Everything You Need to Know About Ear Piercing Aftercare

Are you the owner of a shiny new ear piercing? Congrats! Now it’s time for your most important post-hole-punch task: piercing aftercare. Your new jewelry may look cool to you, but your body sees it a bit differently: Puncturing your ears is essentially an injury. “Your ear has layers of skin, and then under that in the earlobes there’s just fat, and in the upper ear there’s just cartilage, so you’re piercing through that tissue,” Michele Farber, MD, board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in Philadelphia and clinical assistant in the dermatology department at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, tells SELF.

Basically, you’re creating a tiny cut in your ear and your skin, which has to regenerate around your new earring—which is why you’ll need to take good care of the area to help it heal. Whether you decided to pierce your lobes for the first time or added a second, third, or even fourth hole, know that different ear piercings heal at different rates (more on the exact timing in a bit). But no matter how long the process takes, there are simple steps you can take to prevent further irritation and potential infection.

Here’s what experts told us about how to treat the area right, what to expect during the healing process, and what to do if you’re showing signs of an ear piercing infection.


How long do ear piercings usually take to heal?

The healing period depends on the area of the piercing. “For an earlobe piercing, most of the healing takes place within six weeks, at which time the starter earring can be changed out to another nickel-free piece of jewelry,” Sarah Lacy, RN, senior manager of piercing research and innovation at the piercing studio Rowan, tells SELF. (A “starter” earring is usually a basic stud that’s the first earring you wear with a new piercing, Lacy explains. Piercers typically use starter earrings that don’t contain nickel to cut back on the possibility of an allergic reaction.)

For a cartilage piercing (anywhere outside the lobe), “most of the surface healing happens in the first 12 weeks or so; however, the deeper part of the piercing still needs a full year to heal,” Lacy says. That’s why experts generally recommend keeping the starter earring in a cartilage piercing for at least 12 weeks before switching it out for another (again, ideally nickel-free) earring. If you take it out any earlier than that, even for a couple of hours, you run the risk of the piercing beginning to close, according to Lacy. On that note, for both lobe and cartilage piercings, make sure you always keep an earring in your ear for at least the first year to prevent the hole from closing up, Lacy advises.

How should you take care of your ear piercing while it heals?

During the initial stages of healing—the first 6 weeks for a lobe piercing and 12 weeks for a cartilage piercing—experts say you should follow the steps listed below to keep the area clean and infection-free.Wash the area daily.

First things first: You need to wash your hands with soap and water every time before touching your ear or ear piercing to avoid adding potentially harmful bacteria to the area, says Dr. Farber. She recommends washing your ear piercing and the area around it once a day throughout the entire 6- or 12-week healing process with a gentle antibacterial soap (we like Dial Antibacterial Liquid Hand Soap, $2, Amazon) and warm water (doing this in the shower is fine). After washing, pat the area dry with a clean tissue or paper towel.Keep bad bacteria away.

Aside from your daily soap and water cleanse, you’ll also want to further clean the area 2 to 3 times daily for the first 6 or 12 weeks (again, depending on whether it’s an earlobe or cartilage piercing) using an antibacterial solution to reduce your chances of infection. You can use a cotton swab dipped in a little rubbing alcohol to clean around the area, Mona Gohara, MD, board-certified dermatologist and professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine, tells SELF. But it’s important to note that alcohol can be quite harsh, especially if you have sensitive skin. “Alcohol, although great at temporarily killing surface-level germs, is very drying to the skin when used repeatedly, which can cause irritation and delay healing,” says Lacy, who gives the same warning about hydrogen peroxide.

Instead, you can use a simple saline solution like Arm & Hammer Simply Saline Wound Wash ($12, Amazon) or a post-piercing product containing benzalkonium chloride, which arms you with antimicrobial protection, Lacy says. (Just be sure to do a patch test with any new product first by applying it to your inner arm and waiting 24 hours to make sure your skin doesn’t hate it.) Two benzalkonium chloride products to consider: Rowan’s Ear Cleansing Solution ($8, Rowan) and Inverness After Piercing Solution ($8, Amazon).

If you have an earlobe piercing, you should also twist the jewelry one full rotation each time you clean the area in order to keep the hole from closing up, according to Lacy. Cartilage piercings are different, though—you should just clean the piercing front and back two to three times a day without twisting the earring and generally avoid touching the area when you’re not cleaning it to avoid additional irritation. “The more you twist and play with a cartilage piercing, the more irritation the cartilage receives, which can cause bumps, keloid scars, and infection,” Lacy adds.Consider applying soothing products to the area.

If the skin around your piercing is feeling a bit dry and/or itchy, you can add a dab of a petrolatum-based product like Vaseline or Aquaphor to keep the skin moisturized and protected, suggests Dr. Gohara. If you have particularly dry and/or sensitive skin that feels irritated, consider talking to your primary care doctor or dermatologist about a prescription-strength topical antibiotic, which can help calm things down and prevent infection. But avoid using over-the-counter topical antibiotics, such as those that contain bacitracin, in that area because they can cause further irritation or an allergic reaction, Dr. Gohara says.

How do you know if your earrings are causing an allergic reaction?

You’ll likely know within hours or the first few days of a piercing that you’re having an allergic reaction, which is most commonly caused by the presence of nickel in the earring, though it can also be caused by nickel-free metals (like silver, platinum, or gold), Lacy says. You could have inflammation and swelling (which can also signify an infection), but it’s also common to develop a rash, itchiness, or blistering when you have an allergic reaction to the piercing, per the Mayo Clinic. An allergic reaction can happen any time you wear new jewelry—not just after you get an ear piercing—so just watch for those symptoms if you’ve recently put in a new earring and things don’t feel right, Dr. Farber adds.

If it looks like you might be allergic to your new earring and you’ve never had this reaction to jewelry before, it’s worth calling a dermatologist (if you have access to one) to see if they recommend doing a patch test to figure out if you’re allergic to nickel or another material in the earring, Dr. Farber suggests. Already aware you’re allergic to nickel or another type of metal? You should replace the earring(s) with jewelry that doesn’t contain the problematic material as soon as possible—that should help clear it up, according to the Mayo Clinic. You can also apply a little Vaseline or Aquaphor (again, petrolatum-based products) to soothe the area and relieve itchiness.

How do you know if you have an ear piercing infection?

Right after your ear piercing, it’s common for the area to be a bit swollen and sore, but this typically goes away after a few days, Dr. Farber says. In the days and weeks after that, keep an eye out for the following signs of an ear piercing infection: oozing, spreading redness or signs of inflammation (which will depend on your skin tone), tenderness, the area feels warm to the touch, or you develop a fever. You should call your primary care doctor or dermatologist if you have any of those symptoms.

If it’s specifically a cartilage piercing that appears to be infected, you’ll definitely want to call a doctor sooner rather than later. “The same concerns apply to any location, but the cartilage will take longer to heal and has a higher risk of keloid scars or the piercing becoming embedded under the skin, so it is more important to intervene early,” Dr. Farber says.

As you wait to see your doctor, keep the piercing area clean and covered with a cotton pad adhered with paper medical tape from your first aid kit or local pharmacy because you don’t want additional dirt or bacteria to get in the piercing and cause further irritation, Dr. Gohara advises. Also, fingernails contain tons of bacteria, so keeping the piercing covered can stop you from touching it and adding potentially harmful germs, she says. Once your doctor sees you, they may take a culture (a test to detect infection-causing bacteria), and they could possibly give you a prescription for a topical or oral antibiotic, depending on the severity of the infection, Dr. Gohara adds.

How will you know when your piercing has healed?

There are no hard-and-fast rules for determining if a piercing has fully healed just by looking at it, according to Dr. Farber, but one hint is that any inflammation or sensitivity will diminish. And with cartilage piercings you’ll also want to make sure the skin isn’t growing around the earring—so if it looks like your earring is embedded in the cartilage, she says, that could mean you have an infection and is a reason to get in touch with your doctor.

Once your earlobe piercing mostly heals after those initial six weeks, you’re free to swap it out with any earring, but, in general, Lacy recommends sticking with, yep, a nickel-free material in order to minimize the risk of an allergic reaction. Note that “hypoallergenic” is often used interchangeably with “nickel-free” in the jewelry world, but since the term isn’t regulated, you’ll want to make sure your earrings are made with nickel-free metals like stainless steel, 14-karat gold, sterling silver, or titanium—as long as you’re not allergic to those materials, of course.

For cartilage piercings, again, you’ll need to wait at least 12 weeks before switching your jewelry, and you should expect that the full healing process will take about 12 months because you’re dealing with connective tissue, Dr. Farber says. Basically, cartilage tissue has less blood circulation and therefore is slow to heal and regenerate itself. You’ll also want to repeat the cleaning process listed above any time you swap out your studs after that initial 6- or 12-week healing period.

The bottom line when it comes to taking good care of your new ear piercing? The more you stick to the aftercare guidelines above, the less chance you’ll have of developing an infection and the better and faster the hole will heal—and the sooner you’ll, perhaps, be ready for your next piercing (or a new tattoo, possibly?).

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