"When the going gets tough, the tough get piercings" reads a sign outside my local tattoo studio. It's true. When things are as unpredictable as they are right now, during a global pandemic and a seemingly endless UK lockdown, many of us are biting the bullet and making big decisions. For some of us, that means dyeing our hair bold colours or booking in for a tattoo when restrictions are lifted. Salons and parlours are closed for the foreseeable future but that hasn't stopped people from looking into DIY options and piercings are at the top of the list, with at-home kits becoming incredibly popular.
"Piercing definitely finds its way into this category," says Megan Catherall, an expert body piercer at Pricking Thumbs Piercings who has over eight years of experience in the industry. "Embellishments make us feel good and they are something we can decide on for ourselves when perhaps other decisions are limited," she continues, "but piercing yourself carries so many risks and you could seriously harm yourself."
What are DIY piercing kits and how do they work?
A quick Google search will show up hundreds of DIY ear and nose piercing devices including small handheld guns, which puncture ears with a click of a button, and collections of needles in varying sizes depending on the area you're piercing. The equipment is cheap, with some guns as little as 99p. Team this with relentless lockdown boredom and it's no wonder these DIY kits are flying off the virtual shelves. But the risks and dangers far outweigh the high of a cute new stud.
What are the risks of DIY piercing guns?
"DIY piercings are so dangerous and online kits (which sometimes include alcohol wipes and cotton pads) imply that nothing can go wrong," says Megan. "In my experience, this is definitely not the case." Piercing guns in particular can cause a lot of damage. "Like a large reusable gun, the jewellery used within mini guns is often low quality and blunt," says Megan. "When blunt jewellery is forced through the ear at speed it causes a blunt force trauma, which often means that the piercing doesn't heal properly and is very painful for a long time." That's the last thing you need when doctors' surgeries and A&E departments are already overstretched.
Lola Slider, expert piercer and member of the United Kingdom's Association of Professional Piercers (UKAPP), agrees and likens piercing guns in particular to an office stapler rather than professional piercing equipment in terms of functionality, results and hygiene. "When it comes to scarring, there is significantly more trauma to the wound site when being pierced with a gun," says Lola. "This means more pain and a higher instance of bruising or bleeding." Lola continues: "When you are literally pierced with a piece of jewellery as opposed to a single-use, high quality piercing needle, skin cells from outside your body are dragged into the wound by the jewellery where they will stay, meaning the first thing your body has to do before it can even think about healing is reject those dead cells that shouldn't be there. Again, this causes more inflammation."
Megan adds that if the piercing survives this, then poor quality jewellery, which often comes with DIY piercing kits, will continue to irritate regardless. "This is usually a combination of cheap metal and butterfly backs, which are often too tight and hold bacteria easily," says Megan. "Overall, guns are a definite no go. I don't have them in my studio, so they definitely shouldn't be used at home," Lola adds. "Most people will openly admit they would never get their nipple or navel pierced with a gun but their lobe or nose would be okay," says Lola. "To them, my question is: why do you think you can get infection through your navel or nipple but not your ear or nose? Why do those body parts count less?"
What are the risks of DIY piercing with a needle?
"Piercing at home, even with a needle, is not a good idea for a number of reasons," says Megan. "Professional needles come from specialist suppliers, so the quality and usability of them is guaranteed, something you can't be sure of when ordering yourself at home. Secondly, it doesn't matter how much of a clean freak you are. Your kitchen will never compare to a piercing studio in terms of hygiene. We have specific cleaning equipment, gloves and infection control training so that we can keep you safe."
Put simply, it's so easy to cut corners when piercing at home, knowingly or otherwise. Lola seconds this. "As a professional piercer I can speak to the amount of work that goes into creating a clean space for piercing to take place in a studio environment. All surfaces must be disinfected with medical-grade surface disinfectant between every use, hands must be washed (not sanitised) at least once with every physical client interaction, and multiple pairs of gloves are required throughout a piercing procedure to prevent cross-contamination." Lola continues: "All items that come into contact with the skin including topical skin disinfectants and marking implements must be single-use only and preferably sterile. All this takes place before a single-use sterile needle and implant-grade jewellery come anywhere near a client." In other words, it's incredibly difficult to maintain that level of sanitation at home, regardless of how clean you keep your space.
Alongside infection and scarring, only an expert piercer has appropriate knowledge of placement, and messing things up is easier than you think. "It doesn't matter how many online videos you watch or how many piercings you've had before, there are so many things that can go wrong during a piercing procedure if you don't know what you're doing," says Megan. "Most importantly, professional piercers know when your anatomy isn't suitable for a particular piercing. They know where veins and other important things are which need to be avoided. They know how deep to go and which size jewellery you need," all of which is instrumental in achieving a happy piercing that heals quickly.
How do you treat an infected piercing?
Megan's first rule is not to make assumptions. If you're worried about the state of your piercing, it's best to contact an expert piercer for legitimate advice. "If it's an infection, head to your GP who may provide antibiotics," says Megan. "If this is the case, I'd suggest not removing your jewellery, as this can trap the infection under the skin, and to help the piercing settle, I'd recommend cleaning twice a day with a salt solution." Megan makes her own solutions to help with healing and rates a quarter of a teaspoon of rock or sea salt dissolved in half a mug of boiled water. "Use a clean cotton bud, dunk one end in, clean around one side of your piercing, dry with the other end and repeat on the back with a fresh cotton bud," says Megan.
The overarching advice from expert piercers is simply not to attempt a DIY piercing at home, as tempting as it may be in lockdown. "I've seen firsthand the damage these kits can do and the distress and pain they can cause," concludes Megan. "If you're considering piercing yourself, my advice is simple: don't. I know it's frustrating, especially at the moment when piercing studios are closed, but in the end when you have a happy, healthy piercing, you'll be so glad that you waited."
And there's absolutely no doubt that like hair salons and tattoo parlours, which have also been hit hard this past year, independent piercing businesses will really appreciate your custom once restrictions are lifted.