11 Things You Should Know About Piercings

Despite what your grandma thinks of kids these days, piercing is nothing new.

Bedazzling the ears dates back thousands of years. Testament to the fact that everything old is new again: Dangling, chandelier-style earrings were particularly popular in the 18th century, the Chicago Tribune reported. One of the oldest mummies ever discovered, Otzi the Iceman, had stretched ear lobes, according to the BBC. Nose piercing is mentioned in the Bible.

But just because it’s been around for ages and has only grown more and more socially acceptable in the Western world, doesn’t mean we have all the answers. Whether you’re in the market for something shiny or still nursing your latest addition, whether you’re pierced as cultural tradition or as a unique form of self-expression, here are a few facts you might not have known about piercings.

1. Just 14 percent of people have piercings somewhere other than their ear lobes, according to a 2006 study co-authored by board-certified dermatologist Amy J. Derick, M.D.

And only 7 percent have a piercing somewhere other than their ear entirely, according to a 2012 Harris Interactive poll.

2. There is some form of complication in up to 35 percent of piercings.
A 1998 study is still frequently cited in estimates of ear piercing complications. The study found that 35 percent of nurses surveyed at a major Midwestern hospital who had ear piercings had reported some complication. Major complications were reported less than 1 percent of the time, and minor infection accounted for the majority of the issues. “You can get infection when you’re actually getting the piercing,” says Derick, who is also a clinical instructor of dermatology at Northwestern University, if the piercer doesn’t wear gloves or isn’t using clean instruments, “or later, in a piercing that’s already been done but didn’t heal well.”

3. You can be allergic to your piercing.
Jewelry containing nickel, cobalt or white gold can cause allergic reactions, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). “Nickel is a common allergen,” says Derick, and any reaction would usually go away shortly after removing the piercing, she says. Surgical-grade stainless steel, titanium or 14- or 18-karat gold shouldn’t cause problems, according to the AAD.

4. Don’t consider it a trial run.
If you find yourself in a piercing parlor with the cavalier attitude that, hey, you can always take your piercing out, Derick suggests you reconsider. Yes, she says, you can take the jewelry out, but healing flawlessly is a different story. Scarring, bumps, depressions or holes may remain even after you remove the piercing, she says. Not what you bargained for.

5. A piercing is technically trauma.
It’s a wound — and a little bit of swelling and redness is all part of the body’s natural healing response and doesn’t necessarily mean you’re infected, says jewelry designer and retailer Maria Tash, whose company Maria Tash Inc. provides piercing services at two New York City locations. “We see more redness due to harsh [cleaning] products” than from infection, she says.

The body works hard to heal all wounds, piercings or not, and doesn’t need much help from you other than keeping your jewelry clean. In some cases, the body will interpret a new piece of jewelry as a foreign body, like having a thorn stuck in your thumb. If it rejects the piercing, it’s essentially trying to “spit out” that thorn, says Derick.

6. There’s an art to it.

“There’s an art to piercing, to do it well,” says Tash, who recently trained Harrison Ford in preparation for his piercing of Jimmy Fallon’s ear. “The truth is, to do it well is a lot more complicated.” Yes, a sterile procedure is of utmost importance, but don’t forget jewelry is typically worn to improve appearances. Placement of a piercing requires more thought than a “let’s just throw a dart at it” kind of attitude, she says.

It’s also for this reason that Tash recommends not piercing an infant’s ears. Not only is he or she likely to squirm and cry, but the ear lobe is not yet fully developed, and what was once centered and flattering as a young child might look off as an adult.

7. Piercings in certain areas take longer to heal than others.
You’re not imagining it. The greater the blood flow to a certain area, the faster it will heal — and the less vulnerable it will be to infection, Dr. Joseph Adrian Tyndall, M.D., of Brooklyn Hospital Center told ABC News. Ear lobes, tongues and lips have some of the fastest healing times, says Tash, at four to six weeks, thanks to their high blood flow, or vascularity. Cartilage on the outer ear or nose takes longer to heal. That doesn’t mean a nose piercing will hurt for months on end, says Tash, just that it still requires careful cleaning during that time.

8. There is such a thing as over-cleaning.
Speaking of cleaning: The aim is to assist the body’s nature healing process, not derail it. Light cleaning twice a day will typically be sufficient, says Tash, with a very mild product. Sterile saline wound wash is the best bet, she says, which will irrigate a new piercing without causing reactions in people with sensitive skin, like iodine-based products used in the past sometimes did.

9. Ointment is out.
You’d put it on a cut, so why not put some antibiotic ointment on your new piercing? Turns out, this thinking is dated, says Tash. Ointment doesn’t rinse the piercing like a saline wash will, plus, dust or other irritants in the air might actually stick to that goo, finding their way into the piercing later, she says.

10. Only some states regulate the piercing industry.
There’s no federal regulation of the piercing industry, and some states don’t have any legislation on the books. Yes, confirms Tash, that means that just about anybody can open up a piercing parlor, so it falls on us as consumers to make good choices about our health and safety. Check reviews online, but be sure to visit piercing shops in person, too. Take a look around at how obviously clean (or not!) the space is, and ask the staff some questions that can help you gauge how knowledgable they are, she suggests. See how comfortable you are in the space in general. Tattooing requires a license, but piercing doesn’t, says Tash, which drives many to a doctor’s office, where you’re certain (we hope!) to get a sterile procedure — but perhaps not the most flattering one, she says.

11. A certain complication varies among populations.

In some instances, thickened scar tissue can form on cartilage on the back of the ear or on the nose, for example, says Derick. This piercing complication, called a keloid, is typically very difficult to treat. Keloids often run in families, and are more common in people of African, Asian or Hispanic descent. Keloids are also more common in people between the ages of 10 and 20, according to the National Institutes of Health.