Seems innocent, right? You want to get your or your kid’s ears pierced and you figure, I’ll just head on down to the mall and get it done at one of those kiosks or affordable accessory shops. But unfortunately, that’s a not-so-smart move. Why, you ask? It’s dangerous, say experts. So before you head to a retail store for a quick ear piercing, read up on why you should go to a professional piercing studio instead.
Piercing guns — the typical tool used at your local shopping center — are fast and cheap, but they can put your health in danger. “From a medical standpoint, any object that is purposefully introduced through the skin should be sterile to decrease the probability of infection,” says Dr. Julia Tzu, dermatologist and founder of Wall Street Dermatology in New York City.
And while some mall stores state that they disinfect their tools beforehand, you can’t actually sterilize a piercing gun. And this is important because sterilization kills all “viable microorganisms,” while disinfection simply “reduces the number of viable microorganisms,” according to the Duke University and Medical Center.
“Piercing guns can not be sterilized because they are made of plastic. The plastic would melt in an autoclave, which is what we used to sterilize instruments like needles, jewelry, and any tools we might use during the piercing,” says John Joyce, a professional piercer with 18 years of experience and the owner of Scarab Body Arts in Syracuse, New York.
Even if a piercing gun is wiped off with an antiseptic wipe, there’s still a risk of spreading diseases (think hepatitis and staph infections) after multiple use, according to the Association of Professional Piercers (APP). And sadly, it’s the people most likely to have their piercings done at the mall whose health is the most compromised. “Babies, young children, and others with immature or compromised immune systems may be at higher risk for contracting such infection.”
Still on the fence? One woman claimed that she had her ears pierced a whopping three times at Claire’s, only to be forced to remove them every time amid severe pain, oozing pus, and crustiness. The first time, she says, doctors simply removed the earring, but the second time around, they were forced to cut it out of her ear. The third go-around was so painful, she had to remove them the next day.
The results just aren’t that good.
“While earrings are technically tapered and sharp in appearance, they are not as sharp as the needles used by a professional piercer,” says Dr. Tzu. “The difference is that a gun forcefully rams the earring posts through the earlobe, while a professional piercer may be more deliberate in creating the puncture, so there’s a difference in the degree of trauma sustained by the surrounding tissue.”
Here’s a crude yet informative visual demonstration of the difference between piercing with jewelry versus a needle:
One last thing: The earrings they’re inserting can also make a difference. “Most of the problems we see in earlobes are from the quality of the jewelry the mall stores carry,” he adds.
How to Find a Pro
If you want to get your or your child’s ears pierced, your best bet is to head to a reputable piercing studio. And the best way to find one is to thoroughly read online reviews and check out a piercer’s credentials. Although it may feel odd or unfamiliar to walk into a piercing or tattoo studio, that’s where the experts are — not at the mall.
“I can’t speak for all mall stores, but the ones I have spoken to have had very rushed training,” says Joyce. “It’s usually just ‘watch me do this a couple times,’ then maybe watch a video.”
Worried they won’t work on your child? Don’t fret: There are many certified pros who are willing to pierce kids. “New York State law says that without a parent, you must be 18, but with a parent, I can pierce earlobes at 10,” says Joyce, who adds that the age limit will vary by studio and their insurance, so be sure to check your state’s laws, as well as policies at individual establishments.
3 Things to Look Out For
Once you find a studio, these are the questions you need to ask.
1. How much training has the piercer had? When it comes to training, more is always preferable. “A good professional piercing apprenticeship usually lasts between 12 and 18 months — you wouldn’t even attempt a piercing for at least the first six months,” explains Joyce. In that time, the piercer would learn about aseptic technique, cross contamination prevention, proper sterilization protocols, and other important skills that ensure their clients are getting safe, well-performed piercings.
2. How clean is the studio? Dr. Tzu recommends observing the overall cleanliness of the facility: “A conspicuously dirty studio is not a good sign.”
3. Does the piercer use disposable gloves and sterile packets for each needle? Ask if your piercer uses a new pair of disposable gloves for each procedure and check to see if needles are taken from sterilized or disposable sterile packets, advises Dr. Tzu. If this isn’t the case, take that as a tip to leave.
The Bottom Line
Putting your safety in the hands of someone who’s barely trained isn’t something you would do for any other medical procedure — so don’t risk it with piercings, either. So people get their ears pierced with no difficulties, but if there’s a significant chance that something could go wrong — and there are safer ways to go about it — shouldn’t you opt for the less risky option?