Updated: Mar 6, 2021
Piercings, as we all know, can sometimes be tricky to heal. They are long healers, and during that time they can get irritated. Many folks have heard of the dreaded piercing bump.
There is an ocean of information about these on the internet. It’s a keloid, it’s a granuloma, its infected, your ear is gonna fall off. Unfortunately, almost all of this is bad information. These irritations can be common, and can be very concerning when they crop up. The good news is, there is no reason to panic. It will heal and go away, with some time, the right treatment and TLC. This article is a comprehensive rundown on why these bumps happen, what causes them, how to get them to go away, and most importantly, what not to do.
Debunking the Bump
To start, let’s address a lot of the misconceptions online about what these pesky bumps actually are. Keloid is the most common “diagnosis” I see people give to these irritations and that is nearly never the case. Keloids (or keloid scarring) are unique type of scar tissue formation. They are a result of overgrowth of granulation tissue and collagen at the site of a healed or healing wound and tend to be firm, rubbery in feeling, and sometimes shiny. They can vary in appearance from one skin tone to the next, anywhere from a dark brown to even a red in color. A keloid scar is benign, but often accompanied by itching, pain, and changes in texture of the skin on or around it. Currently science believes keloids to have a genetic component, meaning keloid scars tend to run in families, and are genetically disposed. If your mother or father doesn’t keloid, the chances of you forming one are slim.
Most people who do keloid know it by the time they are old enough to be pierced- many childhood cuts and scrapes, or vaccine injections have already left keloids and you are aware the condition runs in your family. Keloids, and piercing bumps, are sometimes misdiagnosed as hypertrophic scars as well, which is also incorrect. Although there are clinical similarities between hypertrophic scars and keloids, there are also some clinical, histological and epidemiological differences which matter greatly. For example, hypertrophic scarring occurs in 40-70% of people after surgeries, and 90% after burn wounds, and appear to occur randomly, with equal occurrence in any gender, race, or medical background. Keloid scars only form in 6-16% of cases, with a heavy predisposition to African Americans. Hypertrophic scars have a low reoccurrence rate after treatment, and rarely extend far beyond the wound site, while keloids have a high rate of reoccurrence and extend far, far beyond the wound. On a cellular level the scars are quite different as well, and biopsy testing can be done to determine the difference between a genuine keloid and hypertrophic scar. Genuine hypertrophic scars are more common than keloids, but only slightly so on piercings. Again, most of these little bumps are not hypertrophic scars either.
So how does this all relate to your body piercing? Well, irritation bumps on piercings are often misdiagnosed as a keloid; but true keloids from body piercing are rare, and often have a more extreme appearance. The issue with this misdiagnosis is that there is a decent amount of misinformation available to the public via internet etc. Without proper knowledge, people turn to the millions of things online that claim a ‘cure’. Most often these suggestions are dangerous or potentially harmful to you and your piercing. This is because a puncture wound (such as a piercing) requires a different type of care and troubleshooting than a keloid requires. A true keloid needs a dermatologist or doctors help, and could even require surgery. A keloid will not improve with any over the counter assistance, and even surgery doesn’t always remove them- they have a high reoccurrence rate. Hypertrophic scars have been shown to improve somewhat with some etc treatment (like scar patches and massage) but typically require medical intervention to truly improve (scar injections and dermatological treatments).
So, if it’s not a keloid, and it’s not a hypertrophic scar, what is this little bump near your piercing? Well, it’s good news- what you have may instead be an irritation bump. These are small mounds of swelling next to a piercing, sometimes pink or fleshy, sometimes skin-tone, and sometimes dark and discolored, but easy to fix. We are here to help you troubleshoot and figure out the source of the irritation, and remove it. Once the piercing is no longer being irritated, the bump will go away with some time and care.
A Speedbump to Healing- What Causes “The Bump?”
So your piercing has gotten a bump on it. Step one- Don’t Panic. Seriously. These bumps aren’t the end of the world. The first thing that needs to be done is figuring out the cause of the bump. This is best done by visiting a reputable piercer or working with one online to help determine what is causing this irritation. Trying to guess what is causing it yourself at home isn’t going to be enough, so definitely seek out a piercer if your piercing has become irritated or grumpy. Irritation bumps have a few different causes, including but not limited to:
an incorrect angle on a piercing (causes pressure, creating bumps)
low quality body jewelry such as “surgical steel”, silver, or mystery metals (causes a reaction with the skin, forming irritation)
Hitting your piercing, snagging it, or bumping it (causes trauma/wounding creating bumps)
makeup, hair products, hair dye, harsh tooth paste, and other skin products (can clog piercings and cause bumps)
Over cleaning (causing irritation from movement)
Under cleaning (crust builds up on and around the jewelry, and the tissue under it becomes irritated)
Lacking the correct anatomy for the piercing (the piercing isn’t stable/pressure caused from anatomy and angles)
Sleeping on a healing piercing (irritation from pressure)
Moisture buildup, including not drying the area after cleaning, leaving hair wet after showering, large jewelry that is tricky to dry behind, etc (excess moisture can cause a specific “Wetness irritation” or wet, fleshy tissue around a piercing)
Getting Sick (nose piercings in particular get grumpy when you are sick as well! A cold, the flu, strep- when you are sick, your piercings get sick too)
Improper Aftercare (using harsh chemicals like peroxide, alcohol, or ointments like Neosporin can cause irritation)
Swimming with a healing piercing (both chlorine from a pool and bacteria in oceans and rivers can cause irritation)
Swapping to a hoop too soon (changing the shape of the jewelry in the piercing can often cause irritation if the piercing was not ready)
"Hammerhead" bumps (unique irritation to male presenting nipples, often caused by piercing through the aerola)
This list doesn’t cover nearly everything that I’ve seen cause these bumps. Honorable mention goes to- my dog launched it’s self on my head from the staircase, my little brother hit me in the head with a pool noodle, I closed my ear in a car door, and my cheer team covered me in shaving cream as a prank. Whatever the cause may be, getting to the bottom of the bump is key to helping it go away! Different irritations have different causes, and different solutions. For example, if the bump is caused by incorrect aftercare, you need to start using the right products to help it heal. If the bump is caused by a bad angle on jewelry, no amount of proper aftercare is going to improve that angle and get the bump to go away. This is why it’s so important to see a piercer when you start experiencing issues with a healing piercing. Not only can we accurately determine what caused the bump, but we know the correct care and solution to get the bump to go away. If you truly want you're bump to go down, you need to contact a piercer. Don’t try anything yourself at home, or something your friend suggested. Not even once. Contact a reputable piercer first.
So is there a quick fix?
There is no product or cure-all for fixing an irritation on a body piercing. Online you may read about tea tree oil, peroxide, Neosporin, aspirin paste, dish soap, vinegar, tea, and all sorts of other random things people say you can put on your piercing to fix it. Ultimately though, these are ALL unsafe. There is no singular magical cure all for an irritation bump. As many causes as there are for the bump to form, there are solutions needed to get them to go away. Let’s look at some of the most common suggestions for “fixing” a bump.
Tea Tree Oil
Tea Tree Oil is a natural oil derived from the Australian tree Melaleuca Alternifolia. It’s sometimes confused with the same tea used to make drinks and brew, but the two are unrelated. Tea Tree Oil is known for a distinctive smell, it’s pale yellow color, and its anti fungal, anti bacterial, and astringent properties. It’s all the rage right now in beauty products, from tea tree oil shampoos for oily hair, to spot treatments for adult acne. It’s also been a popular homeopathic trend for body piercing for many years. The only problem is, its actually not safe! Not only is there NO conclusive evidence about the safety of tea tree oil on any topical use, there is strong evidence to support its detriment on puncture wounds- which is exactly what a body piercing is! The internet for some reason has clung to tea tree oil as a cure all for bumps, regardless of actual evidence. What happens more often than not is the tea tree oil dries out the skin, and the bump temporarily seems to be getting smaller. However, without the actual cause of the bump being fixed, it will always come back. Beyond that, tea tree oil can have harmful side effects when used.
But it’s natural, doesn’t that make it safe? Not at all! Peanuts are natural too, but some people have severe and serious allergies to it. Something being natural does not mean it’s safe. Tea Tree oil, while considered “safe” for topical use only, is actually never to be ingested. It becomes toxic when you do, and the American Cancer Society reports you can experience drowsiness and confusion. They have reported hallucinations, rashes, vomiting, and even comas from tea tree oil. Now, many of these things occur because dosage for tea tree oil is generally unclear. Undiluted, pure tea tree oil is what you usually find for sale in the herbal section of your local grocery store or health market, and that concentration is far too strong to be using directly on a wound, or to get in your mouth or nose. Piercers aren’t doctors, and also usually don’t have a background with essential oils to try to explain dosing to their clients. Not to mention- clients don’t often know much about it either! Beyond the dose and concentration, purchasing essential oils is it’s own beast. The market is loosely regulated, and it’s not uncommon to find different chemicals in these ‘essential oils’ you see for sale on the Walmart end cap. This leaves many people trying different strengths or doses, or just looking at random websites or around the internet trying to figure out how to use it. Not ideal.
The problem is compounded because many people think “it’s just my body piercing- that’s just topical so I’ll try it!” Not so. While some people may be safe to use tea tree oil or a scrape or scratch, a piercing is a puncture wound. It’s an entirely different type of wound that heals differently and requires different care. A puncture wound can become clogged with topical products like tea tree oil, and it can severely dry our the fragile healing tissue around the wound. Not to mention most often we see clients using tea tree oil on ear and nostril piercings. On your ears, you may not realize the oil has gotten in or around your ear canal which can be harmful- middle ear toxicity has been reported due to tea tree oil. We see clients with irritated daith or tragus piercings who end up getting TTO in the ear canal trying to apply it to those hard to reach and see irritations.Your nostril is a mucous membrane, and can absorb the tea tree oil similarly to ingesting, and cause the same toxic side effects.
A 2009 article from the American Cancer Society reviews the possible uses of tea tree oil as an antiseptic for minor cuts and scrapes, however primary addresses that “despite years of use, available clinical evidence does not support the effectiveness of tea tree oil for treating skin problems and infections in humans.” Russell J, Rovere A, eds. (2009). “Tea Tree Oil”. American Cancer Society Complete Guide to Complementary and Alternative Cancer Therapies (2nd ed.). American Cancer Society. ISBN 9780944235713.
And, in 2012 a study done in relation to head lice in children looked at tea tree oil as a treatment for kids but recommended against it because of the risk of allergic reactions, skin irritations, because of contradictions in the research, and because of just a general lack of understanding about the oils safety and effectiveness. Most concerning was evidence that when gotten into the middle ear, it can cause toxicity of the ear! You don’t want that on or near your ear piercings.
Eisenhower, Christine; Farrington, Elizabeth Anne (2012). “Advancements in the Treatment of Head Lice in Pediatrics”. Journal of Pediatric Health Care. 26 (6): 451–61; quiz 462–4.
In a study for Tea Tree Oil vs Benzol Peroxide in the treatment of acne while TTO did help improve the acne, it vastly under performed the BP.
“One of the first rigorous clinical studies assessed the efficacy of 5% TTO in the treatment of acne by comparing it to 5% benzoyl peroxide (BP) The study found that both treatments reduced the numbers of inflamed lesions, although BP performed significantly better than TTO. The BP group showed significantly less oiliness than the TTO group. “
Bassett IB, Pannowitz DL, Barnetson RS
Med J Aust. 1990 Oct 15; 153(8):455-8.
So, can I put this on my piercing anyway just to try? No! Listen, we don’t dispute that tea tree oil can perform well for acne, or that theirs a medical foundation to using it for anti fungal purposes (namely athletes foot- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12121393/) that doesn’t mean it belongs on your body piercing! While there is a great premise in this product for other uses, it’s toxicity when ingested or absorbed into deeper wounds is very concerning with body piercings. Not to mention it’s risk of causing harm via your nostrils or your ear canal. Beyond that, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not strictly regulate herbs and supplements. There is no guarantee of strength, purity or safety of products, and effects may vary. In many studies and medical applications highly controlled, purified forms of tea tree oil were used- that’s not what’s on the market for the layperson to purchase. In fact, much like we talk abut mystery metals in body piercing, there’s plenty of mystery oils out there on the market for purchase. The lack of regulations, lack of studies regarding piercing, and known dangers around this product make it a thoroughly bad idea to put on any body piercing. Leave tea tree oil as the latest beauty fad, and work with your piercer to have happy and successful piercings.
(2)- Eisenhower, Christine; Farrington, Elizabeth Anne (2012). “Advancements in the Treatment of Head Lice in Pediatrics”. Journal of Pediatric Health Care. 26 (6): 451–61; quiz 462–4.(3)- A comparative study of tea-tree oil versus benzoylperoxide in the treatment of acne. Bassett IB, Pannowitz DL, Barnetson RS Med J Aust. 1990 Oct 15; 153(8):455-8.
One of the biggest suggestions online is putting aspirin on your piercing. This is a thoroughly bad idea, start to finish. First and foremost it is ALWAYS a bad idea to use any kind of medication against suggested dosages or prescription without consulting a medical professional first. Aspirin can cause severe allergic reactions, and can be very harmful to children, pregnant women, and people with specific allergies or disorders. Suggesting the use of any medication against manufactures guidelines is very dangerous. Allergy alert: Aspirin may cause a severe allergic reaction which may include: – hives -facial swelling -asthma (wheezing) – shock Beyond that, most commonly found aspirin these days are coated in extended release. This means it is a stronger, more concentrated dose designed to slowly release into your body over time to provide longer pain relief. These extended release pills when crushed or broken can mean a dangerously strong dosage on your healing piercing. Modern medicine is regularly advancing and many medications are specifically formatted with different coatings or capsule to increase effectiveness. Aspirin is a large portion of these delicately designed pills. It can be tough to tell just from looking if the aspirin you have is ER, and even if its not there is no way to figure out the dose you may be putting on your skin should you crush it and attempt to use it like this.
So why do people suggest putting this on a piercing? Well, the concept is to quite literally burn the bump away using Salicylic Acid found in aspirin. Not only is attempting to burn the bump off quite unnecessary (as we review the bump can get better by removing the cause of the irritation. If you try to treat the bump but leave the irritation it’s quite likely it will come right back since it’s still being irritated) but Salicylic acid can cause burns on the skin. More worryingly, “Oral mucosal burns caused by exposure to aspirin and other salicylic acid derivatives have been reported in the past .” We most commonly hear people trying to use this on nostril piercings and severe mucous burns have been well documented as a side effect of Salicylic Acid. Since people can’t be sure of the dosage or strength of aspirin they are using on their piercings we have seen people come in with skin irritations and issues from using aspirin on their piercings.
Length of Effect of Extended Release Aspirin on Platelets in Patients With Diabetes and Heart Disease (DURATION), New Haven Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Feb 25, 2015 Salicylic acid burn induced by wart remover: A report of two cases W.H.C. Tiong, E.J. Kelly Department of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Cork University Hospital, Cork, Ireland
Pop the Bump/ Cut the Bump Off
Some people say any bump must be similar to a pimple, and thus the solution is popping it. This is VERY bad advice for a piercing bump. These are not pimples, and popping or trying to remove them will not fix the issue. These are rarely fluid filled like a pimple, and attempting to pop them will not cause further irritation and swelling at the piercing. Any secretion you do get out is likely from forcing it out of the piercing channel. And hopefully this goes without saying but you shouldn’t attempt to cut or remove anything off your skin at home. These suggestions often go hand in hand with something topical like tea tree oil or Asprin paste. Meaning they are suggesting you aggravate the piercing even further, then put something on it that doesn’t belong. Across the board this is a very, very bad idea. Please do not attempt to pop or otherwise remove these bumps.
No Pull Discs
These silicone discs have gotten popular on instagram, claming to be a cure all for piercing bumps. However, their marketing is misleading. Often, in their photos, piercings have low quality jewelry and the piercer changes the jewlery and puts discs on. This discs also take up space on the bar, which could be solved by shortening the jewelry. Almost any time I've seen these work was an issue that could be resolved with better quality and fit jewelry. In my personal opinion, they arent necessary. Also the company is downright nasty to people who don't support their product, and we don't need more bullies in this industry.
In short, there is no quick fix for these piercing bumps, without knowing exactly what has caused them. You need to contact a piercer when these occur, and and have them help you figure out what is causing it so you know how to correctly treat it. Trying to treat it on your own at home will often only lead to furthering the issues and making the bump worse. If these get too bad we can’t help you salvage them. Once the bump is too large or too far gone, the piercing will need to be retired. So please contact your piercer first and foremost about these as soon as you notice them cropping up! If you don’t feel comfortable with the piercer you have, or are concerned the issue is with the jewelry or piercing the did, you can always seek a second opinion. safepiercing.org is a great resource to find a reputable piercer near you carrying high quality safe body jewelry. If you are unsure that you are getting good advice from your piercer, don’t be afraid to get a second opinion. There is a forum on Facebook called Ask A Professional Piercer where many respected, vetted industry professionals assist clients with getting accurate advice and help with their piercings. My inbox is always open, either here via my site or through my instagram, to help with any questions. Please message or email me for assistance with these so I can properly troubleshoot the issue- comments on this post don't allow me to! Hopefully this helped, and you have gotten your answers to these pesky piercing bumps!