Safety Issues | Jewellery Problems | Damage and Complications | Manufacturing Issues | Consequences | Solutions
Brief: Piercing guns are not considered as safe or as good for your body as many would have you believe. In fact, in the view of many professional piercers, the guns should ideally be banned until they can be sufficiently improved. This article explains, in some detail, the dangers hidden in one of the most popular piercing methods used today.
TL;DR –Too much information? For a shorter version try our quick reference guide here!
Firstly and most importantly piercing guns are not sterilised as they are generally not made of material suitable to be put through an autoclave.
An autoclave is the standard sterilisation device used by medical professionals, piercers and scientists which heats to 120-134c. It destroys bacteria and blood borne pathogens such as Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C and HIV using steam heated under pressure. The alcoholic wipes used to clean the gun only remove certain types of surface bacteria and dirt so they can often miss the microscopic back-spray of tissue and other debris, caused by the high velocity action of the gun, which cannot be seen by the naked eye. This leaves both the client and the piercer at risk of cross-contamination and serious infection as the same gun will be used repeatedly – only the carriage with earrings in it is disposable and sterile.
The skills learned to become a body piercer include human anatomy, basic first aid, detailed aftercare procedures, local piercing and health & safety law, jewellery types, lengths, piercing placement and hygiene control and usually take a year or more of supervised training to master. Good Body piercers are also vaccinated against Hepatitis B and Tetanus. In contrast the training for a retailer using an ear piercing gun is as little as 30mins and only usually as much as a day long course at the local college (High School).
They cover barely a fraction of what a professional piercer will learn and many of them will not have pierced a real person before they start work – having practised on sponge or cardboard. This means if something goes wrong they often have no idea how to deal with it and cannot help if a client has trouble healing. A good body piercer, on the other hand, will have a good knowledge of piercing problems and be happy to hear and address your concerns.
It may sound obvious to say it but; everyone’s body is shaped differently. In fact human ears are so different from one another that they are now considered a better form of identification than finger prints. People’s bodies also respond differently to wounds too, with some people bleeding or swelling more than others. Despite this the studs on ear piercing guns are all the same size. A trained body piercer, however, will have lots of different sizes in stock and may even use a caliper called a Vernier Gauge to measure body parts and provide jewellery suited to each client.
The single-sized earrings in a gun often lead to the jewellery embedding in the back of the ear as the pressure from swelling causes it to dig into the soft tissue. If the swelling continues or if the piercing is left to heal this way the back of the earring can be absorbed into the ear completely. The only way to remedy this is to have it cut back out by a doctor.
The butterfly backs keeping the earrings in place can be a bigger problem in themselves. They aren’t smooth and have holes and rivets in them that can trap dirt and dead tissue and can be very difficult to clean, complicating piercing healing time by giving bacteria a place to collect and breed causing irritation and infection
Added to this is the problem that the backs can also be very difficult to remove as they are placed on by a machine and not by hand, meaning that they can be problematic in an emergency. Struggling to remove such tight jewellery (which can also be encrusted shut with collected gunk) can also cause damage to a new piercing when it has healed and is being changed for the first time, undoing your good work.
Unfortunately, if this wasn’t enough, the earrings themselves are also usually made from substandard or unsuitable materials – even a 24k gold earring is not ideally suitable for you to be pierced with, despite popular belief. This is because gold doesn’t hold its shape well and earrings are, often, only gold plating over a cheaper alloy which can wear away and expose you to the poor metal underneath, causing allergic reactions and healing complications.
Gold and Surgical Steel also contain small amounts of nickel which is the most common metal to be allergic to and can be drawn out of the metal and into your body by sweating and washing. In addition to this (according to dermatology research) exposure to nickel can even cause an allergy to develop. This is particularly worrying when the jewellery is placed in to contact with bodily tissues and fluids for a length of time. Ideally you should be pierced with Titanium (grade 5 or 23) or PTFE only.
Damage and Complications
Guns don’t, as most people think, use a sharp edge to make the piercing hole; they actually fire a blunt earring through the flesh – similar to being shot by a bullet from a weapon, just at a lower speed. The impact this has on your body is quite damaging because of the force being used; the stud tears through the skin rather than making a neat slit like a needle.
This causes a lot of additional bruising and general trauma to the wound making it more painful and often increasing swelling adding to your healing time (and the risk of embedding). The jagged shape of the hole left by a gun is also more difficult for your body to heal into a nice smooth tunnel (i.e the piercing hole) and so takes more energy and effort to heal.
Another related problem is that more scar tissue is likely to develop due to the trauma and healing troubles. Therefore people who are looking to stretch their piercing to a higher gauge may have trouble because scar tissue isn’t very stretchy. This has lead to people accidentally tearing their piercings or later having trouble trouble returning to a smaller hole size.
While the earrings are blunt when compared to a piercing needle they are still pointed, and can cause painful scratches to the delicate skin behind your ear, when caught, pressed or lead on. This perhaps sounds a little insignificant but broken skin near a healing piercing increases the infection risk.
It is also important to note that some people (usually with darker skin tones) are prone to a more aggressive type of scar called a keloid scar which needs medical treatment to be corrected and is quite unsightly. These scars, along with their more benign cousins hypertrophic scarring are most commonly caused by trauma or irritation to a wound, things that gun piercings both seem to suffer more from than regular piercings.
Gun Manufacturing Issues
The guns themselves are also highly inaccurate because of their firing method; there is a ‘bounce’ back effect (like the kick back from any other gun) and the large surface area of the gun ‘nozzle’ makes it hard to see where the gun actually is in relation to the marking. This tends to leave many people with mismatched piercings as the placement will never be as exact as it can be with a needle!
The ear piercing gun itself was originally designed to pierce cows ears (they were originally cattle ear taggers) and were not made to be piercing any body part other than human ear lobes – especially not the thicker and more solid ear cartilage. Even the manufacturers of piercing guns recommend not using them anywhere except ear lobes!
When fired through cartilage the stress placed on the flesh by these studs causes a lot more damage due to the inflexibility of the tissue, making the piercing much more prone to complications while healing. The thin earring used in a gun can also cut into the tissue in a ‘cheesewire’ effect and cause rejection. What is worse though is that the trauma from a gun to the upper ear is similar to what boxers endure in the ring and can cause cauliflower ear, where the cartilage comes apart from the tissue supplying it with nutrients and dies, causing deformed swelling resembling a cauliflower.
All of this is actually leading to a much wider piercing problem because piercing is very popular and it is easier and cheaper for a retailer to use a gun.
When you pierce with a gun you do not need any of the sterilising or safety equipment that body piercers in a studio need. Additionally, the gun earrings are much cheaper than the jewellery used with a needle piercing (3 or 4 times less in fact) leaving a wider profit margin. The guns themselves are often supplied with cheap, quick, training courses or DvDs too meaning retailers can start earning money as quickly as possible.
Consequently, it can be argued that this is attributing to a large rise in botched body piercings as more people start piercing without really knowing much about it. Sometimes it falls to other body piercers using their time, money and expertise to help sort out piercing mistakes and problems or not for profit organisations such as ourselves.
A much larger problem, however, is the strain that this is putting on the NHS and other hospital services with a reported 1/4 of people with a body piercing running into complications and seeking medical help (as per this BBC Article), a worrying trend that we believe could be avoided with both proper research and preparation and proper training and equipment.
Solutions from the Manufactures.
The manufacturers of the ear piercing gun have tried to address some of these issues by releasing a piercing gun which is operated by a squeeze-handle rather than a coiled spring. It’s push-force method is safe for use on cartilage as well as ear lobes and the problem of piercing misplacement has been solved. The design of this gun means that no part of the reusable gun handle comes into contact with the skin, reducing the contamination problem.
However, since the handle is still reused, it does not eliminate the contamination issue altogether because any contact from the hand touching the handle to the piercing site can potentially still transfer contaminates left behind from previous piercings as this gun still cannot be autoclaved.
In a small study from BME found that these guns often became ‘locked’ after firing, or didn’t manage to get all the way through the flesh, and left the stud stuck half way in – causing a need to touch the piercing site in order to remove the gun and so facilitating contamination from the handle.
It also still takes a lot of force to get the stud through the tissue, so extra damage is still caused by the blunt stud being forced through – it’s like trying to push a nail into wood by hand; it will go in eventually but it’s likely to cause the wood to splinter a little under the pressure as it does so.
These guns can be used for nose piercings. However the nostril studs are straight like an earring rather than bent or curved like normal nostril jewellery. This can be uncomfortable to wear as the pointed end can dig into the sensitive septum tissue on the other side. The stud is also wider at one end than the other to keep it in. The piercing heals around the smaller end, meaning to get the wider end out you have to (often painfully) stretch the piercing. This can cause the piercing to become reopened and damaged as piercings are not considered strong enough to be stretched until 6 months after they have healed.
Sadly, although improvements are being made, the jewellery in these guns is still generic, the people using them undertrained, not working in hygienic situations or with the right blood borne pathogens training. The blunt stud still causes bruising and damage, still has a butterfly back (for ears) and still comes in poor jewellery materials. A lot of body piercers, therefore, are starting to boycott guns and choosing to pierce ear lobes at a relative loss in order to compete with retail pricing and give people a safer alternative to the piercing gun. For more information on where we are and our age limits on ear piercings please click here.
Its worth saying that the right kind of gun, used correctly in the hands of a knowledgeable professional can give you a perfectly fine piercing. Its all about what you want from the experience and what risks you are happy to take, after all hundreds of people manage just fine every year with gunned piercings. However, we believe that the choice should be an informed one which is why we have written this guide.
There are plenty of risks, pitfalls and issues when it comes to needle piercings from a parlor too. Just because its a needle doesn’t make it automatically good! To get a more rounded view on this debate and to compare the dangers of gun piercing to that of being a pierced in a studio it is worth reading this guide on the risks hidden in studios.