Of the wide range of body modifications and piercings out there, cartilage piercings — basically, piercings anywhere else on the ear but the actual earlobe — are some of the most common procedures outside of basic earlobe piercings. They are a unique experience in comparison to having an earlobe pierced — and they look super cool, too: Just ask stars like Ashley Graham, Keke Palmer, Rihanna, and even Beyoncé, who’ve all rocked the trend.
As a newcomer to cartilage piercings (or a veteran who simply hasn't tackled the upper ear region), you may be wondering what to expect when you get a cartilage piercing. Or, more specifically, will it hurt? And if so, for how long? Rest assured that your questions are valid — and necessary. Researching any kind of body modification in advance (including tattoos) is a critical part of the process, and it’s in this initial stage that you'll be able to decide whether you simply admire cartilage piercings on others, or if you're really committed to investing in one for yourself.
For many people, tattoos and piercings become an itch that must be scratched, and getting a cartilage piercing is a great first step into the piercing world. Sure, earlobe piercings are where most of us start (remember Claire’s?), but an industrial or helix piercing is, well, kind of a big deal: It can seem daunting and maybe a bit intimidating. But once you've crossed that line, the leap to other piercings is much less scary. And after a few piercings, the pain of a tattoo doesn't seem half as bad.
Nevertheless, it’s important to note that just like no two people will experience getting a tattoo in the same exact way, no two people will experience getting a cartilage piercing the same way. What’s super painful to someone might not be that bad for another person, for instance. In any case, there are a handful of universal truths about the cartilage piercing process. Read on for tried-and-true tips from experts before beginning the journey of bedazzling your ear.
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1. You May Be Nervous Beforehand
First off, breathe. If your heart is beating out of your chest and your palms are secretly sweating, don't stress. You're about to have a hole punched in your body — feeling a little nervous is entirely natural. Still, there are some questions you should be asking yourself to make sure this is the right move for you.
Are you going to a professional with a good reputation? Do your due diligence by looking up the business (or the individual) on Yelp or another site and reading the reviews thoroughly. Is that professional using a needle instead of a gun? Find out. While many people have perfectly fine experiences getting their cartilage pierced at places at the mall, the process of using a piercing gun is considerably more traumatic for your body than being pierced with a needle — in the hands of a trained professional, that is. "Needle-piercing is significantly healthier and safer than piercing with guns, and piercing guns are not designed to pierce through cartilage," Lisa Bubbers, co-founder and CMO at Studs, a New York-based piercing studio, tells Bustle.
Next, is the person doing the piercing using stainless steel, titanium, or other Association of Professional Piercers (APP) compliant jewelry? Then you're probably in really good hands. Ask your piercer any questions that you might have about the process and the piercing in advance (they’ve likely heard them all), and if you feel comfortable with them, then relax, and know that they have your best interest at heart.
2. Eat, Stay Hydrated, And Refrain From Alcohol
If you’re anxious, it can be tempting to forgo food on the big day — or attempt to soothe your nerves by downing a glass of wine. But it’s important to prep your body for the procedure by keeping it in tip-top shape. Get plenty of rest the night before and eat something prior to heading to your appointment. Authority Tattoo recommends reaching for a snack rich in vitamin C (orange, anyone?) to help expedite the healing process.
Choose water over alcohol lest you want to bleed more, slow the healing process, and potentially pass out during the procedure. Because alcohol dehydrates you, it can slow blood circulation. Come hydrated and bring an extra water bottle just in case.
3. You Won't Hear A Crunch If You're Using A Needle
Professional piercers use needles that are quite sharp and most commonly hollow, allowing the piercer to work with speed and precision to puncture your skin and cartilage. "At Studs, our piercings are done with autoclave sterilized single-use needles," Bubbers says.
Your piercer will insert your jewelry using the end of the hollow needle. It’s common practice nowadays — and a welcome departure from the piercing guns used at malls back in the day. (Who can forget that rather shocking crunch as your new stud was forced straight through your upper ear?) But piercing guns are not designed to pierce through cartilage, and the APP banned them because they pose sanitation concerns and cause tissue damage. If your piercer uses a gun, change direction and find someone else.
4. You Might Be Surprised By The Lack Of Initial Pain
Depending on your pain threshold, you may feel that a cartilage piercing is on par with, say, the very first part of a tattoo line — or slightly more painful than having an earlobe pierced. It's equatable to having a cat jump on or off of your lap, accidentally digging in with one particularly sharp claw. Take solace in the fact that that initial sting probably won't be unbearable.
However, keep in mind that your newly pierced site may swell, and that's when you'll notice it most, usually as a dull ache or slight throbbing. "At the end of the day, it is a small medical procedure, it can be painful, and should be treated as one," Bubbers says. Take ibuprofen after your procedure to help reduce inflammation.
5. It Takes A While To Heal
Here's where the difference between cartilage and earlobe really comes into play. Ear lobes have a fair amount of blood flow, thus they heal pretty quickly (they're right up there with tongue piercings when it comes to healing speed). "Ear lobes can take anywhere from three to six months is what we see on average," Sydney Roda, piercer at New York Adorned, a New York-based piercing and body art studio, tells Bustle. "The heal time for a cartilage can be up to a year," she adds.
That's a huge difference, and there's not a lot you can do beyond maintaining good hygiene and care, monitoring the healing, and dealing patiently with the discomfort.
6. You Shouldn't Change The Jewelry Initially
You’re probably itching to get that sweet new earring in, but you don't want to rush it. Unless there is an issue with the size or material of your jewelry, don't change it until your piercing is fully healed. Cartilage piercings heal slowly internally, and if you remove your jewelry prior to the cartilage being stable, you run the potential of your body rejecting your piercing, healing improperly, or becoming infected.
Again, the heal time on a cartilage piercing can be up to a year. If you think your piercing has healed but aren't totally sure, consult with your piercing professional.
7. Sleeping Is going to Suck For A While
If you’re a side sleeper, probably the greatest downside you'll face during the process of normal healing is the inconvenience that comes from not being able to sleep on your new cartilage piercings. "We always recommend not sleeping on the side of your new piercing while it heals as this can cause irritation and extra swelling," Bubbers says. Also, it’ll hurt.
To help protect fresh piercings, the APP recommends using the T-shirt trick: put a clean T-shirt over your pillow and turn it nightly for a clean surface that won’t transfer bacteria to your new piercing.
8. You Have To Keep It Clean
Obviously, right? Well, it's not quite as simple as soap and water. Cartilage piercings require a saline solution, which your piercer may provide, or you can purchase one at a drugstore (but avoid contact solution). Gently clean each side of your piercing with the saline solution and a cotton ball or pad twice a day, and follow any additional instructions your piercer may have provided you with.
"We recommend squirting saline or running water over the front and back of your piercing one to two times daily, but don’t overdo it," Bubbers says.
9. Your Body May Reject Your New Piercing
You obviously love your new cartilage piercing. Unfortunately, your body may not. This can happen for a few reasons: allergies to the type of metal in your jewelry (nickel is a prevalent allergen for many people, which is why titanium jewelry is optimal, as it is essentially nickel-free), incorrect piercing placement, infection, or migration. There is also a condition known as hypertrophic scarring, which cartilage piercings are relatively prone to.
According to a study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, cartilage and nasal piercings have the highest rate of infection among body piercings. Proper care and monitoring of the healing process are essential.
If your piercing site develops a bump, begins to move toward the edge of your cartilage, or is showing signs of infection, contact your piercer, or go back in to have the site assessed as soon as possible. The scarring can be stopped if identified quickly. However, if your piercing is migrating, it may need to be removed, and infections need to be dealt with immediately to prevent septicemia (aka blood poisoning from bacteria). A professional piercer will best be able to help you address both of those potential scenarios. If you experience rash, fever, intense pain, or vomiting, in addition to the complications listed above, visit an emergency room.
10. Once You Heal, You Might Be Hooked
Congratulations. You made it through few sleepless nights (okay, maybe a lot of sleepless nights), dull aches, and a rigid cleaning schedule, you've gone four to 18 months without any real issue, and now your cartilage piercing is healed. You're probably feeling pretty accomplished (as you should be, this is a rite of passage), and more than a little proud of your new piercing. You might find yourself pushing your hair back from your ear a bit more frequently, and searching salons and the internet for all sorts of shimmery new (titanium) jewelry.
Chances are after all is said and done, you may just be thinking of what to get pierced next.
Lisa Bubbers, co-founder and CMO of Studs, a New York-based piercing studio
Sydney Roda, piercer at New York Adorned, a New York-based piercing and body jewelry studio
Preslar D, Borger J. (2019) Body Piercing Infections. StatPearls Publishing, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537336/
Additional reporting by Eden Lichterman and Hillary Shepherd
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