You Need Help: Poking Holes In Your Body

Hello, oyster mushrooms!  I hear you’re looking into a body modification situation.  Maybe you’ve decided it’s time for some scarification or implant horns or a neat tattoo of a heart with the name of the girl you’ve been dating for four whole days inside? I can’t really help you with that stuff because my Jewish mother would actually kill me if I came home with any of those things (I look like a person who’d have a lot of tattoos, but I assure you, I have not a one). But I do have some holes poked in my body! Important disclaimer: I am not a professional body piercer, but I’ve done a lot of research, healed a lot of piercings and battled my fair share of gross keloids.  Additionally, I used to date a person who actually was a professional piercer, and they imparted a great deal of their wisdom over the course of many years. What I can do today is give you some tips regarding how to safely acquire and care for a brand new piercing on your body.

This is my ear with a needle through it.

Step One: Choosing A Piercer

Maybe you’ve got a friend with a well-boiled safety pin who swears they know what they’re doing, but I’d like to take this opportunity to save you a trip to the ER and a tetanus shot, and encourage you to visit a professional.  Personally, I tend to stay away from combination piercing/tattoo parlours because I feel like an establishment that’s 100% dedicated to one or the other is more likely to attract more qualified artists.  My go-to spot is Infinite Body Piercing in Philadelphia, who have been responsible for most of the 12 holes in my ears and a lot of my friends and partners’ piercings as well.  If you can’t go to Infinite, here are some things to watch out for:

Is the place clean?  Are they licensed?  Do they have an autoclave?
Avoid any place that uses piercing guns; they can’t be cleaned with autoclaves and put you at way more risk of infection.  Autoclaves are the industry standard for sterilizing the jewelry, and if the place doesn’t have one and offers a lame excuse, do yourself a favor and go somewhere else.  If you can, read reviews, ask around, and if anything about the place gives you the creeps, trust your instincts before you let a potentially unsafe person shove a piece of metal into your body.

Do they offer a portfolio, and does the work contained within look professional?
Make sure the pictures in the portfolio are of well-healed, well-placed piercings.  A buddy of mine went to another place in Philadelphia whose portfolio featured several pictures of pierced dogs, which is a pretty solid dealbreaker (also cruel and gross).

Is the work area sterile?
Is there a separate room where the piercings take place?  Your piercer should wash their hands before and definitely be wearing gloves and a surgical mask. The needle should come in a fresh package (not stored in some sort of sterilizing liquid), and the jewelry should be clean.

Step Two: Getting the Piercing

Let’s talk about you!

You should be at least 18 (or with whatever proof of your legal guardian’s consent the place requires).
Any place that is willing to pierce you without IDing you isn’t very credible, and probably isn’t super careful about other important things like cleanliness or safety.

You should be 100% sober.
Alcohol not only clouds your judgement, it also thins your blood, which can be dangerous if you’re getting poked.  If you’re taking any medications that might thin your blood (including antibiotics), make sure to let your piercer know.

You should also be absolutely healthy, you shouldn’t be pregnant, and you should have eaten something in the last couple of hours.
If you’re operating on an empty stomach, you could feel faint and/or pass out on the table, and nobody wants that. Also, no reputable piercer will work on someone who’s sick or pregnant, as you run a much higher risk of infection (which could seriously affect the fetus).

It’s totally cool for you to bring your friend or girlfriend or Intern Grace or whoever if you wanna squeeze somebody’s hand.
It’s gonna hurt for a second, and it’s going to feel really weird; there’s no real way around that.  Fun fact: the guy who pierced my conch told me that it’d feel “like making out with a unicorn.”  He may have lied, but it did make a really satisfying crunch noise.

These... could all be yours.

These… could all be yours. (Image via Shutterstock)

Step 3: Aftercare

Different kinds of piercings require different kinds of aftercare, and any quality shop should have a brochure of some sort for you to take home and consult.  Earlobe, septum and eyebrow piercings take about two months to heal, while ear cartilage, navels, nostrils and nipples can take from six months to a year.  Genital piercings vary depending on the location and type of piercing.  Basically, what you want to do is keep the piercing clean, keep anything potentially germy away from it, and prevent anything from leaning against the jewelry or adding uncomfortable pressure while it’s healing.  For example, with my ear cartilage piercings, it was recommended that I keep my hair tied back (hair carries all sorts of nasty things you don’t want getting inside your piercing), avoid using my phone with that particular ear and take care to sleep on my other side.  Some healing piercings will develop some gross crusty stuff or secrete a pale yellowish liquid, and that’s totally normal (it’s lymph, blood plasma and dead cells). Don’t play with the jewelry or spin it around lest something gross should get pulled into the healing wound and trap itself in there.

Get yourself a quality medicated antimicrobial soap, preferably one without added dyes or fragrances – Provon works great, or tea tree oil soap if you’re into natural remedies.  You can also use a simple antibacterial soap (again without dyes or fragrances), though the first option is preferable.  Wash your hands with the soap first - never touch your piercing with dirty hands – then soak your piercing in water for a minute before using the soap.  If you do have crusty discharge on the piercing, use a sterile Q-tip to carefully dislodge it (again - never your fingers).  Once that stuff is absolutely removed, you can move the jewelry around through the piercing to work the soap through the piercing, then flush carefully with more warm water.  Make sure you wash your piercing once or twice a day, but don’t overdo it; believe it or not, over-washing can also cause infections.

If your shop tries to sell you an “ear piercing wash” that isn’t an antimicrobial soap, don’t buy it.  Don’t use neosporin or other creams on your piercing, don’t use rubbing alcohol, and don’t use hydrogen peroxide.  Antibacterial creams keep oxygen out of the piercing, which delays healing, creates a breeding ground for infection and makes it tougher to clean, while rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide can be way harsh on the skin around your jewelry.

Sea salt soaks are also great for healing piercings, though there’s really no way to do them without feeling really awkward.  Mix 1/4 tsp of non-iodized sea salt into 8 oz (1 cup) of hot water (distilled if possible), and dip your piercing in it in whatever odd position seems necessary.  Even a one minute soak once a day is helpful; it helps draw out discharge, improve circulation in the affected area and relieve irritation.

Sometimes piercings get irritated or infected; it’s just a fact of life.  You just put a hole in your body on purpose and are asking it to heal around a piece of metal that wasn’t there before, and that can be complicated.  Infected piercings feel hot or itchy, secrete green, dark yellow or bloody liquid, and might appear red or swollen.  Don’t remove the jewelry – if the wound closes up while still infected, it’ll make it harder to heal.  Occasionally, a lump of scar tissue will form around a fresh piercing; this irritation is called a keloid.  They can be caused by any number of factors, but all of these things can be easily treated with sea salt soaks and making sure you don’t touch the jewelry with your fingers or put unnecessary pressure on the healing piercing.  For keloids, my piercer friend always recommended crushing an aspirin, mixing it with water and rubbing the paste on the affected area.  It worked like a charm.

Not my ear.

If these symptoms persist or worsen despite the treatments listed above, call your piercer, or better yet, head back to the shop and have an actual professional take a look at it.  I’m not a medical doctor, but Agent Scully is.

Avatar of Stef

Stef Schwartz is the Music Editor at Autostraddle.com. She's a rock'n'roll jack-of-all-trades, vegan crusader and legit professional weirdo. She lives with her cat Scully in the wilds of Los Angeles, where she writes terrible dance music, drinks quality bourbon and misses New York City. Follow her on twitter.

Stef has written 90 articles for us.

36 Comments

  1. Thumb up 2

    Please log in to vote

    When I got a keloid on my cartilage piercing I freaked out and briefly thought my ear was, in fact, going to fall off. A local piercer recommended jojoba oil as a natural remedy. Worked like a charm, keloid was gone in a few days.

    This article is a solid piece. Wish I had known some of these things before getting my piercing over the summer. Luckily my ear didn’t fall off. :)

  2. Thumb up 3

    Please log in to vote

    Don’t be afraid to go to a professional piercer and ask for advice, either! My daith kept getting re-injured because I’m apparently incapable of sleeping on my left side, and after three months of struggles, I finally went to a shop and asked for help. Even if they aren’t the one who pierced you, they should be willing to take a look and let you know what’s going on. I had to take my daith out, unfortunately, but at least I did it with the help of a professional who was able to advise me on how to treat the remaining wound and even offer to re-pierce it for me once it healed up!

  3. Thumb up 2

    Please log in to vote

    If you’re in the Philly area, I also highly recommend going to Infinite. I’ve had a few piercings done there and their amazing. Super professional, super clean, and super amazing. Kali is great! Ask for her! When my septum got infected the owner talked to me for about a half hour about it. Also, I know salt soaks can be super awkward, BUT they work so well. Blowing nose bubbles into water is weird, but you want to make sure it’s clean! Also, please don’t ever, ever have anything pierced with a gun. There’s no real way to clean them, and also it punches a jagged hole so it heals weird. You want a nice clean hole(Gross, sorry!) I’m a total hypochondriac, so whenever I want to have anything done I’ll look up everything that could possibly happen. You should know what you’re getting into, and what to expect incase something goes wrong.

  4. Thumb up 3

    Please log in to vote

    i third infinite!

    and if you’re in cincinnati, go to beelistic. it’s a combo tattoo/piercing place, but the guy who pierces there used to own infinite and is awesome. once he even kindly told the person getting grossed out while looking at his book that they were being rude because it was not their body and they shouldn’t say anything about it.

  5. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    This was a good and informative read. Make sure to read reviews. Those are like my number one thing. And don’t forget how to clean your piercing. Did that once, almost closed on me, rubbed it like hell with baby oil and stuck the piercing back in. Yup.

  6. Thumb up 2

    Please log in to vote

    This is really great, but I have to strongly advocate against using soap for aftercare. Soap – antibacterial and antimicrobial soaps especially – does a lot to dry out your skin, which can irritate the wound. Simply, your body knows how to heal things on its own and really doesn’t need much help. Saline soaks do pretty much everything you need done, in that they rinse away crusty bits and other debris, and help pull out any discharge (which is your body’s mechanism for keeping things clean itself). Keep the rest of your body nice and clean, don’t touch it with dirty hands, and try not to bump it or put pressure on it, and you should be gold.

    Though I will say, as someone who apprenticed for a while, we always hated to see clients come in with a complication that was likely caused by their ignoring our aftercare advice. If you think you know what kind of aftercare you want to do and your piercer suggests something else, let them know what your plans are – a piercer that won’t take the time to have a dialogue with you about *your plans* for *your body* is a big red flag.

    Talk to your piercer in advance about their recommended aftercare, and remember that what they advise there is something to consider when you’re deciding if they’re qualified to work on you. Even if everything else seemed clean and proper, a piercer who advocates isopropyl alcohol for aftercare has shown me that they don’t really know what they’re doing and that I should go elsewhere.

    And if you’re in DC, Tattoo Paradise and Fatty’s Custom Tattooz (yes, I know the name is awful) both do really great work!

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      this was really interesting for me to read because my piercer advised not to use any soap at all, but everyone else i have spoken to / everything i have been reading has advocated for soap. i haven’t used any thus far (got my cartilage pierced at the end of august) and i was worried i’d been fucking up.

      i have had a pretty consistent blister/bump since september, and i think it keeps getting irritated because i am incapable of not sleeping on it. i’m not really sure what to do. i went back to my piercer (who i love) and she said it was healing properly and that i should just continue doing salt water soaks and suggested that a bit of hydrogen peroxide could help clean out any bacteria that might be getting in (she said she doesn’t recommend that for regular washing/after-care but when there is unstable tissue it can be helpful) and i’ve been doing that a bit and also using tea tree oil, but anytime the swelling starts to go down or the bump looks a little less gross, i’ll accidentally sleep on it again and it gets all fucked up.

      i’m almost positive it’s not infected and it doesn’t hurt so i’m trying to be zen and just hope if i keep caring for it the way i have been it will eventually go away. in any case this is a lot of overshare info all as a way to say THANK YOU for validating my no-soap feelings.

      • Thumb up 0

        Please log in to vote

        No-soap feelings really are okay feelings! I’d guess it’s the sleeping on it that’s the problem – my girl recently had to give up a navel piercing because her body is shaped such that it constantly had pressure on it; pressure is very much not good for piercings. And for cartilage, you’re very much still in the early stages of healing, so you should expect it to be a little unhappy still. But mostly you’ve gotta figure out how to not sleep on it!

  7. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Awesome! I got my ears pierced at Claire’s as a teen and it was a disaster!! I ended up with an persistent ear infection and a fear of getting my ears pierced again. My friend got a tragus piercing and said good things so I went to that place (Stiehls in Ithaca) and also had an awesome experience and now have an awesome tragus piercing. Professionals know what they’re talking about! And as a science person, having someone talk to me about autoclaving materials and caring for my piercing made me trust them. I was really skeptical of the sea salt soaks at first but they were magic. I mean science!

  8. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    Aren’t what most of us call keloids technically hypertrophic (sp?) scarring? Other than that this article is really good and stuff I wish I’d known several years ago :) I only use SSS and the LITHA (leave it the hell alone) method, but the hardest part for me is not touching a piercing!

  9. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    Great post. The aspirin paste is magic! I’ve used it on both my piercings to reduce swelling + granulomas and it’s worked crazy well. Also for saline/salt soaks, my piercer recommended saturating a cotton wool bud and sticking that on your piercing, or using a shot glass, for piercings that aren’t easily dip-able.

  10. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    So happy I just stumbled across this post during my weekly Autostraddle binge. I had just been googling images to see if my piercing was infected or what the hell was going on.
    It’s a keloid, and I can make it feel better. Thank you for all of this!

  11. Thumb up 3

    Please log in to vote

    EEE absolutely. those “keloids” discussed above are just normal hypertrophy. Hence the fact that they resolve.

    Keloids grow outside of the original bounds of the injury and keep going. It’s unusual to get keloids on heads (I suspect that’s one of the reasons why we traditionally pierce heads).

    BBAPS (british association of aesthetic and plastic surgeons have a nice little pdf explaining this

    http://www.baaps.org.uk/docs/scars.pdf

    DOI: not a plastic surgeon

  12. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    For the saline soaks, sometimes it helps to fill an egg cup or shot glass, tilt your head over the glass, and fold your ear inside it. It should then suction itself to your head so that you can move around upright without the water spilling down your neck.

  13. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    My two cents is make sure you know how to remove your jewelry. It seems like common sense but I didn’t think of it. Trust me you don’t want to end up like me getting unexpected surgery and having them use bolt cutter type things to remove your lip ring and cartilidge ring. I was already half out under anesthesia so it wasn’t too bad. I didn’t know how to take out the captured ball rings and neither did anyone else there. I still hope no one slipped on the ball from my lip ring- cuz it went flying!!! Side note- gall stones suck!

    It all worked out in the end though. I re-pierced my lip and I can still whistle this time. I couldn’t whistle after the first time, it’s weird.

    Great article Stef. Lots of good info.

  14. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Ironically enough, I spent some time at Factor V in Charleston, SC the other day and spoke to a really nice piercing specialist who imparted some wisdom of this nature on me. He told me that my “industrial grade” steel nose piercing was doing absolutely nothing for me, and that the moniker was essentially worthless. The “steel” itself wasn’t even steel, was actually some kind of nameless sketchy metal that was turning the skin outside my nostril green like cheap drug store jewelry. What I *actually* needed was “implant grade” steel, the kind they use to make replacement hips and other joints. So far, so good. Hopefully someone else gleans wisdom from this too :)

  15. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Ah, this makes me tempted to try piercing again! I know I really shouldn’t after three failed attempts at piercing my ear lobes that got infected even with highly attentive aftercare and an eyebrow piercing with freaking titanium and similarly attentive aftercare that got infected and rejected at the same freaking time, all spaced out over many years and all while I was very healthy. Obviously I should not put any holes in my body, but dammit they’re so pretty!

  16. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Also, make sure you know what the aftercare entails before you get the piercing. I was all set to get my monroe and then I realized just how ridiculous the aftercare process was so I opted for something else. It’s just really important to know what you need beforehand.

  17. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Am I the only one that thought an article titled You Need Help: Poking Holes In Your Body was going to take a very different turn? I thought it may take more of a psychological intervention slant, but that could just be me.

  18. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    I feel like an absolutely terrible piercing-haver! I’ve got a labret and two lobe piercings on each ear, and I play with them waaaay too much. I know that I shouldn’t, but they’re still healing bizarrely well? I went back to the piercing studio and I was talking about how the labret was healing and the piercer looked at it and stuff and she was like “yep that’ll probably be fully healed in like… two weeks?” which is a few weeks short of the actual average healing time. So apparently my body is just really good at having holes stuck in it?

    I know I’m still a terrible person though, I’m not encouraging anyone to be as bad with aftercare as I am.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.