Stretching or Gauging Piercing
Just about any piercing can be stretched with patience and a gradual increase in the thickness or gauge of the jewelry. Stretching a piercing can not only change the look of a piercing but can also change how the piercing feels. Also stretching a piercing can teach you a lot about how your body heals and just how adaptable the human body is. For this weeks installment of my piercing facts, I figured I'd dive into some of the most common concerns, methods used, questions I'm asked, risks to stretching a piercing, Jewelry and a little bit about the history.
Before I get into the meat of this, I'd like to address a minor peeve of mine. When you increase the size of a piercing hole, you are not gauging the piercing, you are stretching the piercing. Every time I hear the word "gauging" it make me cringe a bit, in much the same way that a Tattoo Artist does when they hear the words, "Tat", "Tattooing Gun" or "Tattooer". I know I shouldn't let it bug me but how the word "gauge" is used in piercing it is in the form of a measure like inches or millimeters. In other words it is a noun that is a set weight of measure not in the verb form which is to often the act of accessing or estimating a measurement or condition of something. So when someone asks me to gauge their ears, I can only guess that they are asking me to state the physical size and condition of their ears. When someone says, I had my ears "gauged" or I "gauged" my ears, I figure they have already had someone else or they themselves determined the size and condition of their ears. I often ask these people they "car-ed" here or if they are plaining on "car-ing" home or what they plan on "fooding" or what they "fooded" for lunch? I know that the English language is at fault here but just like the examples I state, it makes you sound ignorant and please stop saying it.
History and Meaning:
Stretching piercings, especially lobe piercings dates back as far as ancient Egypt and the beginning of civilization. King Tutankhamen who ruled Egypt from 1341 to 1323 BC had stretched ear lobe piercings. Even the oldest mummified Ice Man ever discovered, Ötzi the Iceman had lobe piercings that were somewhere between 2g and 000G and he dates back to 3300 BC. The father of Buddism Guatama Buddha also had stretched lobes which are often represented in statues as a reminder of the great wealth that he gave up.
Most Tribal cultures in Africa, Asian and the Americas also stretched their piercing. It was a sign of wealth, age, power, status and wisdom. Often the piercings were done as a rite of the passage into adulthood and then slowly stretched over time. Thus the size of the piercing worked as a sign post to their statues in the tribe and their age. Also piercing and stretched piercings were a way of identifying the tribe that one belonged to. All of this is still practiced in some tribal cultures even today.
With the modern adaption of Body Piercing, the stretching of piercing began to represent the length of time and evolvement in the sub-culture. Much like ancient culture it was a status symbol that represented that you were more involved with the sub-culture of body piercing than a fashion statement. Often bragging rights were gauged not by the number of piercings you had but the size of your piercings. As piercing became more popular and the uses of larger gauge needles, dermal punches, etc... became more wide spread, larger gauge piercings have become more of a fashion statement than a sign of a connection of the piercing subculture. For example, in the early 1990s when I began piercing, it was really rare to see anyone outside of the Body Art industry with jewelry larger that 14g or 12g. By the end of the decade it was not uncommon to see people in their 20s with limited involvement in the industry with 1/2 or 5/8 of an inch lobe piercings. Thus making them a great deal less impressive.
Piercing at large Gauges:
There are a great deal of methods used when stretching piercings or obtaining large gauge piercings. The oldest and what I consider the best is the method of piercing at a smaller gauge and then slowly increasing the thickness of the jewelry over time. The reasoning behind this is tradition but also it tends to create a stronger and more flexible piercing that is less prone to tissue displacement, stretch marks, scarring and other problems. Plus the stretch really represents the individual's determination, dedication and discipline. Think of it this way, anyone can put a large hole in their body and then put a huge piece of jewelry in it and heal it. The whole process takes only a few months but for some one to piercing at a lower gauge and then over a number of years increase the jewelry and stretch the piercing, it say a great deal more about their character. It's kind of like the difference between graduating from High School and dropping out and getting a GED. By taking the fast track and getting a piercing with a 0000g dermal punch, you are cheating yourself out of the experience.
When piercing at extremely large gauges you should consider what you are asking your body to do. First off, a larger hole means a longer healing time. I think it goes without saying that a piercing that is 12g(2mm) is going to require less tissue to be produced then oooog(11mm) since it will be over 5 times larger. This also will effect the time between stretches because the body needs time to produce additional tissue before you can safely stretch to the next size. There is also the added stress of the weight of the jewelry during the piercing. Yes a plug or short piece of wire maybe lighter than a ring would be at that gauge, however it's still heaver than a ring would be at a smaller gauge. Weight can prolong healing and/or cause migration and tearing. Plus often the more trauma to the area the longer the healing.
There is also the question of scarring and weather you wish to have the piercing for the rest of your life. This should be especially considered when using a dermal punch because you are in fact removing a piece of tissue, unlike piercing with a needle which makes a cut in the tissue that the jewelry fits into. With dermal punches and other tools that remove tissue there is an increased likelihood that the tissue will never re-connect and close if you wish to abandon the piercing. You may think that you want plugs the size of hub caps till you die but there might be a time in the future when this could effect your professional and personal life and you will have to pay to have plastic surgeon reconnect the tissue.
When choosing the gauge to pierce at the size of the gauge should be decided on what is going to heal best. Then the size goal should be considered. The strength and health of the piercing will determine how much the piercing can be stretched and how much it will shrink if the jewelry is removed. Think of the gauge of the piercing as the foundation and each stretch as a floor you are adding to the piercing. If the foundation is not strong enough to support the stress, the piercing will fail. In most cases a traditional piercing shouldn't be done above 8g or 6g depending on the jewelry type, the placement of the piercing and the size and shape of the piercing area.
The Point of No Return:
A big risk that I brought up before is the possibility that even if the jewelry is removed and the piercing is allowed to close, the tissue may not reconnect and close. There is no etched in stone size where this will happen, though it is believed that 2g is the point where the body will no longer shrink the piercing and reconnect the tissue. However this is vastly different from piercing to piercing. For example most oral piercing and genital piercing will close if give enough time regardless of the gauge. It really depends how much tissue has grown outward from the body and been effected by the weight and size of the jewelry.
Even when you are healing a smaller gauge piercing the piercing area will increase slightly to allow additional room for the jewelry. It will always do this outwardly and away from the body. It is why with nipple piercings the nipple will be more pronounced after healing then it was before it was pierced. Also ear lobes will increase in size and some piercings that are close to the surface like eyebrows will seem to have a tunnel or raised area that is protruding from the body. When you increase the jewelry size it will also increases the size of the piercing area and how pronounced this is. Also the weight of the jewelry can increase this even more over time, especially in areas of the body where gravity will have a greater effect like ear lobes because not only is it effected by the size but also the pull of the jewelry. This is why heaver jewelry will stretch usually faster and produce a tear drop shaped piercing hole.
You should always think toward the future when you stretch beyond 2g because you may create a situation where a combination of the weight and size of the jewelry will completely change the shape and size of the piercing area. For example the lobe will continue to get longer and longer and the bottom of the piercing further and further away from the lobe. At some point skin will noling be able to shrink back to it's original shape and size. Which will leave you with a loop of loose tissue hanging below the lobe. Just like a t-shirt that the neck has been all stretched out of shape, it have lost its "memory" and will never be the same again without surgical reconstruction.
When to Stretch?:
Too often stretching and healing a fresh piercing are considered two different things but in both causes you are forcing your body to produce tissue it wouldn't normally do. The major difference between the two is, after a piercing is done it is an open wound and prone to infection while during a stretch the piercing is no longer an open wound. When a piercing ends it healing period, during which it is growing a fistula tunnel of tissue around the jewelry, the tissue is tight and thin and prone to tearing or dislodging. To decrease the likelihood of these problems, you body will begin to produce additional tissue, not only to thicken the walls of the tunnel but to pull away from the jewelry to decrease stress. This period is often referred to as the toughening or seasoning period and can take anywhere from the same period of time as the piercing took to heal to 2 or 3 times the healing period. It really depends on how quickly you heal and the size and weight of the jewelry.
When it comes to the end of this period the jewelry will be loose, easy to move and depending on the piercing, you should be able to pull the jewelry away from the body and notice extra space in the piercing tunnel. Often to the point where you can see light. Each time we increase the jewelry we are forcing the body to grow additional tissue and it needs time to do this. Think of the piercing tunnel as a balloon and the air as jewelry, the more air you put into the balloon, the thinner the material becomes and the more pressure there is on the balloon. The smaller the balloon the thinner the material will become and the more likely it will pop. Unlike a balloon, your body is organic and has the ability to produce additional material if you give it the time to do so. If you do not give it the time it needs to produce additional tissue the pressure will be too much and create tears or stretch marks where the tissue is very thin. In both cases it will prolong the time between stretches and increase the likelihood of scarring, infection and other problems.
Even when using a taper pin there should be limited or no force needed to push the pin in and insert the jewelry. If there is then more time maybe needed. Also there should be no pain or very little pain involved. Though it is not uncommon for the piercing to be sore after being stretched. One of the problems with stretching too quickly is that often there are little or no signs of tearing, Since the jewelry is very tight, often there is no bleeding at all. So you really need to pay attention to the signs that your body gives you during a stretch. If it seems extremely painful or hard to get the jewelry in, you may need to stay at the gauge you are at and give your body more time. If there is bleeding you have torn or completely dislodged the piercing and you will have to going through the both healing period and seasoning period before stretching again. Even if there was no bleeding or tearing but it was very painful, there is a chance that you have created a thin area or stretch mark. Though it may not effect the piercing at this point, this thin tissue is not going to be as elastic and flexible when you attempt the next stretch meaning that you may want to drop to a thinner gauge or give your body more time. Otherwise it may tear or dislodge during the next stretch.
There just isn't a set period of time, listen to your body and be patient. Otherwise you will run the risk of scarring, bumps, infection and countless other problems. The best sign is that the jewelry is lose. Especially, when dealing with large gauge jewelry. Waiting until the jewelry will often fall out on its own is a good sign that it's time to stretch.,
Methods of Stretching:
There are a number of methods of stretching a piercing, from the traditional to the extremely intrusive. It's my experience that tapering is the best method. Not only for the reduced likelihood of abuse to the piercing but the quickness of the procedure, less pain and how easily the jewelry can be inserted. A taper pin is a tapered piece of wire ranging in length from 1 1/2 inches to 6 inches depending on the manufacture and the target gauge. One side of the pin will usually be 2 to 4 gauges thinner than the target and then slowly increases to the desired gauge or slightly larger. For example if your target gauge is 0g than the thin side of the taper is often 4 or 5 gauge.
The idea is to slowly increase stretch the piercing and then insert a larger gauge pierce of jewelry in. The procedure can involve a hot soak or compress before to make the piercing tissue more flexible. Then a water based lubricant is placed on the old jewelry and the jewelry is slide back and forth to lubricate the piercing and make removal of the old jewelry easier and less abusive. Then the taper pin is lubricated and pushed through the piercing. Lastly the jewelry is inserted and closed. The procedures only usually takes a few minutes depending on the jewelry type and the stretch with very little force or pain.
In some cases with enough time, the larger jewelry can be inserted without a taper pin. This is often referred to as Dead Stretching, Often done in the shower to increase the flexibility of the piercing. The jewelry is lubricated and slowly forced into the piercing. In most cases this is the only way to get flanged and flared jewelry into the piercing and is why I'm not a be fan of either. This method can cause a great deal of trauma to the piercing cause tearing or dislodging of the piercing.
Maybe the oldest method is weight. Especially with lobe piercings. It's pretty straight forward, just all weight to the pierce and the piercing hole will increase in size. However, the stress of the piercing can result in the piercing migrate, tear, thinning of the tissue or deforming of the piercing area that will require reconstructive surgery.
The teflon tape method is also used, by removing the jewelry and then wrapping it in a layer of non-adhesive or heat shrink tubing. Then the jewelry is reinserted and the procedure is repeated a number of times until the piercing is stretched to the next gauge. If done slowly over a long period there is often limited problems, however there is always the possibility of dislodging or tearing the piercing when inserting the jewelry and also the increased reaction to the tape or tubing.
Similar to the tape method is the uses of talons or circular tapers. Usually the jewelry is held in place with rubber o-ring, Basically the jewelry is pushed through piercing and the o-rings are adjusted to hold the jewelry at the thicker point. It has the same problems of as dead stretching or taping. There is also the temptation to force the jewelry thicker and thicker without giving the body time to produce more tissue. Even with those that are extremely patient and only stretch the piercing slowly, the o-rings tend to slide on their own when the jewelry is caught. The other problem is the piercing will become "cone" shaped with one side being smaller than the other.
Another method is using Silicone plugs. The plugs are squeezed to fit into the piercing and then expand inside the piercing. In theory they will only stretch within the limits of the piercing but since the surface is porous and tacky, the piercing tissue can adhere to the plugs. In some cases creating an air tight lock with the piercing and when the jewelry is removed will completely dislodge the piercing. I would strongly suggest against using them, especially if this fresh piercing. The worst case situation would be that the piercing holes would become blocked and not allow discharge from the piercing which could result in an inward traveling infection or other serious problem.
There are a number of other methods and almost all of them involve cutting or tearing the piercing, creating an open wound and the piercing re-healing again. Almost all of them are a painful short cut that are in fact a piercing or cutting that will require additional healing and likelihood of problems with future stretchings. This would include Schalpeling where you cut the piercing area to allow space for the jewelry, This is done by either cutting one side of an existing piercing, combining two or more piercing or as a fresh piercing.
The other two methods usually involve a new and fresh piercing. The dermal punch cuts out a large circular piece of tissue which is different from a piercing needle that makes a crescent moon shaped cut. The circle shaped razor is pushed through the tissue and then twisted removing a circle shaped piece of tissue. The biggest question is how much this would limit the body to close the piercing if the piercee wishes to abandon the piercing later.
The last method is maybe the most painful. It is the pierce and taper method. First the piercing or schalpeling is done and then a larger gauge taper is forced through the piercing. Thus tearing to created to a larger size. It can be very painful and will more than likely create a great deal of scar tissue. It has also been used with piercing created with dermal punches.
Planning the Stretch, To Pierce or not Pierce:
When I sit down and take to someone who is wanting to stretch a piercing, I first talk about their goal or desired gauge and the amount of time it might take and weather is is possible in the first place. The approach and jewelry suggestion is vastly different from someone that has no piercing and someone that is stretching a set of 10 year old ear piercings. What I try to achieve is a balance between weight, cost and reducing the trauma to the piercing. Also one must consider the placement of an existing piercing and what the effect of stretching the piercing will be.
Whenever possible if there is a well healed and placed piercing, the best option is to stretch. It may take longer and be more costly but often the results in the long run will be better. Plus it will remove the waiting period and the hassle of the healing period. The fact is that stretching the piercing will require less work on the side of the piercee and less risks of infection or other problem. In fact the only real aftercare needed is maybe some hot soaks or compresses a few times a day between stretches.
If this is a new piercing than I suggest piercing at the largest gauge that will produce the least amount of problems. It is my experience that most piercing depending on location and the shape and size of the piercing area can be pierced and healed with limited problems up to 8 gauge. This is largely due to the amount of trauma to the piercing caused by piercing larger and the stress that is caused by the piercing with heavier jewelry. Keep in mind that I do not suggest piercing with plugs at all. This is because they greatly limit the piercing's ability to discharge, block the flow of oxygen and don't allow space for swelling which are all very important during the healing. After the piercing is healed it is not a problem to change the jewelry but your piercing needs the extra space during the healing.
For an example let's say you come in with a set of lobe piercing that you have had for 10 or 12 years and you have only worn ear piercing studs. They are well healed, centered and high enough on the lobe to allow stretching. Your goal is 0g plugs. Since there is a great deal of variety in the wire gauge of ear piercing studs, I'm going to suggest either 16g or 14g to start. To determine which will be best, I will first taper the piercings to 16g and depending on the resistance decide if I think 14g is a better choice. Then I'm going to suggest 2 to 4 months between each stretch, meaning that you should be at your goal in between 14 and 32 months. The other option would be to re-pierce at 8g which I wouldn't suggest stretching to 6g for at least 6 to 8 months and then allow 2 to 4 months between. Which would mean that it will take 14(6 months of healing + 2 months between 4 stretches) to 24(8 months + 4 months between 4 stretches) months. The time isn't really that much different but with the stretch from 14g, you are going to need to buy 3 additional sets of jewelry. Which depending on the jewelry and the market value in your area will range in cost from $20 to $30 each time for basic jewelry but if you consider the cost of the piercing it might be a little more or the same price as piercing at a larger gauge.
On the subject of time, it is never realistic to set time goals for being at a target gauge. Like dieting there is limits to what you body is capable of and they vary greatly from person to person. Also the time period between stretches vary greatly once the thickness of the jewelry begins to drastically increase and it is always better to give your body more time than it needs to grow extra tissue. Just like with healing times most guide lines with time are based on averages but with most piercing I suggest that you wait at least the period of time that it took to heal the piercing before going to the next thickest gauge. So if it took 8 months to heal your nipple, I would suggest waiting at least 8 to 10 months before stretching. However the biggest factor is the state of your piercing.
Just like when you consider jewelry for a fresh piercing there are a number of things that need to be considered when choosing the right jewelry for your needs. It's often better to think of your jewelry as tools and less as fashion accessories. Even in a healed piercing, the jewelry should be comfortable to wear, have the least likelihood to cause stress or abuse to the piercing and be easy to clean. Also weight become a big factor when dealing with larger gauges where the stress caused by the jewelry's weight may produce unwanted results like tearing, migration and thinning of the tissue in the piercing area.
Since ear lobes are the most common stretched piercing, often plugs are the best option once you reach 8g. At that point the weight of circular jewelry becomes noticeably heavier than other jewelry and it is the guage that a majority of plug style jewelry starts. However with piercings on other parts of the body, plugs will work. In those areas standard or curved barbells maybe a better option because of their reduced size and weight.
Plugs and eyelets come in a number of different sizes and are made of a number of different material from metals to organic materials to glass. Often organic, acrylic and glass plugs will be lighter in weight than metal plugs but with organic and acrylic there is always the question of allergic reactions and how abrasive and porous the finish of the jewelry will be. Also there organic jewelry may take additional care including regular cleaning and care to reduce cracking and damage caused by wearing the jewelry. With pyrex glass jewelry there is always the risk of breakage. Though with normal wear the likelihood of this happening is limited.
When Plugs to stretch piercings, I highly suggest avoiding flared or flanged plugs. The main reason it that since the flanged area is often as much as 2 gauges larger than the desired gauge, the piercing must be stretched well beyond the desired gauge. This will increase the risk of tearing or dislodging the piercing. I suggest plugs that are not flanged on both sides and have a o-ring or threaded side. The best case is the style that have a grove for the o-ring to set in to avoid the o-rings sliding off. Once you have reached the gauge that you plan on staying at, I would suggest waiting the normal period of time you would between stretches before inserting flanged plugs. When inserting flanged jewelry there should only be limited pressure needed and it shouldn't be painful. If it is painful or it feels like it is tearing then you need to wait longer before putting it in. One of the other reasons that I'm not a fan of Flanged jewelry is that it tends to fall out once the piercing has loosen but it continues to be the standard for larger gauge jewelry.
If there are no bleeding or signs of the piercing being torn or dislodged, it's safe to say that the piercing is not an open wound and will not need the amount of care that would be needed with a fresh piercing. However you can speed up the producing of new tissue and reduce the likelihood of problems in the future by doing hot soaks or compresses with warm water and sea salt a few times a day. Not only will this help keep the piercing free of foreign objects but it will increase the blood flow to the area and help with the production of new skin. Also it will help to sooth the area and reduce discomfort.
If there was bleeding or other signs of the piercing being torn or dislodge, then you should consider the piercing as an open wound and treat it like a healing piercing. You should also consider reducing the gauge to the jewelry to speed up healing and make sure that the jewelry is a type that will allow for cleaning, the piercing to discharge and for swelling. I'm sorry but you screwed the pooch and will have to start from scratch and will have to wait additional time for the piercing to be healthy enough to stretch again. Also, often reducing the gauge of the jewelry will reduce the likelihood of scarring and "bumps" forming.
What's that smell?
Often with large gauge piercings you will begin to notice a strong odor and chalk like sustenance. Often this is confused with a sign of infection but it isn't. In fact this is in most cases seburn which coats your whole body and along with lubricating hair follicles, it coats your whole body and makes your body water proof. For more information go here. To avoid the collection of seburn, you should wash the piercing with warm water and soap during your normal bathing.
Bacteria can also cause smells, especially with oradl piercings. To avoid this cleaning the jewelry on a regualar bases with your normal oral care will reduce this.
In conclusion, nothing replaces the first hand advice of a well trained and experienced piercer. If you are unsure of weather a piercing can be stretched, what jewelry to use or how to do it, see an expert. Stretching does to a degree lend itself to DIY but often the desire for the big hole is stronger than the constraint needed to wait until the piercing is ready. As always if you have any questions feel free to contact me - DaVo by phone at 515-966-4814 or by e-mail at email@example.com