In piercing there is much talk about sterility. It’s important to be pierced with sterile jewelry. You should use sterile saline wound wash for aftercare. Proper sterilization of tools and equipment keeps you safe. But what does it mean when we say sterile? And why does it matter for clients? Today, let’s take a look at all the elements of sterility, and how it will affect you.
Sterile: free from bacteria, or any other microscopic living organisms, especially germs; totally clean.
The term sterile is most often applied to instruments, tools, and environments. We require things to be free from any microorganisms in order to prevent the spread of infection and disease. To achieve this, we use special machines designed to sterilize jewelry, tools, and instruments, sometimes with special packaging. Now sterile is not to be confused with disinfected, which means to clean something, in order to destroy bacteria. Something can be disinfected and still have some microorganisms on the surface. Sterility is necessary in body piercing, just disinfected won’t cut it. Unfortunately, the distance between disinfected and sterile is vast- there are numerous microorganisms that are incredibly hard to kill. Just surface-level wipes or boiling water won't cut it to kill some of the most dangerous bacteria and viruses out there. That's why sterility is so important in medical procedures, surgeries, and yes even piercings. Because while disinfecting something is great, the .1% of germs that survives many disinfection products is the .1% we are worried about.
So why does sterility matter in body piercing? Imagine for a moment you are about to get a brand-new nose piercing. The piercer gets all setup, cleans your nose, makes a mark, and everything looks great! You lay back and they get ready to pierce. However, the jewelry they grab has been sitting in a loose container in the back. It hasn’t been sterilized at all. Even though it has been stored in a clean space, there are still bacteria and viruses in the air and on the surface of every other person who has come into that room. Some of those microorganisms are living on the surface of this piece of nostril jewelry. The piercer uses a sterile needle to pierce you and creates a brand new wound that is a direct path into your body. But they installed that non-sterile piece of jewelry behind it. Some of the bacteria that was living on the jewelry is now making its way into your nose- through the wound of your new piercing. A few days after you notice something is not right. Your nose is extremely swollen, dark red, and you have a fever and flu-like symptoms. Unfortunately, you need to head to the doctor- your piercing may be infected. And this is because your piercer did not use properly sterilized jewelry to pierce you.
As piercers, we work around all manner of blood, bodily fluids, and on clients of all lifestyles and backgrounds who may be coming in with all sorts of unique bacteria and viruses living on their bodies. There is a lot of opportunity for us to accidentally introduce these microorganisms into the piercings of other clients if we aren’t safe. It’s so important that we are properly sterilizing everything that is coming into contact with our clients, particularly the fresh wound that is their new piercing. This is also part of why we like sterile saline wound wash for aftercare- we don’t have to worry about any microorganisms in your aftercare getting into your fresh piercing and causing issues.
One of the big reasons I wanted to explain this important difference is because I often have clients ask “I’m going to pierce myself/my friend at home- how do I sterilize the jewelry.” And I have to break it to them that you need specific equipment to properly sterilize things. Boiling something in water, using alcohol, wiping something down, these things don’t sterilize. At best, they disinfect, but they still can and often do have bacteria on them, and this can cause some serious issues, including infection and real bodily harm. Sterilization is achieved through various machines designed to kill every living organism on the surface of objects inside. In body piercing, we use steam sterilization via autoclaves- machines designed to produce very hot steam in a pressurized vacuum chamber that kills any microorganisms alive inside the chamber via intense levels of heat and pressurized steam. This is why just boiling something or rubbing it with alcohol doesn’t get the job done for sterilization- many microorganisms can still survive this.
Next time you are going in for a piercing don’t hesitate to ask your piercer about their sterility practices. Most of us are big nerds and would love to tell you all about our cleaning and safety guidelines. Stay safe, and happy healing!