If you decide to have a body piercing, make sure you find a reputable, licensed body piercing shop or piercer.
Body piercing is especially popular with teenagers and young people. It’s a fairly safe procedure, as long as it’s performed by a licensed specialist, and care is taken by the piercer and yourself to avoid infection.
Finding an approved piercer
Most local councils keep registers of approved piercers who have passed hygiene and safety standards, and who are regularly inspected by health and safety officers.
Contact your local council for further information.
Don’t try to carry out body piercing yourself. This can be very dangerous, as there’s a high risk of infection or scarring.
If you've already found a body piercing shop, take a look around before you go ahead with the piercing. Check for any potential health risks. You should be able to answer "yes" to all the questions on our safety checklist.
Bacterial infection is the main risk associated with body piercing. A build-up of pus (abscess) sometimes forms around the piercing site, which can be serious if left untreated.
All professional body piercers in the UK use sterile instruments, so it's very rare to catch conditions such as hepatitis and HIV/AIDS from body piercing.
How body piercing is carried out
The skin may be cleaned with soap and water, and blotted dry before it’s marked up and checked by both you and the piercer. The piercing will then be done with sterile piercing equipment.
Generally, only earlobe piercings are carried out with a piercing gun, by either a jeweller or a professional body piercer, although some guns may be used on ear cartilage. Guns should not be used on any part of the body besides the ears.
All other types of piercing should be carried out using a hollow needle, which is pushed through the skin and tissue of the body part. You'll normally feel a quick, sharp sting while the skin is being pierced.
After a piercing, the area may bleed slightly and it may be tender, itchy and bruised for a few weeks.
Follow the specialist's advice after you've had your piercing. This will usually involve keeping the area clean and dry, as well as looking for signs of infection.
Don’t touch or fiddle with the area and don’t turn the piercing. If a crust develops over the piercing, don’t remove it – these form naturally and are the body's way of protecting the pierced site.
You may be advised to use a salt water solution or other wound wash to clean the area and dry it out. Strong surgical spirits and cream-based products should be avoided, because they can irritate the skin and trap bacteria.
There is no legal age restriction on most body piercings, but performing genital or female nipple piercing on someone under the age of 18 could be considered an offence.
Some local authorities and piercing businesses may have their own regulations concerning age limits and consent for body piercings.
You will usually need to sign a consent form to confirm that you wish to go ahead with the piercing. Children under the age of 16 may need to have a parent or guardian with them.
A few days before having your piercing, visit the shop to check for any potential health risks.
Make sure you can answer "yes" to the following questions before going ahead:
- Do they use a clean pair of disposable surgical gloves for each customer?
- Do they wash their hands up to the elbow before carrying out your piercing?
- Is the shop clean, with wipe-clean surfaces throughout (including the floor)?
- Do they use single-use needles and throw them away after each piercing?
- Are instruments kept in sealed packaging ready for use, or in an autoclave (steriliser) until needed?
- Has the jewellery been pre-sterilised?
- Is the piercer wearing clean, practical clothing, with long hair tied back?
- Have they covered any cuts or wounds on their hands with waterproof dressings?
- Does the piercer have a clear policy regarding age restrictions and parental consent?
- Is the piercing area a no-smoking zone?
- Are food and drink banned in the piercing area?
- Are animals banned from entering the shop?
For an initial piercing, you should also ask what type of jewellery is being used – this should only be titanium. You should not ask for a piercing to be performed using your own jewellery, and the piercer shouldn’t ask you to bring in your own jewellery
If only one lobe is being pierced, a pre-sterilised pack containing two earrings should be used, rather than a loose earring left over from a previous piercing.
If you're taking medication, have heart disease, diabetes or any other medical condition, and are in doubt about the risks of piercing, talk to your GP.
Risks of body piercing
Bacterial infection is the main risk associated with body piercings.
A build-up of pus (abscess) may form around the piercing site. If left untreated, this may need to be surgically drained and can cause a scar. In some cases, it may develop into blood poisoning (sepsis) ortoxic shock syndrome, which can be very serious. Blood poisoning can also occur without an abscess.
Tongue piercings carry a small risk of bacterial infection, despite the high number of bacteria inside the mouth. It would be wise to brush your teeth or cleanse your mouth before getting a tongue piercing. The vein under the front of the tongue can also bleed if the piercing is too close to it.
Earlobe piercings are generally safe, but care must still be taken to keep the piercing clean and dry.
You can reduce your risk of developing an infection by keeping your piercing dry. Before touching the piercing, make sure you wash your hands with soap and water, and dry them with a towel. However, try to avoid touching it if possible – there is no need to turn it.
Due to registered piercing premises using disposable sterile needles and other equipment, the risk of passing on viruses such as hepatitis orHIV is now almost non-existent.
However, if you're in a country where hygiene standards are poorer, you're at risk of infection from hepatitis B, hepatitis C or HIV, which can be caught from dirty needles.
Other general risks
Other possible problems that can occur as a result of body piercing are:
- bleeding and blood loss – especially in areas of the body with a lot of blood vessels, such as the tongue
- swelling of the skin around the piercing
- scarring and the formation of keloid (a type of oversized scar) – tell your body piercer if you know that your skin has a tendency to form keloid scars
Any piercing that interferes with the functions of the body carries a higher risk of causing problems. For example:
- Tongue (oral) piercings can cause speech impediments and chipped teeth if the jewellery wears away tooth enamel. There's also a higher risk of bleeding and a risk that your airways will become blocked, due to the tongue swelling.
- Genital piercings can sometimes make sex and urination difficult and painful. This is particularly common with piercings on and around the penis.
- Ear cartilage piercings (at the top of the ear) are riskier than earlobe piercings. They can lead to infection and an abscess developing. This is because the skin is close to the underlying cartilage and pus can become trapped. Antibiotics don’t always successfully treat this problem. Surgery can remove the affected cartilage, but may lead to a deformed ear.
- Nose piercings are riskier than earlobe piercings, as the inner surface of the nose (which can't be disinfected) holds bacteria that can cause infection.
Self-piercing is dangerous, as it's unlikely that you'll have the correct equipment, training or hygiene procedures to reduce the risk of infection or scarring.
Piercings done by a non-specialist are more likely to cause serious complications that can result in a trip to hospital.
Always seek a specialist's help if you're considering a body piercing.
How body piercing is carried out
Before carrying out a body piercing, make sure the piercer explains any risks or possible complications.
You'll usually need to sign a consent form to confirm that you wish to go ahead. Children under the age of 16 may need to have a parent or guardian with them.
The skin may be cleaned with soap and water and blotted dry, marked and checked by both you and the piercer before the piercing is carried out. The piercing equipment must be sterile.
Earlobe and ear cartilage piercing
During an ear piercing, a hole is made through the fatty tissue of the earlobe or the cartilage at the top of the ear, and an earring is inserted.
Most piercers will only use a piercing gun to pierce the earlobes, although some guns (squeeze guns) can be used on ear cartilage, and research has suggested that other piercing guns may be safe to use on these areas too. Piercing with a gun should not be done on any other part of the body.
Most piercing guns have sterile disposable cartridges to help ensure that the piercing is clean and sterile. If you don't want your ears to be pierced with a piercing gun, you can go to a professional piercer, who can pierce ears using a sterilised hollow needle.
Whichever way you choose to have your ears pierced, make sure it happens in a clean, no-smoking environment. The person carrying out the piercing should wash their hands first, clean the skin if necessary, wear surgical gloves during the process and throw them away straight after use.
If you feel at all unsure about the person who's doing the piercing or where it's being done, go somewhere else.
Other types of piercing
All other types of piercing should be carried out using a hollow needle, which is pushed through the skin and tissue of the body part being pierced. This ensures there are clear entrance and exit holes. A piece of jewellery, usually a decorative bar or ring, is then inserted into the hole.
Some other types of piercing are discussed in more detail below.
A belly button piercing is usually made just above the navel. A curved bar is inserted through the hole and metal balls are screwed on each end.
Special care must be taken with a belly button piercing, as this area is difficult to keep clean and dry. You will need to wash the belly button with soap and water before the piercing. The piercer will also clean the area first with soap and water, if necessary.
Afterwards, you should wear any belts well below the area until it's fully healed. Expose it to air as much as possible, but don’t fiddle with it.
A hole is pierced through the skin or cartilage of the nostril. A nose stud is then inserted through the hole.
The tongue is clamped to hold it in position while it's pierced. A bar with a screw-on metal ball at each end is inserted through the hole.
In men, nipple piercings are made in either side of the areola (the darker area of skin around the nipple). In women, the base of the nipple itself is usually pierced.
Once the piercing is made, a thin metal ring or straight bar is then inserted.
Is it painful?
Many people claim that body piercing doesn't hurt, or that it only feels like a sharp prick .In some cases, however, a piercing that’s not done correctly can cause a persistent burning pain that may mean the piercing needs to be removed.
In the UK, it's against the law for someone to be given an anaesthetic injection before the piercing process.
Use of anaesthetic creams, wipes or sprays is not advised, because it increases the risk of infection.
After a piercing
After having a piercing, the area may bleed slightly. This should stop after a few minutes, although it may bleed again for short periods over the next few days.
There may also be some clear or whitish-yellow odourless discharge that forms a crust over the jewellery during the first few days after a piercing. This is normal and is not usually a sign of infection. Don’t touch any crust that forms, as it can help to protect against infection.
A new piercing can be tender, itchy and bruised for a few weeks after it is carried out.
It’s important to take good care of your piercing to reduce your chances of problems developing. This involves keeping the area dry and recognising the signs of infection.
Caring for a new piercing
After having a piercing, it is important to keep the area clean and dry. Your piercer will give you aftercare advice for the type of piercing you have.
However, many piercers advise gently cleaning new piercings with a saline (sea salt water soak) solution twice a day, preferably after washing or bathing.
You can do this by submerging the area in a clean jug or bowl containing a saline solution (1/4 teaspoon of sea salt per egg cup or shot glass of warm water) for a few minutes at a time.
Alternatively, you can wet a clean cloth or gauze in the solution and apply it as a warm compress.
This can help to soften any discharge and allow you to clean the entry and exit points of the piercing with a cotton bud or clean tissue. Once the discharge is removed or softened, the jewellery can be gently moved so as to work a little warm water through the piercing. When you have finished, make sure you are careful to dry the area with a fresh piece of paper towel or kitchen roll.
Not all experts agree that new piercings should be regularly cleaned in this way, as it involves fiddling with the piercing and getting it wet, which could actually increase the risk of infection if the saline solution is not strong enough. Don’t overclean your piercing, as this can irritate the skin and delay healing.
Wash your hands with warm water and antibacterial soap before touching or washing your piercing, and make sure that any clothing and bedding that may come into contact with the area around the piercing is clean.
If you get an infection
If your piercing becomes infected, the surrounding skin may be red and swollen. It will probably hurt when you touch it and may produce a yellow or green discharge.
If you have a fever or any of the above symptoms, see your GP immediately. A delay in treatment can result in a serious infection.
Leave your jewellery in, unless your doctor tells you to take it out. This will allow proper drainage and may prevent a painful collection of pus (abscess) from forming.
In many cases, the infection can be treated without losing the piercing. Minor infections may be treated with antibiotic cream, and a more serious infection may need antibiotic tablets. Your doctor can give advice on which treatment is best for you.
Before an operation
You usually need to remove your body piercing before you go into hospital for an operation, as this can help prevent unwanted bacteria being brought into the hospital.