Ear Piercing for Kids: What You Really Need to Know

Thinking of getting your child's ears pierced? Here are answers to common questions about this rite of passage.

young girl with pierced ears
Photo: Getty

For many, ear piercing is a rite of passage. It is very common for children of all ages to sport pierced lobes. Cartilage piercings are also the "norm." From helix and industrial piercings to daiths and rooks, there are a number piercings your child may want to get in or around their ear. But what do you really need to know before getting your child's ear pierced, i.e. are piercing guns safe? Should you go to a studio or the mall?

Here's everything you need to know about ear piercing for kids, from what is an appropriate age to get your child's ears pierced to how to choose a place.

What Is the Best Age to Pierce Your Child's Ears?

Getting your ears pierced is a very personal decision, one which cannot and should not be taken lightly. Not only are their potential risks to this procedure, but it is also a matter of consent. Many physicians and piercing experts agree: Children should not be pierced before they are ready. This means infant and toddler piercing should be avoided, as they cannot decide if this is something which they want. What's more, young children may be unable to handle cleaning responsibilities. As such, it is best to wait until your child is ready: physically, mentally, and emotionally.

When Choosing Earrings, Which Material Is Best?

While numerous materials are considered "safe" for healed piercings, very few are approved for new or initial piercings. The reason? "Initial piercings require jewelry with the best biocompatibility," Infinite Body Piercing in Philadelphia writes. "This means jewelry that will not tarnish or oxidize, and will not react with the skin while your body works hard to heal your piercing." So what materials can you use and/or choose? It's best to stick with the basics: stainless steel, titanium, gold, and niobium.

"Some metal alloys (mixtures) have been approved based on medical usage (often as medical implants) and have specific designations that represent a precise standard for the alloy and its quality as determined by the American (now International) Society for Testing and Materials Standard (ASTM) and/ or the International Standards Organization (ISO)," a brochure from the Association of Professional Piercers (APP) states. "Other materials, such as gold and obsidian (natural glass) have a long history of use in piercings dating back hundreds—and sometimes thousands—of years." The material worn in a new and/or healing piercing should be sterilized, inert, and compatible with the body so it doesn't cause irritation, allergy, or infection.

Are Piercing Guns Safe?

While piercing guns are readily accessible and (seemingly) easy-to-use, they are not safe, for children or adults. "Reusable ear piercing guns can put clients in direct contact with the blood and body fluids of previous clients," the APP writes. "Piercing guns can cause significant tissue damage... [as] most ear piercing studs are quite dull." They also cause/work via blunt force trauma, and the length and/or stud which is used in a piercing gun is not appropriate for every client. "Ear piercing studs are too short for some earlobes and most cartilage," the APP adds. They also compress the tissue, which inhibits healing.

"Operators working at piercing kiosks [and using ear piercing guns] are not trained in bloodborne pathogens and disease transmission," Infinite Body Piercing adds. "There are documented cases of disease transmission from piercing guns because of the ignorance of aseptic technique and a lack of basic knowledge of disease transmission." In short, you should avoid piercing guns. The risk of irritation, infection, and/or human error is too great.

Where Can—and Should—You Get Your Child's Ears Pierced?

It's important to get you ears pierced or, rather, your child's ears pierced by a professional. While many people have been pierced using ice and a sewing needle, this method is not clean, sterile, or safe. Piercing kiosks (which use piercing guns) should also be avoided. So where should you take your child? What's your best bet? A body piercing studio or shop.

"A good piercing shop will make sure that everything is clean," an article from Johns Hopkins Medicine explains. "That means you should see the person wash his or her hands, use hand sanitizer, or wear gloves before he or she starts the process. This person should clean your ears with a special soap that kills bacteria." The jewelry should also be sterilized before use.

Still not sure where to go? Ask your pediatrician and/or fellow parents for a recommendation and read Yelp reviews. You can also ask to watch a procedure, though not every studio will be able to accommodate this request—as ear and body piercing is a private and personal matter. Some studios may also lack the resources or space.

What Are the Signs of Infection After Ear Piercing?

If your child's piercing becomes infected, you will know it. The area will (likely) be red, painful, swollen, and/or warm to the touch. You may get discharge that is dark yellow, green, or bloody. This discharge usually has a foul odor. A small, fluid-filled "pimple" may also appear.

That said, it's important to note that many self-diagnosed infections are actually irritations and/or allergic reactions. "More often than not, what many people think of as an infection is actually the result of irritation," Infinite adds. Jenny Murase, M.D., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the University of California, San Francisco, suggests contacting your doctor to determine if it's an infection or a possible allergy. The former can be treated with antibiotics. The latter with a jewelry change.

How Should You and Your Child Care for Their New Piercing?

While ear piercings do not require a lot of attention, it is paramount that you care for them properly. You—and your child—should avoid touching the area, if possible. If you do need to touch the piercing, to clean it for example, you should first wash your hands. This can be done with a mild soap. The area should then be flushed with a saline solution and/or cleansed with the same dye- and fragrance-free soap. And you should be patient. Healing takes time.

"There is no single cleaning solution or aftercare regimen that works for everyone, everywhere, all the time," Infinite Body Piercing writes. "Different bodies and different lifestyles demand different aftercare. Geography matters, and what works for someone living in Philadelphia may not be the same thing that works for someone elsewhere. Differences in air and water quality, diet, and climate can greatly affect healing; what you use for aftercare and how you clean your piercing is only one part of a much larger picture. You must find what works for you [and your child]."

That said, there are some no-no's. Twisting earrings, which was a common practice in the 80s' and 90s, is a now a no-go. Using harsh chemicals, like rubbing alcohol and/or hydrogen peroxide, should also be avoided, and jewelry should be kept in place for the entire healing process. This is at least six weeks for lobe piercings and six months for cartilage. You'll also want to use caution when your little one is changing clothes or brushing their hair, and try to keep hairspray, shampoo, perfumes, and similar products away from the earrings.

Should Children With New Piercings Avoid Sports and/or Other Activities?

While some experts say no, others warn that children should be extra careful, especially up to and through the first two weeks after a piercing—when the wound site is most prone to infection. The Association of Professional Piercers suggests avoiding swimming in lakes and/or the ocean, which might contain unknown bacteria. Hot tubs and pools should be avoided for the same reason. And when it comes to sports, activities like horseback riding and softball—both of which require helmets—may need to be skipped, at least for a week or two.

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