Some piercing concerns. Infections, scarring, gum damage: All possible consequences of following fashion
Christine Burke arrived around 2 p.m. on a recent Saturday to a mixed audience of teens and adults, all looking for one thing — a sharp needle and a practiced eye. Burke is the owner and sole piercing artist at Crazy Chameleon on Elm Street. On this particular day, she is a little swollen from having her wisdom teeth extracted, but she hasn’t taken any pain killers — nothing to make her woozy. She herself must remain sharp as the hardware she yields.
She is doing well enough at her Elm Street location that she is expanding — this month she is taking over Twisted Ink’s space in Adams, and by the time of publication, she will be piercing people in both places. Her portfolio includes all the usual things you might expect — nose, eyebrows, lips, and tongue — the most popular piercings; but then there are also photos of pierced genitals, nipples, and a rather alarming photograph of a barbell nestled in the hollow of woman’s lower throat.
There must be consequences to all this piercing, the unpierced reason, and there are — so let’s get started.
Pierce your tongue wrong
and kaput — it goes paralyzed. For good. Colleen Fallon had her tongue pierced at Crazy Chameleon in 2004, and then after cleaning it one time, failed to put the jewelry back in — the hole partially closed up. “The mouth is an amazing repairer,” says Pittsfield dentist James Nesti.
Fallon knew the danger, still, she held her breath and shoved the jewelry back through. No permanent damage.
And still yet another — “Some types of skin,” says Pittsfield plastic surgeon Basil Michaels, “Asians and African, mostly, and even some Mediterraneans can be prone to keloids — a type of scar that grows beyond the original area of injury. A keloid can grow to massive proportions. It’s not a tumor, but it’s a big thick scar.
“I had one Italian woman who had gotten them from chicken pox scars,” he says. “I could not get rid of them. So I would just make sure you are not prone to them — if it is the first time you are violating your skin.” He says if you’ve had some other cut that has healed well, you are safe to pierce.
So all this does sound rather gruesome, but Burke says most of the piercings she does are of the popular nose, ear, eyebrow, lip, and tongue variety — pretty straightforward. She has done a lot of them — she has owned Crazy Chameleon for nearly 10 years.
Michaels says the most common dangers of piercing are infections. They can be nasty — if you get a serious infection in the cartilage of your ear, for instance, Michaels says it “can permanently disfigure the ear.” Infections can occur right away, or months later.
Presumably, the same could happen with side nose piercings, though a properly placed pierce will miss most of the cartilage, thus making this kind of piercing more like a typical earlobe pierce.
“The most important thing is the actual piercing,” he says. “I’ve seen people get hepatitis from both piercings and from tattoos, and that means you can get AIDS from them as well.” He would be wary of any piercing salon that didn’t have an autoclave — a unit used to sterilize needles and other equipment. Autoclaves work by increasing pressure and temperature to levels in which bacteria cannot survive.
Burke has an autoclave unit. Also, more visibly, she follows what seems to be standard medical procedure — changing her pink surgical gloves with each new client. After each piercing, some tools are thrown away, and everything is sprayed down and wiped with disinfectant. She uses a product called Technicare — a yellow, snotty-looking goo — to sterilize jewelry in 30 to 60 seconds — that’s jewelry purchased right there. If a client brings in a piece, they have to wait while Burke runs it through her sonic cleaner.
Piercing infections can also be brought on by the jewelry itself. “You want a good quality metal,” Michaels says. “Be careful with cheaper metals.”
Nineteen-year-old Nicole O’Boyle of Adams says she pretty much uses the highest quality stainless steel she can find. She has 14 holes, all of them above the chin — and most of them on her left ear. The right is minimally pierced. She’s planning on tattooing that side of her body. O’Boyle works at the Berkshire Mall — at both Target and Hot Topic, where the pierced and tattooed commune to purchase all things black and dog-collared.
She is gauging both of her ears — in piercing parlance this mean stretching giant gaping holes in her lobes. The only other piercings are her lower lip and her tongue. “Mom wouldn’t let me get any facial piercings,” she says. (She only had the lip done after 18.) “I was looking for a loophole.” She got her tongue pierced and wore clear acrylic jewelry to make it less obvious.
O’Boyle noticed that her piercings itched when she used cheaper jewelry. “You have to be careful,” she says now. “You can get infections more easily with cheap metal.”
Michaels says 18 karat gold is the all-star best, though any pure metal will suffice — by pure he means no nickel. Some lesser metals have nickel in them, and Michaels has seen tattoo-like stains left on skin where this kind of jewelry was worn. “That’s something to think about if you are getting your eyebrow pierced.” Platinum and titanium are also fine.
At Crazy Chameleon, Burke sells mostly 316 LVM surgical steel body jewelry, as well as a fair amount of titanium. The stainless is the most cost-effective and easily accessible. Platinum is by far the most expensive, hard to come by. A search online showed one plain curved platinum belly barbell for something like $650.
Burke says her clients run the age gamut — from 8 to 80. Of course, if they are under 18, they need parental consent. She says most problems occur with teenage girls wanting their belly buttons done — it takes a year for those to heal — and that a lot of women around the age of 50 like to get their noses pierced.
“Nose jewelry has gotten really cute, and they don’t think it’s ridiculously young.”
Also, more guys than girls get their nipples pierced. This last thing might be good news, since nipple piercing could potentially disrupt the milk ducts in women.
Burke doesn’t do it too often, but she says has also pierced male genitals.
So if you are a guy and you are ever thinking of doing this, you might want to visit Christine. This is one of the more dicey things to pierce.
Says plastic surgeon Michaels, “You have to worry about damage to the urethra and the corpora — those are the structures that allow the penis to become erect.”
Belly buttons and other regions further afield from the face tend to be a little moist and have a low blood supply, so they take longer to heal and lead to more infections.
Burke says, “Belly buttons are the worst” and mostly it’s because of the people who get them — teenage girls who think it’s all very sexy, but then two weeks into it, they forget and “then it goes south.” By this she means it gets infected. She calls it “a big red bubble.”
Burke issued her stern cleaning and soaking directives to 17-year-old Justina Perry of Stamford, Vt., after Perry had her navel done recently. These included which kind of soap to use — glycerin, oatmeal or castile — but NOT any moisturizing soap. No ointments or gels or conditioners should stay on the piercing, she said, because these things trap the dirt.
She tells Perry to soak her belly button in saline or a combination of a quarter teaspoon of sea salt in 8 ounces of water twice a day.
“How am I going to soak it?” Perry asks. She is reclining on the white piercing chair. Burke points at Perry’s belly button. “Look, you lay back and you have a little cup right there. Five minutes, twice a day. FOR A YEAR.”
“Most teenagers,” she says, “Have the attention span of a gnat. If a teen has to have a piercing, I recommend the tongue. They are easy to care for and they heal fast.”
The key with a tongue piercing, she says, is placement. “It has to be far enough back so it doesn’t bang against the teeth, and also far enough forward to still be fun.”
Dentist Nesti says tongue piercings don’t worry him too much — he has only seen one cracked tooth. The piercing he doesn’t like is the labret — the straight post through the center lower lip. Burke doesn’t do these traditional labrets. She says they wear on the gums, and she is right. Nesti has read literature that shows labrets cause tooth loss by eroding the gumline. “I would not refuse to treat people with this piercing,” he says, “But every time they came in, I would tell them they are doing themselves harm.”
Michaels says some other soft, moist places heal shockingly well too — like a woman’s genital area. “Though I can’t imagine that’s a comfortable place to be pierced,” he says. He has seen multiple piercings in this area, and no infections.
For her part, Burke thinks surface piercing is the most dangerous. “These are piercings of anything that doesn’t come to a corner, like the arms, or across the tummy above the belly button.” On the wall in her shop the May calendar picture was a barbell through the nape of a woman’s neck.
The weirdest places she’s pierced include “between the ribs; the ankles, wrists, oh, and fingerwebs,” she says. Once she did two barbell piercings on someone’s lower back, over the kidneys.
For nose and lip piercings she warns folks about swelling and the size of the jewelry they choose. When 19-year-old Dana Connor, a student at Berkshire Community College, came in for a Monroe — the right upper lip piercing, she chose a tiny little sparkly thing, even though Burke recommended a stainless stud with a larger silver ball on it.
“You know it’s going to swell,” she said to Connor. “You won’t even be able to find this little thing to be able to clean it.” For a demonstration, she takes the side of her own lip with her fingers and twists it up toward her nose. “This is what you’re going to look like.”
“I don’t want a big ball on my face,” Connor said. She got what she wanted, and when she left, out of earshot, Burke said, “She’ll be back.” (And she was — a day or so later.)
Let’s get to the ear. What an amazing structure and work of art, the ear, really, it is. Just take a good long look at an unadorned ear sometime. And like piercing artists everywhere, Burke knows more than ten ways from Sunday to pierce ears. O’Boyle’s right ear is a metal marvel.
All these piercings have names, too — that sound like chess pieces or parts of a ship — rook, daith, tragus, helix, snug.
Acupuncturist Dawn Meltzer of New Dawn Healing Arts says, “Believe it or not, the earlobe — the regular place for piercing — is the location of the eye in auricular acupuncture. So it seems like not really the greatest thing to do, although it also seems like many of us have done it.
“From a purist perspective,” she says, “I think any tiny break in the integrity of the skin would have an energetic effect. But then again, the body is an amazing thing. It adapts.”
Does that mean it heals? Well, on some level it must.
But even the tiniest holes in ears — do they close up? What about gauged ears?
People who do it — O’Boyle, and many of her friends and co-workers at Hot Topic — say they will, and so does Burke. She said she has seen it happen.
“You stretch them gradually,” she says. “So if you take the appliance out, they shrink up gradually too.”
Michaels isn’t so sure. “It really depends how long they’ve been in and how old the person is. If you’re young enough and the elastin and collagen fibers in your skin haven’t been broken, yes, the holes will shrink a certain amount.”
But when the elastin and collagen fibers have been broken, by the piercing itself, or by wear and tear, or the surrounding support of the skin has been damaged by age — these holes don’t close so readily.
Take this writer’s ear — there are two tiny holes on one side, and though one of them has not housed a single piece of jewelry for nearly eight years, just recently I was still able to stick a stud in there. If skin grows inside the track — which it invariably does — this is called epithelization. In fact, Michaels says in some cultures, infants’ ears are pierced, and the earrings are in so long that the skin actually grows over the back of the earring, embedding it.
Michaels feels certain the day will come when women who have gauged their ears will be coming to him looking for a surgical repair, and he says it can be done. But what will be left where the hole was will be scar tissue, and scar tissue cannot really be re-pierced. “A scar does not have the same strength as normal skin.”
Some other more immediate things to consider with gauged ears — for one, all that stretching is a little uncomfortable. Says O’Boyle, “When I went from a half-inch to five-eighths, I had a dream one night that someone was stabbing me in the ears.” And somewhat shockingly, they also stink. Really — like old sneakers.
Sixteen-year-old Roger Silvernail, a student at McCann Tech, was at the Chameleon recently for an eyebrow piercing. He has one gauge — in his left ear. He made a face when he asked Burke how to get rid of the smell.
“Wood,” she said. “Wood plugs won’t smell. Acrylic is the worst. There is no place for the sweat to go. That’s what smells.”
Burke’s own lobes are gauged. This day she is wearing stunning glass plugs in them, the color of sunsets or sunset marbles, at any rate.
Michaels thinks plugs are very tribal looking. “When I was younger, I was into the punk culture. I get it. It’s anti-establishment — now they call it Goth.” He even says he would not dissuade his own children from piercing in general — but he would encourage them to avoid obvious things. When you are going for your job in corporate America, he says, is tribal the look you want?
O’Boyle’s friend and co-worker at Hot Topic, Colleen Fallon, 20, of North Adams, also works in proof operations at Berkshire Bank. She has run up against this societal disdain — but not for the half-inch gauges in her ears, and not for the blue bauble in her tongue.
Rather it’s her blue hair that is the shocking thing. When she worked at Staples and at a videogame store in the Mall she wore a wig. She wears a wig to her current job at the Bank. She does not know what color her hair will be next month — that’s how often it changes — but if you ever see her at the Bank, she is the one with the shoulder-length brown hair. “It’s a really nice one,” she says of her wig. “I got it online.”
Fallon recently got her nose and her lower lip done at Crazy Chameleon. “I’m not too worried about the nose,” she said. “There is another employee at the bank who has her nose pierced.
“I’m not sure about the lip though,” she said. The bank is pretty progressive — she doesn’t think it’s her boss or the staff there that has the problem with her hair, rather, she thinks it’s a societal thing.
O’Boyle shrugs. “It’s addicting,” she says of piercing. And anyway, she works in places where “it’s allowed,” and in fact, even encouraged. An un-pierced, un-dyed soul in bowels of Hot Topic is shocking indeed.
“It is just something I like,” she says. “I am not doing it for an image.”
In fact, O’Boyle says, she thinks her metallic bent accents her personality, which is by turns sardonic, self-effacing, and hilarious. She was voted “nicest to know” and “class clown” of Hoosac Valley High’s class of 2005.
So she is a beautiful young woman too — and I can say this because she is actually my niece. And I, we, her family, to all of us, the metal in her ears matters little.