Rings Are Not the Devil

The main focus of my blog is to discuss the very basics of body piercing.  There are people who write beautifully about health and safety issues. There are websites and Tumblr pages with superb photos of jewelry and piercings. That isn't this blog. I'm the guy that writes about nostril piercings for the better part of two years. If this blog were a basketball coach, it would have you running lay-up drills all day long.
Any excuse for a Larry Bird photo is a good excuse.

I want to address the challenges and benefits of piercing with rings, and compare and contrast them with barbells and curved barbells.  Much of this will seem rudimentary, but it will give us the basis on which to address the shades of grey involved in jewelry selection.  Spelling the basics out will hopefully lead us toward tackling bigger issues.

As a piercer, there are opportunities to draw a clear line in the sand between “correct” and “incorrect”.  I can very easily point to sterile jewelry as a necessity, and unsterilized jewelry as unsafe.
Separating issues in body piercing as "yes or no" questions simplifies our jobs. Piercers are constantly weighing lots of different variables: placement, materials, skin prep, technique, and so on.  We crave simple answers because there are enough complicating factors in our work already.

To put it bluntly: Piercers really like “always” and “never”... we hate “sometimes”.

Unfortunately, piercers often try to force the square peg of a complicated idea into the round hole of "right or wrong".  In my opinion: that’s lazy.  Pretending the complex is actually simple doesn’t really benefit anyone. The piercing community needs to allow itself to admit what many piercers already know: sometimes rings in fresh piercings are okay.  

What’s worse, and this is a very unpopular opinion: sometimes rings are the better option for fresh piercings.

Anyone who started piercing in the 1990’s or earlier is thinking “duh”,  but many of our younger colleagues are scandalized by this notion.

(For what it’s worth… we were wrong about plenty in the 90’s.)

Rings are curvy.

Bear with me.  Obviously, rings have a curvature.  How curvy they are depends on the diameter of the ring.  Maybe you've never considered that. The smaller the diameter of the ring, the more curve a piercing has to contend with. The Large Hadron Collider is an enormous underground circle... It is such a big ring that the curvature is barely noticeable. This plays into our size selection, and influences our decision if a ring is appropriate at all.

Any excuse for a Large Hadron Collider photo is a good excuse.

Let’s take a piece of tissue, for example: an ear lobe.  This particular ear lobe is 3/16ths of an inch ( ~4.75mm) thick.  In general, the curvature of a ring is irritating to the tissue unless it is at least double the thickness of the tissue in diameter.  (I love that Imperial measurements actually are helpful here) 3/16ths of tissue requires at least 3/8ths diameter rings.  Any smaller in diameter is irritating to the tissue, because the curvature of the ring is too small.

Every good piercer has a really bad piercer within a 15 minute drive from them. It's a law of nature, I suppose.  Those good piercers tend to see a lot of nipple piercings from that bad piercer with small rings in them.  Those nipples are irritated and, in many cases, the jewelry is growing out.  Why? Bad piercers have an almost uncanny ability of putting exactly the wrong sized rings in nipples.  I don't know why, but 14g 7/16ths rings in nipples (regardless of the size of the nipple) is the calling card of the local bad piercing studio. The curvature of rings that size usually is not a problem for small male nipples. Larger nipples (usually female) can't handle rings that size. They put pressure on the channel of the piercing, which causes irritation and migration.

Too Deep, Too Small

Let’s take a nipple that measures 3/8ths of an inch across for example.  The smallest diameter ring you could conceive of putting in that piercing is 3/4inch (~19mm).  More likely that nipple would need 7/8inch (~22mm) or larger, and no client wants a door knocker on their breast.  Also, rings that diameter cause other problems (more on that later).  

If you are reading this blog and aren't sure if you are the culprit, there's an easy test. When you put rings in nipples, do they stick straight out at first (instead of hanging naturally with gravity)? Those rings are far too small, or you are piercing in the areola, or both.  Stop it.

Nipple piercings have taught good piercers that barbells are better, because properly sized rings are aesthetically displeasing (and can cause additional problems). Barbells genuinely are the best choice... On nipples.

Good piercers, unfortunately, have developed a false binary from these experiences.  That being rings=bad, barbells=good. Many don’t make the connections as to why rings don’t work well in this particular instance, but barbells do. They see the results, and they draw far-reaching conclusions based on them.

The gauge of the ring you pierce with matters a LOT.

Thin rings are irritating to tissue.  Thin rings have a “sharpness” to them.  Often times our clients want both thin jewelry and small diameter. Should they choose to ignore our advice and change their jewelry to something inappropriate anyway... We get to see how the combination of small diameter and thin gauge rings can ruin good piercings.  

In the bad old days of body piercing, the truly worst shops would try to buy as little jewelry as possible. If they could buy two hundred 14 gauge 7/16ths rings at a discount, they were putting 14 gauge 7/16ths rings in as many piercings as possible.

What's frustrating about this approach is that their results were not always as terrible as you'd imagine. Those awful piercer's female nipple piercings were complete disasters, sure.  But in the rare case they talked someone into a nostril or helix piercing with one of these rings, the results were, for better or worse, a surprisingly healed piercing.

Aesthetically, a ring that size in an average nostril piercing is a pretty bad look. On the other hand, the gauge is thick enough that the curvature of the ring isn't too irritating. Add to that the diameter of the ring is so big, thin nostril tissue hardly recognizes that the jewelry is curved. These shops weren't doing aesthetically sound, safe, or well thought out work. Despite all that they fell ass-backwards into a situation that worked out more often than we would like to admit.

The opposite side of this example is 20 gauge rings. I love the look of 20 gauge rings in healed nostril piercings. I don't start with them, though. They are simply too thin. Thin gauge jewelry acts like a cheese cutter in piercings, especially when it's curved, even if the diameter is correct. We are making straight channels through tissue with our piercing needles. Rings put pressure on the center of the piercing channel and on the entrance and exit. The thinner the ring, the "sharper" it is. This irritates the channel, usually resulting in irritation bumps and problematic healing.
This nostril desperately needed to be started with straight jewelry

Rings and barbells can BOTH get caught, hooked or pressed on, and that motion can irritate a piercing or cause it to drift.

Rings get a bad rap for this, but it isn't totally undeserved.

Firstly, rings naturally push up on the center of a piercing channel and press down on the sides. This means if you pierce with a ring that is ever so slightly too small, the channel heals with a curve in it which also causes the piercing to appear lower than it really is.


Secondly, all piercings get pressed against or slept on. We can lecture our clients all day long, but let's be honest: sometimes trying to avoid sleeping on a piercing isn't successful. Everyone has woken up sleeping directly on their healing piercing at some point. In the case of a conch piercing healing with a ring, this can be extremely irritating, as the ring acts like a lever and puts pressure directly on the healing channel of the piercing.

This is especially true on female nipple piercings, and you are probably familiar with what happens with rings on larger breasted clients. All the pressure from her bra forces the ring towards the surface of her nipple, and it can result in the piercing migrating through the nipple.

So checkmate, right? Rings are bad.


Rings have a natural balance that barbells do not.
Let's imagine, for a moment, that we aren't piercing a conch or a lobe, but rather a 1/4 inch piece of cardboard.

You have your choice of jewelry, but you have to do two things. First, you have to pierce the cardboard as if it will swell. Secondly, the cardboard is going to be taken on a long, off road car ride after you pierce it, and you will measure how damaged the hole you've made is after the trip.

Because the barbell can shift forward or back, and end up having a heavy side, the cardboard is more damaged by a barbell style than an appropriately sized ring.
Rings, when placed appropriately, distribute gravity evenly. There isn't a heavy side like there can be with a barbell.

In addition, even when piercing with a barbell, a ring can help us discover the natural balance of the tissue.  Using a ring as a tool is usually referred to as using a “Size/Placement Ring” or SPR for short.  I have a lot to say about those… but that’s for another blog.

We see balance issues happen with ear cartilage piercings of all kinds. If the client isn't committed to downsizing their jewelry after the initial swelling process, barbells and flatbacks often drift.

Many piercers have good ways of preventing this barbell drift. Larger gauges can mediate the bodies willingness to let barbell styles drift. Large disk flatbacks for initial piercings seem to be a safer bet than small disks or balls.  I'm fond of Lexci Elizabeth's technique of pushing flatback jewelry forward, letting the flatback absorb and distribute the gravity of the jewelry. The disk constantly distributing the pressure on the back of the ear can cause a sore spot on especially sensitive skinned people, though.

We are left with a quandary in this situation. Do we pierce with a ring, and cause the client to heal with all the problems that come with rings, just because the ring distributes its’ weight load so well? Or do we pierce with a flatback, ask our client to keep it pushed forward (which they hate) and come in for downsizing regularly... Hoping they actually do follow up?

What the client wants as a finished product can sometimes dictate jewelry selection

We know from experience a lot depends on the end result we are hoping for.  Occasionally a piercer will make the mistake of piercing an industrial with rings initially, only to switch to a barbell later. Because rings have this natural balance, they settle into place and end up having the wrong angle for the intended barbell.

In contrast, if you pierce a conch with a barbell, hoping to put a ring in after the fact, many times the barbell shifts and the ring you wanted to put in pulls forward or back.
Not my best Illustrator work.  Give me a break.
Let’s take a look at rook piercings:  The traditional rook placement for a curved barbell is a little higher, and a little shallower, than the placement for rings.  In this instance, it is silly to be overly committed to a jewelry style.  If the client wants a ring, then they should be pierced for a ring: and if rings are a bit tougher to heal, so be it.

This is my wife's ear.  I started the rook piercings with 18g 5/16 captive bead rings, and she has since swapped to 18g 1/4 gold seam rings (shown here)

Attempts to pierce so that both styles of jewelry are appropriate can be successful, but are often failures.  

We are essentially stuck between a rock and a hard place. There isn't a glaringly right or wrong answer in my estimation. Much of the responsibility falls on the client. What do they want to wear? Do they understand the responsibility they are taking on with either option? I believe it's essential to really consider all of the options and consequences with an open mind and then guide your client through accordingly.

Rings can accommodate for more swelling than a barbell can.

We've all been there: we perform a piercing with an appropriate amount of space for swelling, and the client throws a curveball at us. They swell. Lots.

In the best case scenario, they get back to us and we accommodate with longer jewelry (at their expense? At ours? What's the ethical choice in this instance?)
The red indicates swollen, angry tissue.  Not barbecue sauce.

Appropriately sized rings seldom have this problem. Why? The tissue can actually double in size before the amount of room on the ring is exhausted. The likelihood of that happening unless accompanied by genuine infection is very small.
Ok maybe it looks more like barbecue sauce.
Rings are often times the better option for piercings.

Septums and Prince Albert piercings. Not a lot in common, is there?

Well, both heal really well with rings and circular barbells. This tends to be true of very, very thin tissue.  Thin tissue easily tolerates the curvature of the ring, but also seems to benefit from the natural balance of a ring.

In my experience with Prince Albert piercings, they really seem to do poorly if they are started with anything but ring shaped jewelry. Curved barbells are a popular option once healed, but seem to irritate fresh Prince Albert piercings. In this rare instance, it seems like curved barbells aren't curved enough.

Septums with straight barbells or (yuck) curved barbells suffer for looking silly, and also having that balance beam issue. Round jewelry (or the hybrid retainer) are the option for Septums.

Pictured above: significantly more fun than a septum with a straight barbell.

Inner labia piercings have a tendency to stretch as they heal. Barbells in inner labia will cause excess stretching and even fall out when the hole is big enough to fit the barbell ball through. Again, inner labia skin is very thin, and it seems like very thin tissue like this does well with rings.

My guess is, if you are reading this blog, the idea that you should pierce a septum with a ring isn't astonishing. So how does this discussion help?

I think we can apply this knowledge to other piercings that can, ahem, sometimes heal very well with rings.

When a client of mine wants a ring in his or her nose, I check to see if their nose is thin enough to handle it. I prefer the thickness of the nose to be just less than half the diameter of the ring (5/32 thick, 3/8ths ring). I discuss thicker gauges and larger diameters. If his understanding of the risks lines up with complimentary anatomy, we can pierce with a ring.  If a client comes in with a very thick nostril, I rule rings out and explain that no ring I put in would be appropriate for their particular anatomy.

You need to understand the tissue you are piercing, and why a jewelry style is appropriate

I have addressed this quite a bit in my nostril blog, but I'll broaden things a bit.

When I started piercing, all piercings around the edge of the ear that weren't ear lobe piercings were called "ear cartilage" or "ear rim" piercings. Over time, the term "helix" became popular for ear rim piercings. I prefer this term, because it brought to light another distinction. The helix is the thin, curvy edge of the ear, the scapha is the thick, ear "flat". Scapha and helix piercings behave differently because they are different.  
(Illustration source: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outer_ear#/media/File:Gray904.png)

Scapha piercings are thicker than helix piercings. Because of this, they heal and look better with flatbacks.
Helix piercings, on the other hand, can (and will) heal very well with rings.  

They need to be pierced with thick enough rings that have large enough diameter, but they also need to be pierced through thin helix tissue. Barbells pierced in the same location as rings on helix piercings tend to "see-saw" and drift.

We also see this distinction on the forward helix. For years, I pierced these with rings with excellent results. When I tried to put barbells in these piercings, even when healed... Disaster. Piercing the forward helix with a ring necessitates a parallel angle to the head. Flatbacks, on the other hand, are pierced nearly perpendicular. This is an in-depth discussion to have with a client, and they often don't understand how their initial jewelry choice drastically affects the finished product.

The economics of jewelry selection

Occasionally clients will pick jewelry, not based on what they like, or what will heal best, but rather on what is cheapest. Rings involve much less work to produce, and are considerably less expensive than flatbacks or barbells that are appropriate for the same piercing.

As piercers, we know why this is the case and why this decision needs to be made based on the long term consequences, not the price.

I think this has unfairly biased us piercers against rings. It really tries our patience to see a client make the wrong decision, get a piercing at an angle that will only look good for rings, and then puts in a barbell months later that looks wrong. When a piercing that looks off leaves the shop, even if it isn't our fault, we feel like our reputation is dinged.

The "barbells only" philosophy got us past this discussion. We think we know our clients are picking rings for all the wrong reasons. Forcing them to start with barbells means we don't have to explain to them the complicated details and differences between these jewelry options and the resulting placement issues. Although this genuinely makes our jobs easier, I’m not sure it makes us better piercers. I believe being a better piercer is actually the more important goal.

There are no easy answers. I wish there were, but there aren't. It would be nice to put a chart up that said "Always/Sometimes/Never" with a list of every piercing underneath it. I actually considered it for a moment, but I don't think it could really be considered accurate. The truth is, many of these decisions are a case by case situation, informed by our experience, the client's anatomy and their wishes in the future.

What I wouldn't want to result from this blog entry is piercers throwing rings in any fresh piercing just to stick it to popular opinion. Rather, I'd like to see piercers put on their critical thinking caps and really suss out for themselves where and when a ring might be a good decision. I'm looking forward to further discussion and a better understanding of the topic in years to come.

Creative Commons License
Rings Are Not The Devil by Jef Saunders is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

As of 2017 I now pierce full time at Gamma Piercing in Ann Arbor, Michigan! Please visit our website or stop by and say hello!