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9 Things To Expect When You Pierce Your Cartilage

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Of the wide range of body modifications and piercings, cartilage piercings are some of the most common mods outside of basic ear lobe piercings. They are a unique experience in comparison to having an ear lobe pierced, so 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. And frankly, you're wondering with good reason. Researching any body modification in advance is a critical part of the process, and it is in this initial stage that you'll separate 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, ear lobe piercings are where most of us start, but a cartilage piercing is big. It's intimidating, it's bold, and it's a little bit above and beyond the usual, as far as piercings go. Once you've crossed that line, the leap to other piercings is much less daunting, and after a few piercings, the pain of a tattoo doesn't seem half as bad.

However, just like no two people will experience getting a tattoo in the same way, nor will they experience getting a cartilage piercing the same way. Still, here are nine parts of the cartilage piercing process that are fairly universal.

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1. You May Be Nervous Beforehand

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? Is that professional using a needle instead of a gun? 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.

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, and if you feel comfortable with them, then relax, and know that they have your best interest at heart.

2. 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. Years ago, if you opted for a department store piercing, many would use a piercing gun, and you would hear a 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.

3. You Might Be Surprised By The Lack Of Initial Pain

This is especially true if you opt for a needle instead of a gun. Personally, I think a cartilage piercing is on par with the very first part of a tattoo line, or just above 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. You'll survive, and the initial pain probably won't be much more than aggravating.

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.

4. 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.

5. You Shouldn't Change The Jewelry Initially

I know you're itching to get that sweet new ring 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.

6. Sleeping Is going to Suck For A While

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.

The APP recommends using the T-shirt trick: put a clean T-shirt over your pillow and turn it nightly. From personal experience, I can tell you that sleeping on your freshly pierced cartilage hurts.

7. 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.

8. 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. 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, please, visit an emergency room.

9. Once You Heal, You Might Be Hooked

You made it. Through a few 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.

Sources interviewed:

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

Studies referenced:

Preslar D, Borger J. (2019) Body Piercing Infections. StatPearls Publishing, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537336/

Additional reporting by Eden Lichterman

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