are sensitive, your tattoo artist will not be able to pierce through your skin with a needle that is thinner than what you have selected.
How much pain should you tolerate?
This is the most difficult question for anyone to answer since the number of needles used and the pressure applied all vary between tattoos with different designs and artists. However, if you have a substantial number of white spots or puncture marks on your skin, then your tattoo artist will usually avoid using needles that are larger than your threshold level.
There are two things to consider when determining what your threshold is: the amount of pain that you can tolerate without moving away from the person doing the piercing, and the amount of time that you can stay still before getting up and walking away from the piercer.
Pain Threshold for Piercings
Your threshold is different than your pain tolerance. For example, if you have decided that a 20 gauge needle is too painful for your skin, then this means that you will be able to tolerate 20 gauge needles but not 21 gauge needles. However, if you have decided that a 21 gauge needle is too painful for your skin, then this means that you will be able to tolerate 21 gauge needles but not 22 gauge needles.
Pain Threshold for Tattoos
Pain thresholds are specific to each body part. Keep in mind that there may be some flexibility with tattooing, so it may be possible to create a much thinner tattoo with a larger needle than the rest of your body. However, this is not recommended; if you have a delicate tattoo, then you should have a number of safety needles handy in case one accidentally breaks through.
The only hard thing is to make a decision in the first place. Whatever you decide, you will have the satisfaction of knowing that it was your own choice and not an impulse made because everyone else has gone with the needle of your liking. So if you’re still on the fence, there’s no better time to figure out which tattoo needle is right for you than now!
One more final word – getting a tattoo can be rather painful, so it is smart to take care of any bumps or scratches beforehand before starting your appointment. Be sure to find reliable artists in your area who use reputable ink and needles (or even get them from outside) and stick with them for all future work as well as deals.