A Brief History
The practice of earlobe piercing dates back at least 5,000 years. We know this because the world's oldest mummy, Ötzi the Iceman, had pierced earlobes that were stretched somewhere between 7mm and 10mm.
It's clear that ear piercings have made regular appearances throughout history. Ancient Persian wall murals depict warriors with pierced ears and even the Bible mentions Isrealites wearing earrings. You can also fast-forward to the 16th century when men's earrings became a symbol of virility in France and Spain. Today, earrings are so popular that even piercing your baby's ears isn't unusual.
Cartilage piercing isn't a new trend either. Simple cartilage piercings through the rim of the upper ear, also known as helix piercings, have deep roots in tribal cultures, like that of the African Maasai tribe. Since the tribe’s early days, both male and female Maasai children have had their cartilage pierced with a hot iron as a rite of passage.
Cartilage piercing gained popularity in modern western culture as the punk movement grew in the 1970s. Asymmetrical ear piercings were popular during that time, and it was often a natural progression to pierce the cartilage of the upper ear as part of an asymmetrical ear piercing project.
Types of Earlobe Piercings & Cartilage Piercings
In addition to standard earlobe piercings and single helix piercings, you can also get:
- Multiple earlobe piercings
- Multiple cartilage piercings (called double helix piercings or triple helix piercings)
- Orbital cartilage piercings (where a captive ring or segment ring connects two cartilage piercings)
- A transverse earlobe piercing.
A transverse earlobe piercing is essentially a surface piercing. Therefore, it has a much higher rejection rate than the other types of earlobe and cartilage piercings.
Double Helix Piercings & Triple Helix Piercings
If you decide to get multiple cartilage piercings, such as a double helix piercing or a triple helix piercing, consider starting out with separate rings. A spiral earring can look really cool when threaded through multiple cartilage piercings, but it’s not always the most comfortable jewelry to wear while your helix piercings are healing. Cartilage piercings tend to stay sore for many months after being done; if you put additional unnecessary pressure on them, your ear will just hurt more. Separate rings will put less tension on your ear. Plus, if you catch or push one of them accidentally, you’ll only be irritating the one piercing instead of the series of piercings.
Best Cartilage Piercing & Earlobe Piercing Practices
When deciding where to get your ears pierced, it’s important to evaluate the method an establishment uses for ear piercing. The ideal way to get both your earlobes and your cartilage pierced is with a needle, but you won’t find a mall kiosk worker or jewelry boutique clerk wielding one of those. Usually popular ear piercing establishments use piercing guns, which aren’t ideal for a couple reasons:
- An ear piercing gun can’t be sterilized in an autoclave, which is a machine used to essentially cook away bacteria at high temperatures. At best, piercing guns may be wiped down with alcohol in between uses.
- Piercing guns make holes basically by putting force behind a blunt object (i.e. the gun drives a stud earring post through your ear with a surge of pressure akin to what a carpenter’s nail gun delivers). A stud post isn’t anywhere nearly as sharp as a piercing needle, so it tears through the skin roughly.
In the case of a cartilage piercing, a piercing gun will actually shatter the cartilage of your ear. The end result is oftentimes a prolonged and painful healing process with higher risk for infection.
The other downside to getting your ears pierced at an establishment that uses piercing guns is that the jewelry you’re pierced with will likely have two fatal flaws:
- Piercing guns shoot stud earrings through the ear. Studs aren’t an ideal style of starter jewelry because they put pressure on the healing fistula (i.e. hole where you were pierced). Prolonged pressure can cause necrosis (tissue death), which can lead to infection.
- If you get pierced at a mall kiosk or jewelry store, the jewelry inserted in your new piercing(s) will likely have a high nickel content. Nickel is one of the metals most likely to cause a reaction in people with sensitive skin.
Note: Surgical steel jewelry and titanium jewelry are much better alternatives for new piercings. Those materials nearly eliminate the possibility of having an allergic reaction. Additionally, captive bead rings are a much better alternative to studs for both earlobe piercings and cartilage piercings, at least during the initial healing process.
Recovery Times for Cartilage Piercings vs. Earlobe Piercings
Basic earlobe piercings typically heal within 6 weeks. Helix and other cartilage piercings can take several months to heal and often stay tender for up to a year. Both lobe and cartilage piercings require vigilant aftercare routines to heal properly and quickly as possible.
Aftercare Treatments for Cartilage Piercings vs. Earlobe Piercings
Whether you’ve just had your earlobes or your cartilage pierced, the aftercare regimen is basically the same. Ideally, you should spray your new piercing 3-6 times per day with a sea salt solution like Recovery piercing aftercare spray. Do not wash your new piercing with soap; sea salt solution is a much gentler cleanser that promotes healing, whereas soap can dry out your skin and make you more susceptible to infection.
Some people like to do full sea salt solution (SSS) soaks in addition to spritzing their piercings with an aftercare spray. To make your own SSS, you’ll need sea salt, a cup of distilled water, tea tree oil (optional), and cotton balls. Once you have your ingredients gathered up, follow these instructions to make and apply your SSS:
- Bring (1) cup of distilled water to a boil; boil for 5 minutes to sterilize
- Stir in 1/4 tsp. sea salt, then let the mixture cool.
- If desired, add 2–3 drops of tea tree oil to the solution for moisturizing and antiseptic qualities.
- Apply cotton balls saturated with SSS to your piercing one at a time. After a cotton ball has made contact with your piercing, throw it away and grab a fresh one. Make sure to apply SSS-soaked cotton balls to both the front and back of your new ear piercing.
Here are a few other things to keep in mind during the ear piercing healing process:
- Never twist, turn or slide your jewelry, because that might push bacteria into your healing ear piercing.
- Be sure to wash your hands with antibacterial soap or put on gloves before touching your piercing.
- Soak "crusties" (dried lymph) with SSS to soften them, then gently wipe them away with a tissue.
- Do not apply any oils, creams, or balms to your piercings while they're healing. Once fully healed, you can use Smelly Gelly, a deodorizer that will also act as a helpful lubricant when inserting tapers and new jewelry.
- Protect your earlobe and helix piercings from hair products, because they can irritate your sensitive new piercing. Shield your ear when you apply hair spray, and keep gel and mousse away from your ear piercings.
- Try not to sleep on your side during the healing process, particularly if you’ve recently gotten a helix piercing.
If you follow the piercing aftercare tips above and generally take care of yourself — e.g. get lots of rest, drink plenty of water, eat well, avoid alcohol and nicotine, and keep yourself clean—your piercing should heal well. For more ear piercing aftercare advice, check out our Body Piercing Aftercare article.
If you’re concerned that you have an infected ear piercing, check for the following symptoms:
- Is your ear piercing oozing thick, yellow pus?
- Is the skin around your ear piercing bright red or are there red streaks?
- Is the skin around your ear piercing hot to the touch?
- Are you running a fever?
- Is your ear excessively swollen?
Excessive swelling is more likely attributable to jewelry that’s too tight or made of a material you're allergic to. See your piercer and ask for help swapping in different jewelry if this is the case. If you have a labret post or a short straight barbell in your helix piercing, ask for a longer barbell.
If you already have a captive bead ring in either a cartilage piercing or an earlobe piercing, then pressure isn’t likely the issue and you should focus on getting jewelry made of a different material. Titanium is the metal least likely to cause a reaction, and BioPlast jewelry is hypoallergenic. If you purchase jewelry off the shelf at a store or online, you should pay to have your new jewelry sterilized. Use our "Sterilize My Jewelry" service to ensure your new jewelry is safe to wear.
If your ear piercing is infected, you may need to see your doctor and get a prescription for antibiotics. You can try ramping up your aftercare regimen for a couple days first; if the issue subsides with vigilant cleaning, you may be able to avoid taking an antibiotic.
If you see your doctor and s/he tells you that you have to take out your piercing, don’t fret. If you do full sea salt solution soaks 2 times per day and use a piercing aftercare spray in between soaks while taking an antibiotic, your earlobe or cartilage piercing should heal well and you shouldn’t have to take out your jewelry.
Stretching cartilage is a very long, slow and often difficult process, so it’s not something we typically recommend trying. If you know your end goal is to wear cartilage jewelry in a larger size, consider having your helix piercing done at that size initially. To learn more about stretching cartilage and alternatives, check out our The Ins & Outs of Stretching Cartilage blog post.
Ear lobe stretching is quite a bit easier than stretching cartilage, but it still takes patience. You should give yourself at least one-and-a-half times as long as it took for your ear to heal initially in between full-size stretches (e.g. 12 gauge to 10 gauge). If you stretch too much too fast, you risk tearing your earlobe. Even tiny little tears in the skin can make you more susceptible to infection and permanent damage to your earlobes. Take your time, and stretch gently.
You can use stretching tape to add a layer around your jewelry every couple weeks. (You don’t have to wait 8+ weeks in between, because the thin layer you’re adding to your jewelry isn’t equivalent to a full gauge change.) Ear tapers are another good tool you can use to stretch your ears — just don’t push them in too far too fast. Alternatively, you can use a threaded taper to pull through jewelry in the next size up. For instance, if you’re moving from 14 gauge jewelry to 12 gauge jewelry, you can purchase a 12 gauge threaded taper, screw your new jewelry onto the end of it, and pull it through your ear gradually. Add a drop of a water-based lubricant like Astroglide to ease the taper through more smoothly. However you size up, remember: Slow and steady wins the stretching race!
Tip: Massage emu oil into your earlobes in between stretches to improve the elasticity of your skin and make stretching easier.
Regular Earrings, Large Gauge Earrings & Cartilage Earrings
The type of jewelry you purchase for your newly healed ear piercings depends on what type of piercing you have and whether or not you plan on stretching your ear piercing(s).
Earrings for Standard Earlobe Piercings
You have a few options when it comes to regular ear piercing jewelry. Most standard earlobe piercings are done with a 20g needle, so your ideal earrings will be somewhere in between the sizes of 18 gauge and 22 gauge (the higher the number, the smaller the post). Here are some of the earring styles you might consider:
Stud Earrings: These earrings have a short post and a butterfly back that holds the earring in place. Below are a few of our most popular stud earrings styles. You can view all of our stud earrings here.
French Hook Earrings: These earrings have a curved post that hook through your ear piercing and dangle below your earlobes. View all of our French hook earrings here, and check out some of our favorite styles below.
Stirrups: This style of earring is cool because it looks like a large gauge earring, but with a smaller post through the part that actually runs through your earlobe. Here are some of our favorites:
Captive Bead Rings: Captive rings (CBRs) make great starter jewelry, because they won’t put pressure on your healing ear piercing. You insert CBRs by popping out the bead, threading the hoop through your ear lobe piercing, and then popping the bead back in. That’s sometimes easier said than done, though. A ball grabber tool can make the job a lot easier.
Large Gauge Earrings
As you stretch your earlobes, you’ll need to either place tunnels through your ear piercings to continue wearing your old smaller gauge earrings while keeping your piercings stretched to the desired size, or you’ll need to switch to wearing large gauge earrings. We carry a variety of large gauge earrings, from organic large gauge dangle earrings with tapered hoops that go through your earlobes to pinchers to ear hangers and beyond. Here are a few of the large gauge earrings we love. See our full collection of large gauge earrings here.
Many different types of jewelry can be worn as cartilage earrings, but some of the best choices are grouped together in our Cartilage Earrings section. You’ll find cartilage earrings for men and women alike there. For additional options, check out our Captive Bead Rings, Ear Cuffs, Spiral Earrings, Labret Studs, and Straight Barbells sections. Some of our popular cartilage earrings are shown below:
Ear Cuff & Cartilage Chain Earring Options
When you have a cartilage piercing and an earlobe piercing, it's fashionable to connect them with a cartilage chain earring. Ear cuffs and ear wraps are another popular style of cartilage ear jewelry. We offer several different types of ear cuffs, including the flower one shown below. Also choose from lizard, frog, cat, dragon, and other ear cuff designs.
To learn about other types of ear piercings, visit our Types of Body Piercings page. You’ll find an ear piercing diagram there along with descriptions of each type of ear piercing.