The Pro Guide To Caring For Any Piercing

Photo by Natalia Mantini
Just like adopting a puppy or investing in a fancy houseplant, new piercings require attention, love, and care. Sure, it's fun to map out all the coolest dog parks in the city or plan the kind of Instagram post your fiddle leaf fig deserves, but there's a lot more to it — and the same goes for piercings. No matter how long you've been pining after that Maria Tash diamond hoop, you still have to put in the work that comes long after splurging on jewelry.
There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to piercing aftercare. And along with those misconceptions come questions — and lots of them. How long until I can change my cartilage jewelry? How do I clean my piercings? Why is my nipple ring getting crusty? Luckily, we tapped two piercers — Cassi Lopez, head piercer at New York Adorned, and Brian Keith Thompson, piercer to the stars and owner of Body Electric in L.A. They're sharing their top dos and don'ts of piercing aftercare, average healing times, and answers to the questions unique to top piercing locations, ahead.
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Keep in mind that piercing isn't an exact science, so different experts recommend different techniques, but these are the experts we trust. Thompson puts it best: "Talk to 100 piercers and you're probably going to hear 100 forms of aftercare." So if you're considering getting a new piercing, whether it be your nipple, your lobe, or anything in-between, remember this advice: Read up on piercings everywhere you can and put the same kind of attention into picking your piercer as you have your piercing, then listen to their advice, too.
Keep clicking for the aftercare tips you need to know for six popular piercings locations.
1 of 6
The Piercing: The Lobe

The Healing Time: About eight to 10 weeks, but it's best to diligently care for it for three months to be sure it's healed.

The Aftercare: While Lopez suggests her clients avoid soap on most piercings and opt instead for washing twice a day with water and saline solution, Thompson sends every client home with a mild, unscented baby soap free of charge.

"Use a pea-sized amount once, no more than two times, a day," says Thompson. After working up a lather with warm water, gently massage the piercing hole thoroughly before rinsing. Thompson stresses that cleaning your piercing doesn't mean twisting it as you cleanse — just focus on the hole. In fact, twisting your jewelry is what Lopez calls an "outdated practice" for piercings. "Twisting your jewelry will cause an unnecessary amount of irritation that will dramatically prolong the healing process," she warns. "Your hands shouldn't be anywhere near your piercing."

Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, MD, founder of Entière Dermatology, tells us that keeping any piercing clean is key to avoiding a bigger issue, like an infection. If you would prefer to bypass using soap altogether, follow Dr. Levin's instructions. First, wash your hands with soap and water before touching the piercing, then cleanse the front and back side of the piercing with a cotton ball or pad in sterile saline solution, twice a day.

So can I use alcohol on my piercing?
Dermatologist Rachel Nazarian, FAAD, MD, tells us that while alcohol is known for keeping wounds clean, it's not the best solution for a piercing. Why? Not only is it drying, but it can actually lead to worsening the piercing's healing process and inflammation. Instead, opt for saline solution. "Saline is not an irritant, not drying, and generally quite well-tolerated even with sensitive skin-types," explains Dr. Nazarian. "Saline also prevents infection and keeps the piercing clean." Both Lopez and Thompson are aligned: They recommend using the solution twice a day on your piercing and to avoid alcohol.

Will hoops or studs heal faster?
"Generally, piercing with a straight post [instead of a hoop] will cause less movement, which in turn causes less irritation, which makes for a faster heal," Lopez explains. According to Thompson, the movement of a hoop (they move a lot of you haven't noticed!) is what prolongs the healing process — though that doesn't mean a hoop of the right size and thickness can't heal properly if you keep your hands off. You can always give a hoop a try, but if six weeks pass and your piercing just isn't healing well, says Thompson, it's time to pay a visit to your piercer and switch out the jewelry for something that moves less.

Read more about lobe piercings here.
2 of 6
The Piercing: The Cartilage

The Healing Time: About three to five months, minimum, so don't stop caring for it when it appears to be healed.

The Aftercare: Treat your cartilage piercing with as much TLC as you would your lobes — just don't quit before it's entirely healed. Thompson explains that oftentimes clients will come in only a month or two after the piercing suddenly afraid they have an infection. More often than not, they just stopped washing the piercing too early and it got irritated. Moral of the story? While it might feel healed, this spot takes a lot longer than the lobe. Follow the instructions on slide one: no twisting, gentle cleanings, and no changing the jewelry just yet.

So why does the cartilage take longer to heal than the lobes?
"Lobes are vascular and tend to heal much quicker than cartilage," explains Lopez. "The higher you get on the ear, the less blood flow there is, which is why cartilage can be such a nightmare to heal." Thompson even compares taking care of a cartilage piercing to bringing a newborn baby home from the hospital, emphasizing that you have to be extra careful. Be mindful when you take off your clothes, use your phone, and even when hugging friends. The more you hit it — even if it's an accident — the longer the healing process could be.

Can I change my jewelry before the wound is healed?
Let's not and say we did. Both Thompson and Lopez suggest waiting until the piercing is completely healed before replacing the jewelry. The only time you should consider swapping out the jewelry is if your body is rejecting the piercing (more on that later), you're experiencing an allergic reaction, or your body just won't heal with one specific jewelry size. If any of that sounds likely, consult your piercer ASAP.

Read more about cartilage piercings here.
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3 of 6
The Piercing: The Septum

The Healing Time: About three months.

The Aftercare: Finally, a piercing that won't feel like a full-time job! Out of all the piercings, this is one that requires the smallest amount of aftercare. Thanks to the fact that 80% of the jewelry is inside a mucous membrane, you don't need to keep the jewelry free of bacteria because that's, well, kind of the nasal cavity's job. Lopez adds that it only helps to pierce thinner skin tissue, like the septum, for a relatively low-lift healing time.

If you feel like it's necessary, or you're touching your nose a lot, Thompson does recommend using a mild soap on the small strip of skin between the ring. Again, don't forget your saline solution for a daily rinse, too. Pro tip: A saline solution with a fine mist tip is helpful for any piercing, but especially necessary when rinsing this one.

Read more about septum piercings here.
4 of 6
The Piercing: The Nipple

The Healing Time: Between six months and one year, but it can get irritated easily even after it's healed, so get ready to baby this one indefinitely.

The Aftercare: Lopez suggests her clients focus on cleansing with water, twice a day, in the shower. "Let water run on the piercing for a good minute or two before you get out," she instructs. "This will rinse off anything that may have gotten on [the piercing] and to help soften up and remove lymph fluid. Then, dry it with clean gauze or a paper towel." Both Thompson and Lopez suggest avoiding any washcloths that are loosely knit to avoid catching on the jewelry (ouch!) and feel free to use saline solution a couple times a day. "No alcohol, peroxide, ointment, or soap directly on them," Lopez adds.

Is crusting around the piercing normal?
Clear or white crust means your body is trying to heal, which is a good thing. The crust itself is dried lymph fluid, not pus, to allow the open wound (your piercing) to properly heal. "The body is creating a fistula, rebuilding the skin throughout the piercing," Thompson explains. "It's sealing off the outside to prevent an infection. Then, it heals from the outside in." Green or brown crust, on the other hand, could mean something more serious, so consult your piercer ASAP if this applies to you.

It's been over a year and my piercing is still crusty. What does that mean?
Crusting is normal, but only to an extent. If it's far past a year, this could mean you're agitating your piercing enough that the healing never fully finished. Call your piercer to see if it's time to change the jewelry size, if the piercing is too deep in the aureola, or if the bar is too short for your body type. As long as you're not seeing green or brown fluid (signs of an infection), you're not in any immediate danger.

Can I wear a bra?
Sure! Depending on how much bleeding there is during the piercing, you may need to wear gauze and a bandage, but not everyone bleeds. Thompson says if you normally wear a bra, then wear one! Though he does mention sticking with darker fabric for the first two weeks in case it does bleed or leak lymph fluid.

Read more about nipple piercings here.
5 of 6
The Piercing: Genital

The Healing Time: One to four months, depending on the type of piercing and your unique anatomy.

The Aftercare: "Less care is the best care in that area," says Thompson. Unless you regularly use a cleanser on your vulva, avoid anything other than a mild soap. Be mindful of the ingredients in the cleanser you're using down there because products with strong fragrances can cause irritation. Thankfully, Thompson says piercing infections are rare for the vulva. And saline solution? Skip it down there. Although saline solution isn't as drying as alcohol, it's not necessary.

Can I have sex after getting my vulva pierced?
No one can tell you not to have sex, but it could get other bodily fluids near an open wound isn't the best idea. Just be careful and patient.

Read more about genital piercings here.
6 of 6
The Piercing: The Navel

The Healing Time: Somewhere between eight months and one full year.

The Aftercare: Keep it clean with water and saline solution or mild soap, avoid sleeping on your stomach, and be aware of any rigorous exercise that might irritate the hole. Keep in mind: This piercing is a slow heal, but only because the abdomen is a hot spot for movement.

My piercing is really red, irritated, and swollen, is this normal?
It could mean your body is rejecting the piercing. If so, the area will appear inflamed and the jewelry will appear to be pushing itself out of the hole. Thompson says you might even notice the skin between the barbells has protruding red streaks and appears shallow. If that's the case, call your piercer ASAP. They may recommend removing it altogether and waiting until the hole (sans jewelry) heals until piercing again.

Can I change my own jewelry?
Both Lopez and Thompson say to wait until your navel piercing is fully healed until switching out the jewelry. In other words, be wise about the jewelry you get pierced with because you better be happy with it for a long time.

Read more about navel piercings here.
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