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A Head-to-Toe Body Piercing Guide: Prep, Aftercare, Pain, More

by Nikki Brown / Monday, 18 December 2017

Photo: Allison Kahler

The words “personal style” weren’t a part of my vocabulary until just a few years ago. However, I’m pretty sure I’ve always had one. Most friends would describe me as a tomboy in heels with a penchant for mom jeans and chunky sweaters. Others might say my beauty choices are more indicative of my personality. Both assumptions are correct to some degree, but what I love most about my evolution are the kickass piercings I definitely did not anticipate.

What I really loved growing up was body art. Nearly all the women in my immediate family have multiple tattoos, including my cousin, who’s a professional tattoo artist. But after getting my first and only ink (for now) when I was 19, I quickly realized that permanence isn’t really my thing. I like the freedom of getting to transform a part of my body for as long as I want, with the option of changing it back at a moment’s notice. That’s the beauty of body piercings and why I have eight of them: two on each ear, one on my nostril, another on my cupid’s bow, and my nipples.

I have a memory attached to each and every one of them; some were planned and others happened on a whim. I could talk about them all day, but the one question I loathe answering is, “Did it hurt?” because of course it did… to varying degrees, of course. Now, if you’re someone who values research over questions with obvious answers, the search ends here.

I reached out to the man responsible for some of my bling; Rob X of Addiction NYC and Elite Jewelry & Piercings (fun fact: the same place Madonna took her son Rocco Ritchie for his first one) and got a crash course on everything a newbie should know, regardless of where he or she is adding bling. Read ahead for answers on everything from prep to aftercare and of course—pain.

“The beauty of piercings is the freedom to transform your body with the option to change it back anytime.”


blessed by set lighting on this lovely monday 💡

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Preparation is Paramount

As with any body modification, you probably should decide if this is something you actually want beforehand, regardless of where the piercing is located. You might be thinking, “Duh,” but trust me when I tell you I’m only recommending this based off years of personal experience and observations.

For every time I’ve walked into a piercing salon, there’s been at least one person ahead of me who held us all up because they sat there asking an endless list of questions after saying they were all in. Even if your decision is spur-of-the-moment, stand confident before walking through the door as a courtesy to your piercer and other customers. Otherwise, you may end up regretting it later on. Sure, you can remove it, but you’ve also wasted money and time. Other than that, there’s not much else you can do to physically prepare for the pain.

Rob also says, “I always suggest trying to eat really healthy and try not to go out and drink a lot the night before. Whenever you’re not at your best, it’s just likely to hurt a little bit more and be uncomfortable.”

As for finding a reputable piercer, reviews are everything. This is because most states, including New York, actually don’t require a ton of qualifications to work in a shop. While some hack piercers will get “licenses” that can be a little misleading, some people do opt for an apprenticeship (on-the-job training). All in all, the best way to ensure that your piercer is qualified is by looking at his past work and seeing what other customers have to say about their experience. Word of mouth goes a long way.

“Even if it’s spur-of-the-moment, be confident in your decision before walking through the door.”

One of the most common mistakes you can make before getting a piercing is asking someone else if it hurts or not. This is because everyone’s body chemistry is different, so what may be excruciating for one may be a small pinch for the next. Generally speaking, Rob says the least painful type of body piercing is probably earlobes because there aren’t as many nerve endings. At the same time, no other part of the body causes more complications, because we’re constantly rubbing against it while we sleep and use our cell phones.

As for the most painful areas, Rob definitely says it’s the nipples and genitals because they’re quite the opposite of the ear lobe: highly sensitive and filled to the brim with nerve endings. Again, remember that every body handles a piercing differently and at the end of the day, your desire for the piercing should outweigh whatever level of pain you’re willing to endure. And if you prepare by not drinking and feeding your body healthy food to better repair itself, the pain shouldn’t be that bad, anyway.

“Everyone’s body handles a piercing differently, but your desire should outweigh the pain you’re willing to endure.”

Nostril piercing by Zach w/ jewelry from Neometal!

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After-Care Always Matters

Once you’ve taken the actual plunge, keeping the piercing clean is what will make or break the healing process. Although most shops offer a pre-made saline solution, Rob suggests to always use more natural methods, when possible. “Sea salt and water works really well,” he says. He recommends applying “just a pinch of sea salt in a cup of water” to the piercing, no matter where it is, up to three times a day. The actual healing time, or the time it takes for the skin to return to its normal form, depends on the location of piercing.

Here’s a general breakdown of approximate piercing healing times from head-to-toe:

Ear lobes: 2 months

Ear cartilage: 4 months
(“The forward helix is the most painful, a little pinchy,” says Rob.)

Eyebrow: 2-3 months
“Start with a curved bar bell,” says Rob. “If you don’t have a nice fold—meaning a brow that slightly protrudes—it’s pretty much a surface piercing with a curved bar and it isn’t really going to heal.”

Nose nostril: 4 months
Rob recommends always starting with a stud since a hoop is difficult to heal. “The tissue wants to swallow it after it’s been pierced, so the hoop doesn’t really allow it to swell.”

Keeping the piercing clean will make or break the healing process.

Forward Helix piercings by Robert with jewelry from Neometal!

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Nose septum: 6-8 weeks
Contrary to popular belief, the nostril piercing tends to hurt a little more.

Tongue: 4-6 weeks
This body part is super puffy for the first couple of days, making it difficult to eat solid foods. “You really need to give yourself a good few days because it’s going to be really painful. So just try to get a good meal in,” says Rob. The initial puffiness takes about one week to go down.

Mouth: 2-3 months
There are a slew of piercings you can get around the mouth, including a medusa (cupid’s bow), labret (under bottom lip), and monroe (left side of the upper lip). Again the pain here is relative, but Rob says eating healthy and regular saline rinses speed up the healing process. It’s also important to start with longer bar jewelry so the skin has room to swell. Once the healing time passes, you can switch it out the jewelry for something smaller.

Dermal: Varies
These piercings, which are most common on the face, chest and back of the neck are the most temporary because it’s a single point piercing. This means that instead of puncturing one side of the flesh and coming out the other, you’re using a dermal punch to create a small hole in the skin and place an anchor underneath. Rob says that the body rejects these most easily.

Belly button: 4-6 months
Like the eyebrow, your belly button should have a nice fold (no “outies”) that the piercing can live in.

Genitals: 3 months
These piercings are done on the hood of the vagina, not the clitoris. The surprisingly short healing time is because that area of the body is constantly covered by clothing, making it less likely to become infected. Rob says a good piercer will choose a curved bar bell for jewelry. As for changing it, he says “some people just get good quality jewelry and leave it in there. I would suggest having a professional change that.”

“To ensure that your piercing doesn’t get infected, make sure the jewelry you choose is of the best quality.”

Infections Don’t Always Require Removal

Another way to ensure that your piercing doesn’t become infected during the healing process is by making sure that the jewelry you choose is of the best quality. Rob says “a lot of high-end studios carry jewelry from reputable suppliers like Body Vision LA, Anatametal or anybody that carries implant-grade titanium.”

This is something you shouldn’t have to worry about if you’ve done the prep beforehand to make sure your piercer has adequate experience and is working in a reputable shop. If you do get an infection, you’ll see some discharge, but don’t get an infection confused with the discharge that’s blood mixed with plasma and dead skin cells.

“Real pus has a funny odor and is often found in areas sensitive to the touch,” says Rob. “The infected area will be a dark purple color. You don’t want to take the piercing out because it could trap the infection in there after it closes up, so it’s best to have a professional look at it and then use warm compresses to help drain it.”

You might also experience hypertrophic scarring, which is simply a piece of raised skin around the piercing. These usually go away over time, whereas a keloid—which is redder in appearance and may feel itchy or painful—may require removal. Rob says both are usually the result of “irritation and improper jewelry.” If the pain becomes problematic or distracting, see a professional immediately.

So, there you have it. Piercings are simply another form of self-expression and with the proper preparation, can become a staple of your personal style.