Updated: Sep 7, 2020
Stretched ears are a consistently popular piercing and modification choice, with all ages and walks of life. It’s only grown in popularity over the years, and more and more folks sport cool, fun stretched lobes. Inarguably, plugs are the most popular choice for stretched lobes with good reason. Affordable, comfortable, safe for all day wear, and they look great! What’s not to love! That said, there are many plugs on the market that are made of unsafe materials you don’t want to wear. Why do they sell them then? Profit. Many companies don’t care if something is safe for you, as long as to makes them a dollar. That said its easy to get confused by all the materials and designs accessible online, so let’s look at what makes plugs unsafe, and what materials to avoid.
Lets knock one of the most common out of the way first- Acrylic. Many folks are aware these days that acrylic plugs are not safe, but many more are still learning about this, particularly folks new to stretching! Acrylic body jewelry of any kind is unsafe, and you can read more in my entire article dedicated to acrylic here. That said, as plugs, they can cause a whole host of unique issues. Many clients report issues stretching while wearing acrylic, and their lobes always staying tight, and irritated. Acrylic jewelry is porous, and often turns colors and yellows with extended wear, it also harbors bacteria, dirt and oils, and dead skin cells. Acrylic plugs are notorious for smelling quite unpleasant when worn for any length of time. And c’mon, who wants to be stinky! On top of that many people are extra sensitive to acrylic, leading to severe reactions when worn. It’s cheap for a reason, and it’s never worth it to risk your lobes over acrylic jewelry.
Another popular etsy material, polymer clay is an awful idea for wear in a body piercing. Polymer clay has a poor surface finish, meaning under magnification it is not perfectly smooth. It also holds fingerprints and other impressions, making the wearable very rough and unpleasant for your ears. Beyond that, it is not recommended to make anything that comes in contact with your mouth such a bowls for food or pipes out of clay. “Due to the testing requirements and regulations, we have never tested our products that would be used to hold or serve food or beverages. We can only recommend that our clays are not intended for these applications. All of Polyform’s products are NOT labeled as “food safe”.” -Sculpty
Once earlobes are fully healed and if the plugs aren't slept in or otherwise pulled on, etc, some argue that it would probably be "safe." But any situation can result in tiny breaks in the skin's barrier that could allow any unpolymerized ingredients in polymer clay to get into the body (and it's really difficult to polymerize polymer clay thoroughly. Many people are making these at home in home ovens, and are not professionally curing their clay). Some solve this issues with tape or coatings, which carry toxic chemicals as well. Over all, this material is a bad choice for body jewelry. Keep it for cute projects and sculptures, and not in your ears.
Theres few bigger trends online right now than resin. Around the world crafters are creating stunning, beautiful pieces with resin and epoxy, from art, to furniture, to jewelry. And few things are more satisfying then a demolding of resin and watching the beauty come about! And people are making jewelry- so why not plugs! Well, jewelry that rests against healthy normal skin, like a bracelet or a ring, is a different beast then jewelry you wear in a body piercing like plugs. Most body jewelry follows standards set forth by the ASTM for implantation in the human body. While resin does have some medical grade ratings with the ASTM, it has limited if any ratings for implantation for most mixtures. “1.3 Although resin has been used for specific implant applications in the United States, the use of this resin in medical devices should be restricted to non-implant applications until biocompatibility evaluations appropriate for the intended applications are successfully completed.” ASTM
Further, the ASTM suggests specific biocompatibility testing for all colorants, additives, or pieces used in resin for implantation in the human body. That testing is just now being done for cutting edge medical uses, and is definitely not being done for body jewelry unfortunately. Most folks making resin jewelry are doing so at home, and definitely not paying thousands or in some cases millions for biocompatiablity testing. I’ve personally seen some severe reactions to resin, and its definitely not worth the risk. Some makers have gotten savvy to this and started doing resin and epoxy fills inside metal, acrylic, and other eyelets. This is still not safe, as resin often ends up on the wearable or spills out, and in porous eyelets can still leach unsafe chemicals on your lobes. It is simply not worth the risk, when there are many safe, beautiful materials out there to wear!
Wood is where things begin to get a bit nuanced. Now there’s a ton of wood out there that is perfectly safe, and fantastic for body jewelry and plugs! But there’s also quite a number of toxic woods that are very unsafe to wear as jewelry, and a mess of factors in-between that can determine if a pair of wood plugs is safe or not. To start, regardless of the exact wood they are made of, a pair of wood plugs should have a smooth surface finish. They should be polished to feel soft to the touch, and there shouldn’t be any rough patches, or unevenness on the wearable. If you run your finger or fingernail gently over the wearable it should be smooth and even the entire way around. The maker should also be using safe compounds to polish their pieces, no resin or epoxy should be used. Wood plugs should also be made from wood that is appropriately seasoned. This means the wood has been left to sit out and dry out over time. Wood that is too green can crack easily, and cause damage. I once received a pair of plugs I had waited ages for, and when I opened them in the humid Florida air, they had cracked right in two. The wood used to carve them was way too green for body jewelry, and my heart was crushed.
Now, as far as types of wood, it’s important to address a few things. There are literally thousands of woods out there in the world, all with slight different chemical makeups and properties. Even outside the realm of body piercing every wood in existence still hasn’t been documented, researched, and studied. Theres simply not enough time to do that! So this is in no way a comprehensive list. Another important factor to note is that like tree and seasonal allergies, wood allergies are as varied and nuanced as the people who wear it. I might wear one wood safely and without issue my entire life, and your ears may puff up and react at the slightest touch of it. Wood allergies are individualized, and can change over your life time. Bear that in mind when choosing to wear wood jewelry, and make sure you keep an eye on your ears when you wear it. Much of the research out there is on wood dust produced when turning woods, which paints a scary picture of some of the severe reactions this can cause. This also means that a maker working with toxic wood can contaminate all their other pieces, if the dust from that wood gets into other projects. For this reason it is so important to select a maker you trust to only use safe woods, and not turn anything toxic on the same machines or in the same workspace. Unsafe wood dust has been documented to cause heart and lung issues, cancer, and other toxicities.
Determining if a wood is safe or unsafe really requires knowing the woods full Latin name. Many terms for wood are umbrella terms, for example “Rosewood” is a well known toxic wood, but rosewood can refer to over 30 different species of wood. Woods I would stay away from are
Rosewoods (of any variety)
There are others, but a quick jaunt through etsy and the internet shows these as among the most popular toxic woods for sale right now. Purpleheart and Rosewood are among the most common, and there’s no shortage of plugs made with these woods for sale online, despite the known and documented dangers of working with and wearing these woods.
The absolute best way to ensure you are purchasing safe wood is to only buy from vetted makers you trust to research the material they order, down to the exact Latin name and species of wood, to use properly aged woods, and to finish their pieces to the highest level of quality they can achieve. Absolutely be picky with your wood, and if it seems too good to be true, it likely is.
Bone and Horn
Bone, including Oosik and Antler, and Horn, are much like wood. To be safe, bone and horn must be properly processed and dried, and it must be worked by an experienced maker who will achieve a smooth surface finish, and finished with body safe compounds. Theres also the dilemma of sourcing and importing bone and horn legally, with regulations different from different countries and making sure sourcing is ethical for animals. When worked and sourced correctly, these materials are safe and beautiful. Unfortunately, there’s lots of companies with mass produces lines which are full of cheap, low quality bone and horn that often has a rough surface finish and it poorly turned. Much like wood, please ensure you are using a trusted maker, who you know will create safe jewelry for you.
Much like wood, bone, and horn, stone can be safe if it's quality. It needs to be carved from a good grade of touch, by an experienced maker who will put a good polish on the surface and wearable and ensure that the wearable is smooth and safe to wear in your lobes. When worked and sourced correctly, stone plugs are my personal favorite to wear. However, there is a lot of low quality stone sourced and made overseas that can be harmful. Probably the most problematic is dyed stones. We see this the most with turquoise- genuine turquoise is very expensive and a soft stone hard to work with. Many companies take howlite and dye it blue to make it look like turquoise. But these dyes can stain your lobes and damage them. And of course companies don't say it's dyed, so it's up to the customer to purchase from safe makers. Quartz is another commonly dyed and treated stone in recent days. Stones wearables should be perfectly smooth- a good way to test this is to run your fingernail and then your finger tip along the wearable. There should be no pits, imperfections, or other touch spots along it.
Metals are safe as long as they are quality. Arguably the most common metal plugs you can find online are "stainless steel" and "surgical steel" both of which are super low quality (you can read more about this here.) When getting metal plugs you want ASTM F136 titanium or ASTM F138 steel, and no lesser alloys. For gold, it should be nickel free and from a reputable maker. Many companies will lie about the exact grade of material they use, so please purchase cautiously from only brands you trust.
Honorary Mention: Wearing things as jewelry that are not jewelry
I get it, its super fun to see what you can fit in your ear. A q-tip? A pencil? A straw? A cookie? It’s rad! Look at all these cool things my ear fits and look how big its gotten! I have absolutely done this at different points in my life and probably still will. That being said this gets honorary mention because at least a few times a year I have to help someone who has hurt or injured themselves by doing this. I know y’all aren’t gonna stop, but please be smart and be safe. If an object has any sharp or uneven surfaces. If an object has chemicals that could leak. If an object could expand or become stuck. Don’t put it in your ear. If you aren’t sure if its safe to put in your ear…..don’t put it in your ear.
Shape Matters Too
Safe materials are the first step to safe plugs. But shape matters too. Obviously round plugs are the most common, with ovals and teardrops following, and then some cute decorative shapes as well. With tear drops, the top or point of the tear shouldn’t be harsh, it should be smooth and rounded. Some folks go as far at the make ‘gumdrop’ shapes which are more round than tear. Teardrops can still have a more dramatic point, as long as the wearable is rounded and well polished. Wearables where they meet at a V on the point are not safe. Shaped wearables are often not safe either. The most common example is Coffin shaped plugs, where that shape continues through the wearable. All those corners can put pressure on the lobes in those places, and even cut the ear. A good room of thumb is for decorative designs like coffins, hearts, cat heads, flowers, etc, the design should be limited to the face of the plug, and the wearable should still be round/oval/teardrop and smooth. Always check these factors as well when purchasing plugs!
Somewhat related to shape is flare. Single flare plugs this doesn’t matter much with, but double flare plugs should have a reasonable flare for your ears. Some people with really loose ears need a 2 or 3mm rear flare to hold their plugs in. Others with tighter lobes could seriously hurt or damage their ears trying to get flares that large in and out. Particularly in smaller sizes, many cheap lower quality companies produce plugs with massive flares that are just unreasonable for most ears. Learn your ears and your body, figure out what flare size works for you, and be cautious wearing pieces with very large flares unless you are sure your ears can handle them.
Secondary Mention: Threading
This is its own category, but if you have stretched ears you have probably seen those threaded eyelets. The flares screw and unscrew, usually off the back. They have large flares that would never come in and out without unscrewing, and they can be found in every hot topic, spencers, or amazon vendor out there. And piercers around the world hate them. Why? They get stuck in clients ears ALL. The. Dang. Time. These are very cheaply made with poor quality coarse threads, which get cross threaded and stuck very easily. Probably a few times a year we get calls from clients with these stuck in their ears and they are so difficult to remove. Quite a few tools, a powerful grip, lots of back and forth, and a few choice adjectives from both parties before you get them unstuck. They often leave the ears grumpy and irritated because they get stuck for so long. Definitely not worth the risk, or the absolute nightmare that getting them unstuck will be.
Theres a lot of beautiful body jewelry out there to be purchased. A wealth of awesome materials, cute colors, different styles and designs. But its important to shop safely. Many companies produce unsafe materials and styles simply to make a profit. Always shop from lakers you trust, who uphold the highest standards of quality and professionalism. Your lobes deserve it!