The practice of earlobe piercing dates back at least 5,000 years. We know this because the world’s oldest mummified body (the “Iceman”) had pierced earlobes that had been stretched to somewhere between 7-11mm. Since the days in which the Iceman lived, ear piercings have made regular appearances throughout history. Ancient Persian wall murals depict warriors with pierced ears, and even the Bible mentions Israelites wearing earrings. Fast forward to the 16th century, when men’s earrings gained popularity and became a symbol of virility in France and Spain. Today, earrings are so fashionable that even baby ear piercing isn’t unusual.
Cartilage piercing may not have gained popularity quite as early as earlobe piercing, but it isn’t a new trend either. Simple cartilage piercings through the rim of the upper ear (also known as a helix piercing) 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.
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), or a transverse earlobe piercing. The latter is essentially a surface piercing (shown to the left), so it has a much higher rejection rate than the other types of earlobe and cartilage 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 & Lobe 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, they may be wiped down with alcohol in between uses, which is an inferior way to clean a tool used to puncture multiple people’s flesh.
- 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 near as sharp as a piercing needle, so it tears through the skin roughly and leaves a rather jagged hole behind.
In the case of a cartilage piercing, a piercing gun will actually shatter the cartilage of your ear. The end result is often times a prolonged and painful healing process that practically invites infection to the party.
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. Captive bead rings are a much better alternative to studs for both earlobe piercings and cartilage piercings, at least during the initial healing process.
- 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. Surgical steel jewelry and titanium jewelry are much better alternatives for new piercings. Those materials nearly eliminate the possibility of someone having an allergic reaction to their jewelry.
Earlobe & Cartilage Piercing Healing Times
The healing time for earlobe piercings is dramatically different than for cartilage piercings. Basic ear piercings typically heal within 6 weeks, while helix piercings can take several months to heal and often stay tender for up to a year. After 8-12 months, the fistula is usually strong enough that things like sleeping with your pierced cartilage against your pillow won’t make you wake up with a throbbing ear. Helix piercings take patience and perseverance to heal, and both types of ear piercings require vigilant aftercare.
How to Heal Cartilage Piercings vs. Earlobe Piercings
Whether you’ve just had your earlobes or your cartilage pierced, the aftercare regime 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 or H2Ocean. 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 (aquarium salt from a pet store will work perfectly), a cup of 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 water to a boil, and continue boiling it for 5 minutes to sterilize it.
- Stir in ¼ tsp. sea salt, and then let the mixture cool.
- If desired, add 2-3 drops of tea tree oil to the solution for its 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:
- You should never twist, turn or slide your jewelry, because that might push bacteria into your healing ear piercing.
- If you have to touch your ear piercing for some reason, be sure to wash your hands with antibacterial soap or put on gloves first.
- If you see “crusties” form around your piercing, don’t worry. During the healing process, it’s normal for the body to excrete lymph, which is a clear substance that dries to a whitish crust. The best way to deal with crusties is to soak them with SSS to soften them, and 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 as 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. You’re likely to wake up with a throbbing red ear if you do.
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.
Is My Piercing Infected?
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 piercing bright red or are there red streaks radiating from your piercing?
- 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 to which you’re allergic. To eliminate the possibility of your jewelry being the problem, see your piercer and ask for help swapping in different jewelry. 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.
Once you’ve eliminated the possibilities of the irritation you’re experiencing being related to jewelry material or size, you’ll have a better idea if you’re dealing with an infected ear piercing. 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 regime 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 ear piercing jewelry you purchase to wear once your new ear piercings are healed 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 20 gauge 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 our most stunning stud earring 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 coolest cartilage earrings are shown below:
When you have a cartilage piercing and an earlobe piercing, it's fashionable to connect them with a cartilage chain earring. Achieve this look with our beautiful Dreamcatcher Chain Earrings, shown to the right.
Ear cuffs 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.