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Surface Piercing 101- What to Know Before You Pierce!

Lets talk about surface piercings! These fun little piercings came about in the 90’s and 2000s’ after years of experimental R&D to discover what works. During that time the industry tried a whole mess of things to see what worked. From coiling up nostril screws to pierce with, to using plastic weed wacker line and trimming it down, even trying with Cather tubing. We were determined to make something that allowed us to pierce parts of the body we never before could have. Ad eventually, we settled on two different things! The Microdermal, and the Surface Barbell. They were the results of years of trial and error, and much experimentation. Both have their own pros and cons, and their own limitations. Let’s look at surface work in general, and then delve deeper into these two choices.

What makes a surface piercing different from a standard piercing? Well, a standard piercing goes through a defined piece of tissue- your earlobe, your nostril, your tongue, etc. A surface piercing goes along the surface of your skin, entering and exiting along that same plane. This makes surface piercings distinctly less stable than a standard piercing, and for that they are considered long term temporary. That means that the average lifespan of a surface piercing is 5-7 years, unlike standard piercings which can last a lifetime. That said some folks get lucky and have their surface work for much longer, and some get unlucky and it never makes a year. There are ways to ensure your piercings last longer.

Get them done in a low movement area, with stable tissue

Surface work does it’s best in areas that don’t move a whole lot. That means hands and feet, arms and legs, are off the table to start. Often, areas around the forehead and eyes, along the side burns, back of the neck, some chest placements, hips and lower back are the areas where these work best. That said, there are exceptions to every rule, and occasionally a more unusual placement can heal well and last with hard work from both the client, and the piercer. The most important thing going into these piercings is to accept they are long term temporary, and go into them understanding they won’t last you forever. Particularly if your goal is more unusual placements. Finding a piercer well versed in surface work, comfortable with it, and listening to their guidance about proper placement is key as well. These can’t just be done anywhere, contrary to popular belief. And even with a phenomenal piercer hand and foot placement should be avoided, simply because of how often you use your hands and how many things they come in contact with (for for feet, well, we all enjoy wearing shoes I presume.)

Find a Piercer using Materials you trust

I’ve written an entire article specifically about Microdermals (here) but the same applies to surface barbells. Being that the bases of these piercings can’t easily be removed or changed, they need to be the correct material. Ask good questions, and make sure you trust what your pierces uses.

Don’t pack a lot of product around them, even after they heal

This applies primarily to surface piercings on the face, but can apply anywhere you wear makeup, lotion, etc. These products can build up around the base and eventually cause irritation and issues. As tempting as it is it just keep packing products right over these piercings, it can cause issues. Avoiding the area when you do makeup, or cleaning the piercings throughly, regularly, is important. If you know you wear a lot of makeup consider seeing your piercer for regular more in-depth cleanings.

The Microdermal

Microdermals, also called dermals, single point piercings, and surface anchors, are singular piercings. They have bases shaped like a small shoe with a long side and a short side. These bases sit inside the skin, and you can screw whatever gem or adornment you want to wear into them. The bases on these can only be removed if the piercing is being retired- never removed to change it. Some important considerations-

Skin divers are a bad idea, every time.

Skin divers are an alternate to Microdermals we tried in the 90s, and quickly realized they didn’t work. These have a small round base and the gems and tops are welded, meaning they can’t be changed. Not only does this leave you stuck with the same piece, but they don’t hold up well over time. Some piercers try to tout these as better, but the obvious limitations of the tops being unable to be changed alone make these less than ideal. What happens if the gem becomes damaged or has issues? You are still stuck with the same piece. Not a great idea.

Microdermals are fragile- consider placement carefully

All surface work is fragile, but Microdermals in particular. They don’t often hold up well to catches and snags. That being said, consider where you get your piercings. Center of the chest is a popular placement, but cross body purses and seatbelts will get snagged often. Hip placement is adorable, but high wasted pants don’t play nice with them!

Size Matters

Microdermals are not one size fits all piercings! The bases are made on different rises for different thickness of tissue. You want to ensure that your piercer is using a base that is the correct height for the placement you are getting pierced.

Surface Bars

Surface piercings, also called Surface Bars and Surface Barbells, are surface piercings done with a staple shaped base with two rises, and you can wear two gemstones or pieces can be worn in them. The barbell remains under the skin, and unlike a microdermal if absolutely necessary can be changed out- although changing often causes trauma and should be avoided if possible. Some important considerations-

Curved Barbells are a bad idea, every time.

While we did experiment with curved barbells in the 90’s, we quickly figured out they do not work for surface piercings, and just put pressure on the tissue eventually causing rejection. There is never a reason a curved barbell should be put in a surface piercing. This graphic helps explain why you need a staple shape that’s perpendicular to the tissue, rather than any curved barbells.

Plastic, Pathetic!

Plastic, including Tygon and PTFE, do not belong in surface piercings. Much like curved barbells, plastic doesn’t sit correctly with the skin not to mention breaks down over time. This means plastic jewelry can yellow, harden, and even fall apart after a long time being worn. Plastic jewelry is also externally threaded, which can cause irritation and issues when switched out. There is never a reason to put plastic in a piercing, but particularly not a surface piercing.

Not all bars are created equal

Like different Microdermals bases, surface barbells come in different styles and sizes. Rounded and flat bottom are both offered, as well as different rises. Different placements call for different styles. It’s crucial you see a piercer expended in surface work who will ensure that you are getting the correct style for your chose placement, and anatomy.

Surface piercings overall are super fun, unique piercings. As long as you can accept the temporary nature of these piercings, they allow for a whole new range of cute choices when it comes to being pierced. But, given their temporary nature, it’s even more important they are done correctly, and by a skilled piercer. Check portfolios, ask good questions, and never be afraid to get a second opinion!

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Jan 15, 2023

Can you get nerve damage or a pinched nerve from a surface tragus piercing ?

Replying to

hii, I just got my surface tragus less than a week ago. nerve wise I can say there are a few spots on my face that are tender but are slowly going back to normal. I would say placement does have a nerve effect. Pain a 2/10 similar to a belly piercing. hope this helps :)


Is a surface 90° the best option/necesssary for an eyebrow piercing? Not sure if the eyebrow counts as a flat surface?

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