This guide explains how saline works and what it does that is so good for piercings.
TL;DR –Too much information? For a shorter version try our quick reference guide here.
Saline is a natural salt water solution that is present inside the body. It is contained within the cells of your piercing and when they come in contact with saline on the outside an exchange of fluids is created through the cell’s membrane (this is via a process called osmosis).
This exchange of fluids means that serous fluid (discharge) and the excess fluids which cause swelling can be drawn out. Rather than being one sided, this exchange is actually equal (known as an equilibrium) and the water passes freely into and out of the cells, meaning your piercing also gets re-hydrated with water.
Salt water soaks used to be recommended for cleaning body piercings but research has since shown that bacteria can actually survive the salt’s drying process – potentially contaminating your piercing. It is also hard to get the right balance of salt to water to make the exchange work properly and not just dry out or irritate the piercing. Using sterile saline also means that there is no bacteria present from the water itself (i.e. from hanging around in pipes) or the container (like a household mug) as disinfectants don’t always kill all types of bacteria that could be present!
The Hot Water
Heating your saline soak by placing the container in hot water (not boiling) before use also has added benefits for your piercing.
Hot water makes the particles of salt more active, which means they move much faster and so do their job of cleaning your piercing much more efficiently than if you used cold water.
The heat itself opens the skin pores and dilates the capillaries around the piercing site which brings more oxygen-filled blood to the piercing. Oxygen is essential for the cells that are repairing and building your piercing to work with so, by bringing more oxygen to your piercing, you speed up the healing process. This increased blood flow also helps to further reduce swelling by carrying away the additional fluid causing the swollen tissues.
The heat keeps the wound warm too. If the wound temperature drops below body surface temperature (by cleaning with products bellow 33ºC) it can take almost 4 hours for the healing process to return to normal. This is because mitosis (cell division to form new cells) is restricted by low temperatures and takes a long time to restart again. Keeping a wound at a regular temperature also prevents uncontrolled bacteria reproduction and so reduces the risk of infection as well.
Heat is also great at soothing pain because it switches on heat receptors in and around the piercing. These receptors block the body’s ability to detect pain and so the pain from the piercing is stopped.
In addition to this the heat is helpful in softening any hard material stuck to the piercing. The healing tissue inside a piercing is very delicate, so pulling at a scab or crust attached to it is likely to damage it. The softening effect of the hot water makes removing hard material much more gentle.
Equally, completely immersing the piercing in the hot water is an important step for the cleaning process. When just cotton buds, sprays or soaps are used, the dirt and bacteria are redistributed around the wound – rather than being washed away. The jewellery is also in the way of most other cleaning products where as the hot water can carry the saline into the piercing hole more effectively- cleaning inside as well as outside.
For more information on how cleaning affects piercing healing try reading our guide to how piercings heal. Alternatively, for a step by step guide to performing a salt water soak please try our aftercare guides.