Getting a new piercing is super exciting, but the experience can often be dampened by a certain side effect that can develop after getting your new bling. If you've ever noticed a bad odor emanating from one and wondered, "Why do earrings smell?" you're not alone — ear piercings can start to smell funky for a number of reasons.
If you're nodding your head in acknowledgment because you've noticed your earrings smelling not great (and kind of like cheese, TBH), know that piercings can harbor bacteria. People aren't usually washing behind their ears each day, after all. So the spot of your earrings become a perfect storm for an, uh, unusual odor.
For the reasons behind the funky smell and tips for how to deal, Bustle spoke to a certified germ expert and a dermatologist for everything you need to know.
Why Do Earrings Smell?
Remember that a piercing is a wound to your body. "When there is such an injury, a rather unpleasant odor may occur as a result of one of two reasons," says Jason Tetro, aka "The Germ Guy," a microbiologist and host of The Super Awesome Science Show. According to him, one main culprit behind the smell is the production of sebum, or your skin's natural oils.
"Our skin is constantly shedding cells, and we generally wash off oils, or sebum, and little bacteria through the cleansing process," says Dr. Mona Gohara, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in Danbury, Connecticut. She explains that sebum buildup can happen around your earring hole (a not-so-frequently cleansed area) and create a cheesy odor. So it's basically a combo of oil and dirt in an area where the sun doesn't shine.
The second reason for the bad smell is bacteria that's linked to a possible infection, says Tetro. Because piercings are a wound, they're susceptible to infections, he explains. "Usually these are Streptococcus or Staphylococcus species [of bacteria]," says Tetro. You may be dealing with this if the funky odor is accompanied by discharge from the piercing area.
How To Deal With Bad Earring Smell
The best solution for the funk is to keep things sanitized. According to Tetro, it's important to keep the piercing area clean. He recommends using a swab with isopropyl alcohol every day or washing with soap and warm water. "The use of gloves can help to minimize any potential for transmission," Tetro says. If you're sensitive to alcohol, Gohara recommends using a gentle cleanser like the Dove Beauty Bar.
The type of earring you choose can also help sidestep the possibility of developing an odor. Sorry studs fans: Gohara says that a bad smell is more likely with these earrings, "because they trap bacteria and sebum in." Opt for a hoop in this case if you want less of a chance of that funk.
Of course, if the smell of your earring is accompanied by significant pain or discomfort that spreads beyond the piercing site, Tetro recommends consulting a healthcare provider.
Playe, S. (2002). Infectious Complications of Body Art. Emergency Medicine News. https://journals.lww.com/em-news/Fulltext/2002/07000/Infectious_Complications_of_Body_Art__Infection_is.7.aspx
Dr. Mona Gohara, M.D., board-certified dermatologist based in Danbury, Connecticut
Jason Tetro, aka "The Germ Guy," a microbiologist