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The Healing Piercing – The Cellular Level

Caring for a healing piercing is straightforward, but requires patience. I think one of the most common questions we get as a studio is, “Wait, it takes how long to heal??” There is a huge amount of misinformation around piercings that says you can heal and change piercings in as little as 3 weeks. As much as we all wish that was the case, it’s simply not true! I think the easiest way to dispel this myth is to educate our clients on the full healing process from a scientific point of view. We will be discussing fresh piercings, so be aware there will be photos of fresh piercings that contain small amounts of blood.

The skin is a complex net of cells all working together to provide protection, structure and nutrients to the surrounding tissue. When damaged by a procedure such as a piercing, it undergoes three sequential and gently overlapping stages of healing. Our bodies are fantastic healers, and when these stages are allowed to happen as normal we can be healing piercings with little to no problem.

Phase 1- The Inflammatory Phase.

Inflammation is the first phase of healing. It is technically made up of two seperate things that work side by side to help you heal quickly! The inflammatory phase begins almost immediately after your piercing and can last between 3-6 days.

The first thing that happens is ‘Platelet Hemostasis.’ This simply means that the fresh wound will begin to clot almost immediately! Platelets are the second most common cell type found in your blood. When activated by an injury, they stick together to form a plaster over your new piercing which stops contaminants from outside the body getting in, and your blood getting out. 

The other thing that happens is inflammation, hence the name! The first responder to a piercing is your peripheral nervous system, which gives you the sensation of pain and more importantly begins the process of inflammation! Stimulation of the peripheral nerves allows them to release specific neuropeptides (proteins specific to the nervous system) into the tissue surrounding your new piercing. These neuropeptides have three main targets of action. First, they act on your blood vessels to dilate them and stimulate better blood flow. Second, they target the cells in your blood capillary walls to make them more permeable- this lets important things like water and immune cells enter the area around the tissue more easily. Thirdly, they stimulate your Mast Cells to degranulate. Mast cells are immune cells that live in your connective tissue and are full of important chemicals like histamines and enzymes. When they are stimulated to ‘degranulate,’ they release all of these chemicals into their surrounding area to facilitate swelling and to attract other immune cells to the area from your bloodstream.

This triple helix project perfectly displays the inflammatory phase. This photo was taken about 30 minutes after piercing, and you can see mild redness and swelling beginning to form. Jewellery includes a BVLA Slasher, available to purchase here.

All of these things work together to bring about inflammation! “Inflammation” is thrown around as a scary word, but it is really important to the healing process! Without it, your immune cells wouldn’t be able to access the piercing site as quickly and the whole healing process would be slowed down. This is why we pierce with slightly longer labrets- To allow for this important inflammation.

Phase 2- The Proliferative Phase

The proliferative phase is the second thing that happens to a new healing piercing. This phase starts after about two days and lasts about 4-6 weeks. Proliferation is the phase in which the piercing truly begins to ‘heal.’ It has three parts. 

First, Fibroplasia begins. This simply means that Fibroblast cells found living in your connective tissue begin to work on the piercing site to produce a secure structure on which new cells can grow. Fibroblasts produce collagen, which is woven into a new matrix that supports the healing wound.

While this is happening, re-epithelialisation occurs and new skin cells begin to grow on the collagen matrix to surround and protect the fistula (internal hole) of your piercing. 

 As well as this, angiogenesis begins- This means that new blood vessels are grown to feed the cells working on healing your piercing! This is triggered by cells sensing the lack of oxygen surrounding them due to the minor damage to blood capillaries, which then release specific angiogenic growth factors to stimulate new blood vessel growth. Neat, right? Without this process, your piercing would be starved of oxygen and nutrients and would not heal very well.

This photo was taken immediately after piercing, and you can see we have given this client plenty of space to swell and heal properly without complications. You can’t easily heal a piercing with such a long labret though, which is why downsizing is so important!
Here you can see the same piercing downsized after 4 weeks. A snug fit reduces snags and knocks, and can be more comfortable slept on to avoid bumps. This is the best thing for a healing piercing!

This phase takes 4-6 weeks, and at the end of it your piercing has a fragile seal running through it. At this time, swelling has gone down and your jewellery may need a downsize. Experienced piercers can gently exchange your jewellery for shorter ones, but you’re definitely not healed enough to start changing the jewellery yourself! This is why any studio which claims to be able to produce healed piercings in 3 weeks is not telling the truth- Biologically speaking, they’re promising the impossible! We haven’t even gotten to the third and final stage of healing yet!

Phase 3- The Remodelling Phase

The third and final phase of healing is the remodelling phase, in which your fresh and fragile piercing gradually is remodelled into a sturdy piercing with functionally ‘normal’ tissue surrounding it. This phase starts at 4-6 weeks post-piercing and can last up to 2 years! 

In this phase, your tissue is slowly changed from fragile collagen matrices to fully functioning normal tissue, with its own blood supply, nerves, epithelial tissue and dermal layer. During this time your piercing will slowly settle down into a comfortable, boring piercing which feels like you’ve had it forever! 

At Rogue we state it takes between 6 and 12 months for a full heal on any piercing, and this is why- You’ve given it time to settle and become more robust. However if you think of your healing piercing at age 6 months, and then compare it to a piercing you’ve had for over 2 years you can still notice a difference! Your 6 month old piercing may still have some redness and some discomfort when you manipulate it and it may be more prone to irritation than a really mature piercing. Your 2+ year old piercing is mature and durable, and so should have no redness, swelling, discomfort- It will just feel like normal skin! This is what we all aim for with our piercings and this is what can be achieved with proper aftercare following a good piercing.

This conch piercing is a perfect example of a well-healed and mature piercing! You can see no redness, puffiness or swelling. It just looks like skin.

I hope this clears up any misinformation about healing piercings. This is why we preach patience when it comes to your piercings- These things do take time! Interrupting this process by twisting your jewellery, changing jewellery too soon, using strong chemicals, or following improper aftercare will only extend your healing time. If you follow our aftercare well, you will have a well-healed piercing for life! If you have questions, DM us on instagram.

References:

Cañedo-Dorantes, L. and Cañedo-Ayala, M. (2019). Skin Acute Wound Healing: A Comprehensive Review. International Journal of Inflammation, [online] 2019, pp.1–15. Available at: https://www.hindawi.com/journals/iji/2019/3706315/ [Accessed 20 Feb. 2021].

Enoch, S. and Leaper, D.J., 2005. Basic science of wound healing. Surgery (Oxford), 23(2), pp.37-42.

WoundSource. (2016). Phases of Wound Healing: The Breakdown. [online] Available at: https://www.woundsource.com/blog/phases-wound-healing-breakdown#:~:text=Remodeling%20or%20also%20known%20as,and%20fibers%20are%20being%20reorganized. [Accessed 20 Feb. 2021].