The piercing gun. They are unanimously reviled within the professional piercing industry, and are an area of hot debate. It is quite an emotional subject for a lot of us. But why are piercing guns so bad, and why are there petitions by piercers to get them banned in the UK?
I want to preface this by saying that there will be no mention of piercing gun brands, or shops that use them in this post. This is not a callout post, or an emotionally-driven piece of slander. I will be talking specifically about the gun itself and the mechanism by which it pierces, and about the general standard of hygiene and training that surrounds the piercing gun. This is an educational article above all else.
Pros of Piercing Guns
If piercing guns are so unanimously hated, there must be a good reason why they are still used in a lot of places.
The obvious pro of a piercing gun is the speed at which the piercing is performed. The piercing gun forces the jewellery through, and the butterfly backing is pushed on in the same motion. The whole thing may take less than a second. For some people, this might be seen as a major bonus.
The other obvious pro for any business owner is that the piercing gun can be used with minimal training. You don’t need to train your staff on how to reprocess tools or how to use clamps, cannulas or blade needles, or anything surrounding bevel theory. This means that the worker using the piercing gun is a much more affordable option than hiring a fully trained piercer and either installing a sterilisation room or going fully disposable with blade needle piercings. Piercing guns and their associated cartridges are incredibly cheap, and so the profit margin of that business can be substantially increased.
Cons of Piercing Guns
Piercing guns do often come with instructions, so the piercing itself can be performed using the gun. These instructions are just for how to discharge the gun cartridge though, and nothing else. Aside from this, there seems to be huge discrepancies between stores of the same company in regards to training. Some employees describe a week’s worth of training and lots of practice, and others say that the piercing gun was thrust into their hands on their first shift. Either way, there are simply not enough hours in the day to learn everything there is to know about piercing safety and hygiene within one week. This training often excludes bloodborne pathogen training completely, which should be cause for concern for anyone. As piercers, we are exposed to bloodborne contamination on a daily basis, and the amount of training we do in order to safely work in that environment is extreme. We recertify this training every single year. Bloodborne pathogens have been known to have been spread by untrained staff using piercing guns, (W.E Keene, 2004). In this incident, Pseudomonas aeruginosa was spread between at least 18 clients. This is down to a lack of training in regards to simple cross-contamination – Something you learn on your first day at any quality studio. It was lucky that this incident involved only a bacterial strain. If one of those clients had HIV or another bloodborne illness, then the story could have been much more tragic. This is one of many reasons we work using ‘Universal Precautions,’ where we assume every single client has a bloodborne pathogen.
Aside from the healthcare side of training, the physical skill of piercing cannot be taught with a piercing gun. Rule number one of piercing is to get that piercing straight, and perpendicular to the tissue. With a piercing gun you may as well close your eyes while piercing – The angle at which the piercing comes out is down to luck more than anything. A badly angled piercing has little chance of ever healing. Why leave that to chance?
The piercing gun is often made from a hard plastic casing, with the spring-loaded system tucked inside. This plastic case is not autoclave safe, which means that if an attempt was made to sterilise it, the gun would melt. This shows that the piercing gun is not being sterilised or cleaned between clients. The fact that any item is reused between clients without proper reprocessing is a cause for intense concern. The guns are normally wiped down with an alcohol-based disinfectant which is ineffective at killing pathogens such as Pseudomonas spp. and Staphylococcus spp. This contamination is easily spread from person to person, and this is especially concerning given the increasing resistance of these bacterial species to antibiotics, (Begeurie & Petersen, 2017.) This recent paper discusses a case in which a scaffold piercing was performed using a piercing gun, and a Pseudomona aeruginosa infection was confirmed by the hospital after 48 hours. This infection was strongly resistant to frontline antibiotics. Not only this, but the transmission of bloodborne infections such as Hepatitis have been noted as a risk when reusing piercing guns, (Tweeten et al, 1998.)
Piercing guns use blunt force to tear a hole in the tissue with the end of the jewellery. This causes excessive swelling which the jewellery cannot allow for, vastly increasing the risk of embedding.
As Rogue is a science-led studio, we need to use scientific papers in order to form opinions. Everyone has seen those videos of needles vs piercing gun studs, but unless there is data to compare the two then the exercise is meaningless. There is only one paper to read when discussing piercing gun trauma, which is that written by van Wijk et all in 2008. In the past this paper has been used to prove that gun piercings and needle piercings are equally as traumatic. However, on in-depth reading, this becomes hard to believe. The study actually proves the opposite.
This paper is the only one to perform actual, real-world experiments testing the hypothesis that ear piercing guns cause excessive trauma. The summary is interesting, to say the least. There is a lot to unpick.
Firstly, it’s important to know that the gauge of a piercing gun earring is 24g or 0.8mm. The average cannula needle is 16g or 1.2mm. It is interesting that even with this size difference, the trauma caused was the same. To quote the original paper, “A comparison between the different piercing methods did not show any significant difference in perichondrial damage, total chondral tears or chondral shattering, despite the fact that the design and diameter of the tip of the piercing instrument varied greatly, as well as the force applied to pierce the ear.” This means that the cannula needle was FAR LESS traumatic than a piercing gun earring. In other words, if the cannula needle was the same gauge as the earring, it would be vastly less traumatic when compared to the earring. This brings me on to the kicker of this argument…
The paper goes on to note that a much better method of piercing might involve a highly sharp needle that was the same diameter as the jewellery that is inserted thereafter. “…The fact that the needle, having a much larger diameter than the other studs, showed the same amount of damage suggests that the best results can be expected from a sharp piercing instrument with a relatively small diameter. Maybe results of the needle piercings can be improved by removing the (relatively blunt) i.v. catheter, to introduce the stud in the needle instead.” The blade needle fits this exact description! This paper was written in 2008, and the scientists involved had no concept or knowledge of blade needles, tapers, needle blanks, or unaided transfer. Although this paper compared guns and cannula needles, it still proves that blade needles are the best in terms of reducing trauma to the tissue.
In addition to all of this, there is one more important thing to note. These experiments were performed on cadavers. This was noted in the discussion section of the original paper, and means that a lot of the arguments both for and against piercing guns cannot use this paper as evidence. The study is unable to follow through with any wound healing, jewellery sensitivities, or infections caused by each method.
To conclude this section, piercing guns do cause excessive trauma which causes excessive swelling. Blade needles are the least traumatic piercing method, and I hope you can all appreciate that extra smoothness when being pierced at Rogue!
The jewellery used in piercing guns is low quality. There is no way around this. The design itself is poor. These items are designed to be manufactured as cheaply as possible, with little regard for the safety of the person who has to wear them.
The standard piercing gun earring is 24g or 0.8mm thick, which is way too thin to produce a stable fistula. If you have issues with gun piercings constantly trying to close up, then this may be the reason why.
Aside from those guidelines setup by the UKAPP, there are almost no laws covering the metals used in piercing gun earrings. Often these are some alloy of ‘stainless steel’ or ‘Gold plated.’ These metals are not safe to wear in piercings and, when exposed to fluids such as blood and lymph and the heat of the human body, will quickly degrade. The butterfly-back clasp at the back of the earring is a magnet for filth. These clasps quickly get encrusted with dried blood, lymphatic fluid, sweat, and shed skin cells. This will quickly begin to decay at body temperature and is a hub for infection.
The surface finish of gun jewellery is incredibly poor. This rough texture allows debris and bacteria to build up quickly and increases risks of infection, (Tweeten et al, 1998.) The roughness also means that the healing fistula can grow into the jewellery, meaning that the jewellery is physically stuck to your skin. This is why you are advised to twist gun jewellery- To tear the fistula off the jewellery itself. This is obviously extremely traumatic to a fragile piercing and significantly extends your healing time. The body jewellery used at Rogue and other high-end studios is verified implant-grade and is designed to be easily cleaned, with a mirror-finish. This is jewellery that can last a lifetime of wear.
Finally, and most importantly, gun jewellery is ‘One size fits none.’ What we mean by this is that the jewellery has no room for swelling, which means that the chances of the tissue swelling over the jewellery and embedding within it is all too high, (Muntz et al, 1990. Wang et al, 2017. Macgregor, 2001.) Here at Rogue we have lost count of the number of butterfly backs we have had to remove from inside people’s ears. I have had personal experience of this with my first ever lobe piercings which were done many years ago with a gun – It is not fun. At all.
More important than all of the above is the aftercare advice often distributed by shops that use piercing guns. You may be familiar with this. Twist the jewellery twice a day, clean with aggressive chemicals such as surgical spirits, TCP, and/or tea tree oil. The aftercare advice is incredibly harsh and outdated. It causes more harm than good. Good aftercare should be gentle and not disturb the natural healing process. This can be read up on here, and a more in depth discussion is found here.
So there you have it. All the pros and cons of piercing guns. You will note that the single pro of a piercing gun to the client, its speed, can be matched by a skilled piercer. You’ll know this if you have ever been pierced by Aiden! The other benefits of a piercing gun are only felt by the owner of the establishment, who can increase their profit margins by using untrained staff and cheap guns to make money. The cons, well. They speak for themselves.
Beguerie, J.R. and Petersen, A., 2017. Pseudomona Chondritis and Ear Piercing Pseudomona and Piercing.
Keene, W.E. (2004). Outbreak of Pseudomonas aeruginosa Infections Caused by Commercial Piercing of Upper Ear Cartilage. JAMA, [online] 291(8), p.981. Available at: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/198238 [Accessed 26 May 2021].
Macgregor, D.M., 2001. The risks of ear piercing in children. Scottish medical journal, 46(1), pp.9-10.
Muntz, H.R., Cui PA-C, D.J. and Asher, B.F. (1990). Embedded earrings: a complication of the ear-piercing gun. International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology, [online] 19(1), pp.73–76. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/016558769090197Y [Accessed 26 May 2021].
Tweeten, S.S.M. and Rickman, L.S., 1998. Infectious complications of body piercing. Clinical Infectious Diseases, 26(3), pp.735-740.
**van Wijk, M.P., Kummer, J.A. and Kon, M. (2008). Ear piercing techniques and their effect on cartilage, a histologic study. Journal of Plastic, Reconstructive & Aesthetic Surgery, [online] 61, pp.S104–S109. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1748681507003348 [Accessed 26 May 2021].
Wang, T.C. and Chan, K.C., 2017. An embedded earring backing in the tragus. Ear, Nose & Throat Journal, 96(7), pp.236-239.