About 30 or 40 years ago, piercing of any body parts other than the earlobe was considered pretty weird and rebellious. Back in the 1970s, punks showed off their originality by piercing their own face and ears with safety pins. Yikes!

Ironically, their original safety pin decoration was neither safe nor original. It turned out to be the start of making piercing more mainstream. We've now become very used to seeing piercings. In fact, about one in four high school students in North America have their lip, nose, navel, tongue,eyebrow, or upper ear pierced.

Did You Know?
Ötzi the Iceman, a 5000 year old mummy found in a glacier in Austria, had pierced ears with stretched earlobes.

Even though there are as many types of piercings as there are body parts, we can divide them in two main groups: earlobes and everything else.

First of all, earlobe piercings have always been quite common, and you can get them at almost every mall. But another difference between earlobes and the rest of your body is the way the piercing is done.

Earlobes are pierced by piercing guns,which use the force of a spring to punch a sterile stud earring through your ear. It works kind of like a staple gun. These piercing guns are made specifically for earlobes: only the part that touches your ear is sterile, but the gun itself can't be properly sterilized.

For any other body parts, the gun might touch your skin and cause an infection, or the force from the gun might rip the skin. That's why needles are used for all the non-earlobe piercings. These very sharp and sterile needles make a clean small hole.

Did You Know?
The thickness of the piercing needle is expressed in "gauge". The higher the gauge number, the thinner the needle.

All other tools used for piercing, like forceps, are made of metal and are sterilized in an autoclave.This is a kind of pressure cooker that fills with steam and is heated under pressure to at least 120 degrees Celsius to kill all bacteria on the tools.

Starter jewelry are the studs or rings that you get at the piercing place. They can be made from surgical stainless steel, 14 carat or 18 carat gold, titanium, platinum, or niobium. Just like the needles and equipment, the starter jewelry should be completely sterile. After all, piercing makes a tiny wound, and you have to keep it as clean as possible.

Did You Know?
Gold is often not pure gold, but is mixed with other metals like silver and copper. 24 carat is 100% gold, 18 carat is 18/24 (75%) gold, and 14carat is 14/24 gold.

When you get pierced, your body will immediately start to heal the small wound that's just been created. The very first thing that happens is narrowing of the blood vessels near the wound to stop blood from going to the opened up area. In the mean time, platelets in your blood will travel to the wound and form a "platelet plug" to stop bleeding. This plug is made stronger by a network of protein strands called fibrin, and will eventually form a scab. This all happens pretty fast, but the broken blood vessels, tissue, and skin still need to be restored.

The whole healing process can take quite a while, and it's different for every piercing. If you get your tongue pierced, you'll be fully healed within a month. For a navel piercing, it can sometimes take up to a year to be completely healed, so be patient! And don't take out the jewelry during the healing phase: at this point the hole can still easily close up.

If in the future you decide that you don't want your piercing anymore, you can just take it out. Often there will be scar tissue left, and you'll still see where it used to be, but it won't be so obvious anymore. Only stretched earlobes are irreversible: the skin has healed around the big hole and your ear now has a new shape.

Learn More!

Ted Polhemus - Hot Bodies Cool Styles: New Techniques in Self-Adornment (2004)

M.Deschenes, S. Demers, P. Fines "Prevalence and Characteristics of BodyPiercing and Tattooing Among High School Students", Canadian Journal ofPublic Health 97(4), 2006

A. Vander, J.Sherman, D. Luciano - Human Physiology, The Mechanisms of BodyFunction. Seventh International Edition. McGraw-Hill, 1998

Health Canada on Piercing

How Body Piercing Works — The Ins and the Outs

BME Piercing

Hobby and Entertainment on Piercing

Safe Piercing

About Tattoos: Piercing Guns

Eva Amsen is finishing a PhD in Biochemistry at the University ofToronto. This summer, instead of enjoying the sun and actively producing melanin, she is writing her thesis about melanin and melanocytes.

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