Of the wide range of body modifications and piercings out there, cartilage piercings — basically, piercings anywhere else on the ear but the actual earlobe — are some of the most common procedures outside of basic earlobe piercings. They are a unique experience in comparison to having an earlobe pierced — and they look super cool, too: Just ask stars like Ashley Graham, Keke Palmer, Rihanna, and even Beyoncé, who’ve all rocked the trend.
“Most commonly when people talk about cartilage piercings, they're referring to helix piercings on the outer rim of the ear,” Charlotte Collins, a piercing expert with Astrid & Miyu, tells Bustle. “These are higher up than the lobe and take a little longer to heal but are very versatile when it comes to placement.” There’s also the tragus, daith, and conch locations, she says, just to name a few options on the cartilage.
Of course, it’s only once you close Pinterest, and go to make your piercing appointment, that the fear of the unknown will start to creep in. You might be wondering what to expect when you get a cartilage piercing. Or, more specifically, will it hurt? And if so, for how long? Rest assured that your questions are valid — and necessary. Researching any kind of body modification in advance (including tattoos) is a critical part of the process, and it’s in this initial stage that you'll be able to decide whether you simply admire cartilage piercings on others, or if you're really committed to investing in one for yourself.
For many people, tattoos and piercings become an itch that must be scratched, and getting a cartilage piercing is a great first step into the piercing world. Sure, earlobe piercings are where most of us start (remember Claire’s?), but an industrial or helix piercing is, well, kind of a big deal: It can seem daunting and maybe a bit intimidating. But once you've crossed that line, the leap to other piercings is much less scary. And after a few piercings, the pain of a tattoo doesn't seem half as bad.
Nevertheless, it’s important to note that just like no two people will experience getting a tattoo in the same exact way, no two people will experience getting a cartilage piercing the same way. What’s super painful to someone might not be that bad for another person, for instance. So, should you get a cartilage piercing? In any case, there are a handful of universal truths about the cartilage piercing process that can help you decide. Read on for everything you need to know about the process, according to piercing experts.
We at Bustle only include products that have been independently selected by our editors. We may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.
1. Start By Finding A Reputable Piercer
It’s only natural to feel nervous as you head into a piercing studio, but there’s plenty you can do to calm your fears. The first is making sure you’re going to a professional piercer. As Collins says, “It’s extremely important to do your research prior to getting a piercing as you want to make sure you’re in the hands of someone reputable who can give you the best possible experience before, during, and after your appointment.”
One way to confirm their expertise is by asking whether they use a needle or a gun. "Needle-piercing is significantly healthier and safer than piercing with guns, and piercing guns are not designed to pierce through cartilage," Lisa Bubbers, the co-founder and CMO at Studs, a New York-based piercing studio, tells Bustle.
Using a needle is a common practice nowadays, anyway. In fact, piercing guns are not designed to pierce through cartilage, and the Association of Professional Piercers (APP) banned them because they pose sanitation concerns and cause tissue damage. If your piercer uses a gun, change direction and find someone else.
2. Ask All Your Questions
“Your piercer is there to help make sure you feel comfortable and informed, so never feel bad for asking questions,” says Collins. Ask about the process, what they’re doing, and what kind of jewelry they’re about to put in — especially if you have metal sensitivities. You’ll want to go with stainless steel, titanium, or other APP-compliant jewelry.
Ask about the earring style they plan to use, too. “Generally speaking, most piercings — especially in the helix — will heal better with a bar and then can be switched out to a hoop once healed,” Collins explains. “However some piercings —for example daiths and rooks — heal better with rings or curved bars.”
3. Eat, Stay Hydrated, & Refrain From Alcohol
If you’re anxious, it can be tempting to forgo food on the big day — or attempt to soothe your nerves by downing a glass of wine. But it’s important to prep your body for the procedure by keeping it in tip-top shape. Get plenty of rest the night before and eat something prior to heading to your appointment. Authority Tattoo recommends reaching for a snack rich in vitamin C (orange, anyone?) to help expedite the healing process.
Choose water over alcohol lest you want to bleed more, slow the healing process, and potentially pass out during the procedure. Because alcohol dehydrates you, it can slow blood circulation. Come hydrated and bring an extra water bottle just in case.
4. No, You Won't Hear A Crunch
Professional piercers use needles that are quite sharp and most commonly hollow, which allows them to work with speed and precision to puncture your skin and cartilage. At Studs, for example, the piercings are done with autoclave sterilized single-use needles, Bubbers says. So that means you won’t hear a gross crunching noise as it goes into your ear (as you may have heard if you’ve ever gotten pierced at the mall back in the day).
5. You Might Be Surprised By The Lack Of Initial Pain
“This varies from person to person as everyone’s pain threshold is different, but from our piercers' experience, they’re all similar in the ear,” Collins says. That means, if you already have your lobes pierced, you’ll likely be able to handle a cartilage piercing. Think of it as the first line of a tattoo, or the feeling of your cat’s nails scratching your skin as they jump off your lap. It’s a quick pinch, but that initial sting isn’t anything too terrible.
That said, your newly pierced ear may start to swell a few hours later, and that's when you’re more likely to notice a dull ache or slight throbbing sensation. "At the end of the day, piercing is a small medical procedure, it can be painful, and should be treated as one," Bubbers says. Take a pain reliever, like ibuprofen, after your procedure to help reduce inflammation.
6. It’ll Take A While To Heal
Here's where the main difference between getting a cartilage and an earlobe piercing comes into play. "Ear lobes can take anywhere from three to six months [to heal]," Sydney Roda, a piercer at New York Adorned, a New York-based piercing and body art studio, tells Bustle. Ear lobes have more blood flow than cartilage, Roda explains, so they heal faster than cartilage, which can take up to a year.
That's a huge difference, and possibly something to consider before going through with it. While you can’t speed up the process, you can take really good care of your piercing and hope for the best. As Collins says, “Healing times can vary from person to person depending on lifestyle factors and how much you invest in piercing aftercare.” So keep it clean!
7. You Have To Keep It Clean
Obviously, right? Well, it's not quite as simple as taking a shower and hoping for the best. Cartilage piercings require a saline solution, which your piercer may provide or you can purchase one at a drugstore. (Just avoid contact solution).
To clean the area, gently wash each side of your piercing with the saline solution and a cotton ball or pad twice a day, and follow any additional instructions your piercer may have provided you with. "We recommend squirting saline or running water over the front and back of your piercing one to two times daily, but don’t overdo it," Bubbers says.
8. You Shouldn't Change The Jewelry Initially
You’re probably itching to get that sweet new earring in, but you don't want to rush it. Unless there’s an issue with the size or material of your jewelry, don't change it until your piercing is fully healed.
Cartilage piercings heal slowly internally, and if you remove your jewelry prior to the cartilage being stable, you run the risk of it healing improperly, becoming infected, or your body rejecting the piercing entirely.
Again, the heal-time on a cartilage piercing can be up to a year. If you think your piercing has healed but aren't totally sure, consult with your piercing professional.
9. Sleeping Is Going To Suck For A While
If you’re a side sleeper, probably the greatest downside you'll face during the process is the inconvenience that comes from not being able to sleep as freely as you’re used to. "We always recommend not sleeping on the side of your new piercing while it heals as this can cause irritation and extra swelling," Bubbers says. Also, it’ll hurt.
To help protect fresh piercings, the APP recommends using the T-shirt trick: put a clean T-shirt over your pillow and turn it nightly for a clean surface that won’t transfer bacteria to your new piercing.
10. Your Body May Reject Your New Piercing
While you may love your new cartilage piercing, your body might not. This can happen for a few reasons: allergies to the type of metal in your jewelry, incorrect piercing placement, infection, or migration. There is also a condition known as hypertrophic scarring, which cartilage piercings are relatively prone to.
According to a study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, cartilage and nasal piercings have the highest rate of infection among body piercings, so proper care and monitoring of the healing process are essential. “If you suspect a piercing is infected it’s best to speak to your piercer,” says Collins. “They can then help determine if the piercing is just irritated, and can potentially help you to understand the reasons behind this, or advise you to seek medical attention.”
Scarring can be stopped if identified quickly. However, if your piercing is migrating, it may need to be removed, and infections need to be dealt with immediately to prevent septicemia, aka blood poisoning from bacteria. (Yikes!) Again, don’t hesitate to call your piercer — or even your doctor — for advice on how to handle a piercing gone awry.
11. Once You Heal, You Might Be Hooked
Once you make it through the dull aches and rigid cleaning schedule, you might find yourself scouring social media for more piercing inspo. Since getting new piercings is fun — and the healing time isn’t that long, in the grand scheme of things — you may decide that it’s worth it to add more to your collection. And really, who could blame you?
Preslar D, Borger J. (2019) Body Piercing Infections. StatPearls Publishing, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537336/
Additional reporting by Eden Lichterman and Hillary Shepherd
Charlotte Collins, piercing expert
Lisa Bubbers, co-founder and CMO of Studs
Sydney Roda, piercer
This article was originally published on