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Are you cleaning your ear piercings as often as you should? Expert-approved tips and advice

Pierced ears requires more care and attention than you would think.
Vivian Le / TODAY

What seems like a rite of passage when we’re younger is now oftentimes an impulse decision made on a whim. It’s a universal experience to sit in the chair at the mall, clutching a teddy bear, a piercer convincing you what’s about to happen a) won’t hurt, and b) won’t take long.

Getting your ears pierced is similar to getting a pet, meaning it requires more care and attention than you initially think. Once the piercer is finished, they’re your responsibility now. Making sure they don’t get infected, are properly cleaned and maintained is a lifelong commitment (or at least until they close).

As we get older, the itch to get more increases, but now our mothers aren’t here to remind us to clean our lobes before we go to bed. What are the warning signs of an infection? How do I know what products to use to clean them?

We spoke with a dermatologist and a specialist from a piercing shop to answer these questions and more about how to ensure your ears remain safe, clean and infection-free.

How often should you clean piercings? | Infection warning signs and prevention | Products/cleansing agents to avoid Other methods if you have sensitivities to metals | Ear cleaning products | Meet the experts

How often should you be cleaning your ear piercings?

Fairly new piercings should be cleaned everyday, according to Shannon Freed, senior manager of piercing training and operations at Studs. When cleaning, you want to be very thorough and clean both the front and back of the piercing.

Dr. Sophia Reid, a board-certified dermatologist, recommends cleaning piercing sites two to three times a day, at least for the first two to three weeks. Then, weekly cleanings will suffice.

Olivia Ott / TODAY

When cleaning your piercing, there are two very important “don’ts” Freed recommends paying attention to.

“Other than to clean your piercing, avoid touching it as much as possible — do NOT rotate or twist,” she says, adding that “moving, rotating or removing jewelry is absolutely not necessary during cleaning or rinsing.”

Secondly, “avoid using harsh soaps, or soaps with dyes or fragrances.” Your piercer should provide recommendations or have sterile solution available for you to purchase or take home in order to properly clean your piercing with.

Olivia Ott / TODAY

What are the warning signs of infections and how can they be prevented?

Not to be confused with the swelling and redness that might come with the first couple days of having a new piercing, an infected piercing will begin with yellow, crusted skin surrounding it. If the area starts to bleed, that is also a sign of potential infection.

If symptoms do not improve within three to five days, Reid highly recommends making an appointment with a dermatologist to receive the antibiotics necessary to treat it. It is also up to the discretion of the doctor if you should continue wearing jewelry in the area, should the piercing site be infected.

“Infections are likely to occur when bacteria gets trapped in your piercings,” says Freed. “Touching your piercings with dirty hands, or letting your piercings come in contact with dirty pillowcases and headphones are common ways for your piercings to harbor bacteria.”

Washing your hands, regularly cleaning your earbuds, bedding or other items that may come in contact with your piercings are good steps to take to prevent an infection.

Olivia Ott / TODAY

Are there any ingredients/products to avoid when cleaning your ears?

“You should not use alcohol or an alcohol-based cleanser for any open wounds including piercings,” says Dr. Sophia Reid, a board-certified dermatologist. “Alcohol can actually damage the healing skin and slow the healing process.”

When it comes to what you’re using to clean your ears, avoid using anything that could get caught or snagged in your jewelry. Freed recommends non-woven gauze pads or investing in spray sterile saline solution so you don’t have to worry about getting them caught in the first place.

As mentioned above, avoiding soaps with fragrances or dyes helps to prevent infections, while avoiding cotton swabs and pads prevents fibers from sneakily getting caught under the jewelry.

Olivia Ott / TODAY

Should you clean your piercing differently if you're sensitive to certain metals?

If you know that you are allergic or have sensitivities to certain metals, Reid recommends consulting an allergist before getting a piercing if this is a concern.

According to the National Library of Public Health, 17% of women and 3% of men are allergic to nickel, a common metal used to make jewelry. A dermatologist at Mayo Clinic notes that a common allergic reaction to nickel is called allergic contact dermatitis, which simplified is an “itchy rash.”

Reid mentions that if you have prior sensitivity to other metals or ingredients, it’s best to avoid nickel or jewelry that isn’t specifically made for sensitive skin. Also, it doesn’t hurt to consult an allergist and have a test done.

Mayo Clinic suggests purchasing hypoallergenic jewelry to prevent allergic reactions or jewelry made from “nickel-free stainless steel, surgical-grade stainless steel, titanium, 18-karat yellow gold or nickel-free yellow gold and sterling silver.”

Ear cleaning products to shop

Johnson & Johnson Gauze Pads

Gauze pads come highly recommended by Reid and Freed because the fibers won’t get caught behind the ears or in the jewelry. These pads in particular were crafted with the brands patented quilt-like fabric, ensuring moisture-wicking features.

Sterile Saline Wipes

An easy solution compared to cotton balls or pads, these disposable wipes are travel-friendly and make cleaning your ears anything but a chore. With 24 packets included, you’ll be good for a couple of weeks when your piercings are fairly new, then you’ll only need to restock every few months.

Nailmed Fine Mist Saline Spray

Both Reid and Freed recommend cleaning the piercing site with either a saline spray or a non-woven gauze product that won’t get caught in the piercing or your skin. This bestselling fine mist spray can do so in any direction, unlike spray bottles that don’t work when placed upside down. This helps with getting the backside and underneath the piercing, to better clean the site.

Reviewers enjoy this solution because it’s an “absolute game changer for sensitive skin,” as it doesn’t irritate it.

Meet the experts

  • Shannon Freed is the senior manager of piercing training and operations at Studs, an ear piercing studio and jewelry seller with locations in cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Nashville.
  • Dr. Sophia Reid is a board-certified dermatologist with offices in New Jersey and Maryland. She’s also a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology, American Society for Dermatologic Surgery and Skin of Color Society.