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Surface Piercings vs. Dermal Piercings

What exactly is the difference between a dermal piercing and a surface piercing? Both appear one-sided from the surface, unlike other piercings, but they're two totally different animals. How so? Let's take a look.

 

What Makes Surface Piercings Different From Dermals?

Surface Piercing Jewelry & Dermal Piercing JewelryA dermal piercing is a single-point piercing, which means exactly what it sounds like: A needle goes in, but doesn't come out another side of whatever body part you're having pierced. Dermal punches may also be used to remove a small piece of tissue and place dermal piercings, depending on a piercer's preference. Surface piercings, on the other hand, enter at one point and come out another; they just don't go straight through a body part, as an earlobe piercing goes in one side of your earlobe and out the other. A piercing needle or scalpel can be used to place surface piercings, although using a scalpel may result in a lower rejection rate. Whatever tool is used to do either piercing, the goal is basically the same: to embed a piece of anchoring hardware into the tissue below the epidermis, called the dermis.

Those are the main differences between dermal and surface piercings, but not the only ones. What else differentiates them? For one, the type of hardware inserted is different for a dermal piercing than it is for a surface piercing. Dermal anchors are used for dermal piercings and surface barbells are used for surface piercings.
 

Dermal Anchors

Dermal anchors are really small--usually just 6-7 millimeters long and half as wide; that's all that's needed to support a single dermal top, unless you want a larger-gauge dermal piercing. They come in a few different shapes and sizes, but they're all variations of the same concept: an upside-down T shape, sometimes closer to an L, where the foot holds the anchor beneath the skin and a dermal top is screwed into the top post. Dermal anchors are typically internally-threaded, meaning the threads are drilled into the posts rather than sticking out of them. They're made from implant-grade materials like titanium, stainless steel or a bio-compatible polymer, but many piercers prefer to use titanium exclusively. Here are a few images of dermal anchors so you can see what they look like:

Sample Dermal Anchor Pictures

14g Titanium Dermal Anchor with 2mm or 2.5mm Rise & 3-Hole Base 14g Titanium Dermal Anchor with 2mm Rise & Round Base
14g Titanium Dermal Anchor with 2mm Rise & Square Base 10g Titanium Dermal Anchor with Solid Base 14g Titanium Dermal Anchor with 4mm Rise & 3-Hole Base

 

There's another type of dermal anchor that some people refer to as a "skin diver" or skin anchor. Skin divers are all-in-one dermal anchors with tops that can't be removed. If you like the idea of having a dermal piercing but can't see yourself ever changing the top--either because you're worried about displacing the piercing or because you're trying to achieve a certain look--then a skin diver may be a better option for you. If you'd rather be able to swap dermal tops on and off at your pleasure once your dermal piercing heals, opt for a more standard dermal anchor like the ones shown above.Photo of titanium skin diver with synthetic opal
 

Surface Barbells

Surface barbells are the anchors for surface piercings. They come in a wide range of lengths, gauges and styles, but as with dermal anchors, they're all variations on the same theme, which is a [ shape. The barbell itself can be rounded like a straight barbell or flat, but it always has a threaded post on either end, and each post holds a single dermal top. The posts can be at 90-degree angles to the barbell or angled out more widely. Surface barbells are typically made from either implant-grade titanium or surgical stainless steel and internally-threaded, like dermal anchors. Here are a few sample images to show you what surface barbells typically look like:

Sample Surface Barbell Pictures

14g Internally Threaded Flat Titanium Surface Barbell with 2mm Rise 14g TITANIUM Externally Threaded Surface Barbells 90º for Surface Piercings, Nape Piercings, etc. 12g Rata Titanium Flat Surface Bar with 2mm Rise

 

The part of your body being pierced will determine the rise of the posts on both a dermal anchor and a surface barbell. Fattier tissue, like your breasts or buttocks, can be pierced more deeply, so the post(s) on your jewelry may have a taller rise than if you were having a dermal placed on your hips or getting a nape surface piercing.
 

Inserting Surface Barbells & Dermal Anchors

Another thing that differentiates surface and dermal piercings is how they're inserted. Dermal piercings are fairly simple, since they're single-point piercings. Your piercer will make a hole using a dermal punch or a piercing needle, and then use a special dermal insertion tool to hold and insert a dermal anchor into your dermis. A surface piercing can be a bit more complicated and invasive, but not always. For a smaller or shallower surface piercing, your piercer may just pinch the skin together and pierce it straight through with a hollow needle, carrying the hardware through along the way, just as s/he would with any other body piercing. Alternatively, s/he may opt to use a scalpel to place a surface barbell more deeply and/or decrease the chances of rejection. Whichever method is used, once the surface barbell is in place, only the tops of the 2 posts will show right at epidermis level or a smidge higher.

Watch the video below if you're interested in seeing a dermal piercing being done:
 

 

What Else Do I Need to Know About Surface & Dermal Piercings?

Before you decide whether or not to get a dermal piercing or a surface piercing, think about what body part you want pierced and how you'd like the end result to look. Do you want a single dermal placed as an accent on a tattoo? Do you like the look of two gems side-by-side, within a couple inches of each other at most? Where do you want the piercing(s) placed on your body? Are you too squeamish to have a barbell inserted beneath your skin? Surface piercings in particular aren't for the faint of heart, although both piercings are somewhat invasive. Think these things over, and talk to your piercer. S/he will be able to guide you on which type of piercing will work best for the outcome you desire.

It's also important to think about things like aftercare and make sure you're fully prepared with tools on hand like Recovery Piercing Aftercare Spray. We offer a wealth of information about both dermal piercing and surface piercings in our Information Center, including surface and dermal piercing aftercare tips. Here are a few informative articles on these subjects you may want to check out before making your final decision about which type of piercing to get:

You might also be interested at looking at our selection of dermal tops before you get pierced, to see what options are available and get ideas on where you might like a dermal or surface piercing placed based on those designs. For instance, let's say you have a gardeny or woodland fairy scene tattooed on you, and you want to accent it with a few dragonfly, bee or butterfly-shaped dermal tops. You might not even think of an idea like that until you see the designs available. So have fun, peruse our site, brush up further on your surface piercing and dermal piercing knowledge, and if you decide one of these types of piercings is for you, go get it!