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Ear Lobe Stretching FAQ

This document is a compilation of frequently asked questions with information supplied by sources including but not limited to: personal experience of the authors, literary research, and conversations with online forum members, medical practitioners, and body arts practitioners. All information herein is to be used at your own risk. If possible, you should always consult an APP certified or at least well known & reputable body modification artist about your plans. Happy Stretching!

4/11/2012 - This is the most recent revision of this document, which was originally written in September 2003 by Jared Karnes and Dale Hedrick. It has been rewritten and updated to reflect additional information and more complete content. Please note that the link to this document has changed, and it is now: www.onetribe.nu/faq/ear-lobe-stretching-faq. Please update your forum and blog links accordingly.

Ear Stretching Basics

What is stretching?

Stretching is the means by which one slowly enlarges a body piercing to accommodate increasingly larger sizes of jewelry. This is done by slightly stretching the tissue and allowing it to relax and heal at an increased size. The process is then repeated. This can be done a virtually unlimited number of times as long as it is done correctly, thus allowing for extremely stretched holes to be produced. Incorrect stretching can lead to tears, bleeding, the chance of infection and potential scarring which can make further stretching difficult and painful. Slow, proper stretching will leave a piercing elastic and healthy. The most commonly stretched body piercings are ear lobe piercings.

What piercings can be stretched?

Nearly any perforation in the body can be stretched to accommodate larger jewelry. Historically relevant piercings that have been stretched by various cultures include the ear lobe and ear cartilage piercings, septum and nostril piercings, and upper and lower lip piercings. Great care should be taken when attempting to stretch piercings that are considered surface piercings (those for which the entry and exit holes lie along the same general plane) because the risk of migration and rejection is significantly higher. These piercings include eyebrow, navel, nape and other general flat surface piercings. If the piercing's entry and exit holes are not parallel to each other, the risks of rejection are greater.

How often should I stretch; how long does it take to heal?

Stretching a piercing is a very individual act, and every body is different. Your skin may be more or less elastic, or your body may heal faster or slower, so it is best to simply pay attention to what your body is telling you. Stretching should not be painful, nor should you have to 'force' anything into your piercing. As a general rule of thumb, you should wait a minimum of 3-4 months before stretching a fresh soft tissue piercing, and healed ear lobe piercings can often be stretched at the rate of one size (about 1mm to 1.5mm or 1/16") each 30 to 45 days, minimum. A good rule of thumb is one stretch every other month. The longer you wait, the healthier your ears will be - this is important if you ever wish to downsize. Piercings in cartilage (nostrils, ear cartilage) can take six months or longer to completely heal from an initial procedure and several months to completely heal between stretches. Keep in mind that the body heals from the outside in - the first response is to cover the wound so that internal healing is protected from the outside environment. Just because it "looks" like normal skin does not mean that the tissue in the area is completely healed.

Stretching is not a race, and it should not be your goal to get to 'X' size within a certain amount of time. Listen to your body - if it hurts, it's not ready. The process is a journey that takes patience and the ability to understand the health and healing characteristics of the only body you have. Have patience and respect yourself.

Maximum size that will downsize and heal (otherwise known as the ‘growing up’ complex)

This question pops up quite regularly, and unfortunately, the answer is extremely vague. Everyone’s body is different, and therefore everyone’s lobes will shrink up to a different point. Generally speaking, 2 gauge is widely considered the “point of no return” where your lobes become significantly less likely to heal even to the size of a standard earring. We've had customers and friends with 9mm/00g holes that have stayed at that size after years without jewelry, and folks with 26mm/1" piercings that have healed to be barely visible after years of wearing nothing (this is by far the exception). Stretching is not an exact science and should not be taken lightly.

There is never any guarantee that your ears will shrink back up. If you are going to stretch, please make sure that you will be comfortable at that size as an old wrinkly person, and with having your children and grandchildren ask you why you have huge holes in your ears. As much as we would all love to live as individuals and be accepted for who we are, we live in a society where there are norms based on social status, profession, and other variables. In many cases, with visible modifications you will have to be smarter and try harder than everyone else to achieve the same goals. There may be industries which you will be unable to work due to your modifications. It's your personal choice, but certainly consider the long term implications of your actions. Just as you have the right to modify your body, others have the right to react negatively.

Stretching Methods

Before discussing methods it is important to note that it is very important that you take your time, listen to your body, allow adequate healing time and only stretch one size (1mm to 1.5mm or 1/16") at a time. The development of scar tissue resulting from improper stretching can make future stretching painful or impossible, affect blood flow to the ear resulting in tissue thinning, and greatly reduce the chances that your ears (or any other stretched piercing) will ever shrink in size should it be necessary.

Stretching with a taper

A taper is exactly as a name suggests: a piece of smooth, tapered material which is smaller than the size of your piercing on one end and the next size you wish to stretch to on the other end. The most commonly utilized materials for tapers are acrylic (which is never appropriate for actual wear in the body, but is suitable for a taper, although it cannot be adequately sterilized) or steel. Titanium and teflon can also be found but are less common. Use of a taper is most effective at smaller sizes. After about 8mm (0g) or 9mm (00g) it is best to switch to one of the other methods. Tapers are ideal for the smaller sizes because it is more difficult at those sizes to tape wrap, use weight, etc.

Before you begin the process, if you have a steel, titanium or teflon taper, consider taking it to a piercing studio and having it autoclaved for sterility purposes. If you are using acrylic, the only way to clean it is with antibacterial soap and water. If you have latex or nitrile gloves, certainly wear them for the procedure. Either way, wash your hands with hot water and antibacterial soap and observe basic sanitary practices before, during and after the procedure. To taper your piercing, select a taper that ends at the next size up from your piercing. For example, if you are at 10g, your taper should end at 8g. If you are at 8g, your taper should end at 6g. It is very important that you only stretch one size at a time for the health of your piercing. Lubricate your taper with a water-based personal lubricant and slide it through your ear in one fluid motion. When you get to the end of the taper, butt your jewelry up against the end of the taper so that it looks like an extension of the taper, and push the taper the rest of the way through with the jewelry. This entire process should not take more than a few minutes at longest, and is usually just a few seconds. There may be slight discomfort from the pressure, but this process should never be painful and should not bleed. If you encounter significant resistance, please consider waiting longer.

Please note that tapers are not meant to be worn, they are for the insertion of jewelry only.

Stretching by wrapping suitable material around jewelry (tape wrapping)

The “tape wrap” method of stretching is an alternative method of stretching for larger sizes where tapers are less available and significantly more expensive. To use this method, purchase a roll of PTFE (Teflon) tape at any hardware store. Once your lobes are completely healed, take out your current jewelry and put one or two wraps of tape around it, then reinsert the jewelry in your ear. You can do this every few days as your ear adjusts to each new wrap of tape - thus gradually stretching your piercing up to the next size. While this method works quite well for many people, some people find that the Teflon tape gets stuck/attached to the inside of their ear after insertion, thus making removal of the jewelry significantly more difficult. If this happens, you can also try bondage tape, which is available online and at most adult stores. Remember, slow stretching and long healing times are key to healthy lobes.

Do not attempt to use duct tape, electrical tape, or other industrial or household tapes. They contain chemicals in the base tape material and adhesive that are toxic and can cause nasty skin reactions.

Stretching with weight

Historically, weight has been used across many cultures as a way to stretch piercings. It is possible to stretch using heavy jewelry (solid stone plugs at larger sizes, for example), by wearing jewelry specifically design to act as a hanging weight, or by wearing weight through tunnels. Weight through tunnels is the healthiest method for stretching because it allows you to vary the amount of weight, and the tunnel allows the weight itself to be distributed across a larger surface area. Great care must be taken when using weight to stretch - it is very possible, with long term wear of too much weight or weight with a very small surface area (wearing heavy weight jewelry without tunnels) to ruin the elasticity of skin or cause significant irreparable thinning in the area where the weight sits in the piercing.

Your tunnels should be rigid material (implant grade steel or titanium) and not glass or organic, which can break. Cheap CBR (captive bead ring) jewelry is great for wearing through tunnels because they come in an array of sizes and you can wear multiples. 8mm (0g) or 9mm (00g) cheap imported CBR's are not okay to wear in contact with your skin because they are made from cheap metal and polished poorly, but they make a great option for good weight worn through suitable tunnels when stretching at larger sizes.

Weight should only be used periodically and you should permit your lobes extra time to relax after their use.

Stretching by unaided insertion of larger jewelry (dead stretching)

"Dead" stretching means to insert larger jewelry without the use of tapers, tape, or weights. This method is based on the fact that after wearing a certain size for a long enough period of time, your tissue may naturally relax and loosen, thus making it easier to insert a slightly larger size. Single or non-flared jewelry works best for this method as you do not have to force in a flare. Again, this method does not mean take bigger jewelry and simply shove it into your piercing. You are relying on a long healing time to allow the tissue to relax simply from weight of jewelry at the current size before easing in the next size. Dead stretching is a method that happens naturally for many individuals who regularly wear solid stone plugs or other heavier jewelry. You can aid this process by gently tugging at your jewelry when you're bored.

If the jewelry won't go in easily, the piercing is not ready. Do not force your body to do things it is not ready to do, you will only be impeding your own progress later and doing yourself a disservice.

Size conversions and jewelry for stretched ear lobes and other piercings

Below you'll find approximate size conversions between gauge, inch and millimeter sizes. Do note that we measure all of our body jewelry in whole millimeters and the chart is arranged accordingly, but does have conversions listed.

1.0mm 18g

1.5mm 14g

2.0mm 12g

2.5mm 10g

3.0mm 8g

3.5mm

4.0mm 6g

4.5mm

5.0mm 4g

5.5mm

6.0mm

6.5mm 2g

7.0mm

7.5mm 1g

8.0mm 0g

8.5mm

9.0mm 00g

9.5mm 3/8”

10mm

11mm 7/16”

12mm

13mm 1/2”

14mm 9/16”

15mm

16mm 5/8”

17mm

18mm 11/16”

19mm 3/4”

20mm

21mm 13/16”

22mm 7/8”

23mm

24mm 15/16”

25mm

26mm 1”

27mm 1 1/16”

28mm

29mm 1 1/8”

30mm 1 3/16”

31mm  

32mm 1 1/4”

33mm 1 5/16”

34mm

35mm 1 3/8”

36mm

37mm 1 7/16”

38mm 1 1/2”

39mm

40mm 1 9/16”

41mm 1 5/8”

42mm

43mm 1 11/16”

44mm 1 3/4”

45mm

46mm 1 13/16”

47mm

48mm 1 7/8”

49mm 1 15/16”

50mm

51mm 2”

52mm 2 1/16”

53mm

54mm 2 1/8”

55mm

56mm 2 3/16”

57mm 2 1/4”

58mm

59mm 2 5/16”

60mm 2 3/8”

61mm

62mm 2 7/16”

63mm

64mm 2 1/2”

65mm 2 9/16”

66mm

67mm 2 5/8”

68mm 2 11/16”

69mm

70mm 2 3/4”

71mm 2 13/16”

72mm

73mm 2 7/8”

74mm

75mm 2 15/16”

76mm 3”

77mm

78mm 3 1/16”

79mm 3 1/8”

80mm

81mm 3 3/16”

82mm

83mm 3 1/4”

84mm 3 5/16”

85mm

86mm 3 3/8”

87mm 3 7/16”

88mm

89mm 3 1/2”

Suitable jewelry for stretched piercings

There is a wide variety of materials and styles to choose from when it comes to body jewelry, but not all of these options are safe. Jewelry is frequently made from inferior, sometimes unsafe materials simply because people will buy it.

The ideal materials for healing stretched piercings are implant grade steel and titanium, glass, and teflon. These materials are either fully inert (meaning the body basically ignores them) or are materials that are certified for use in medical implants and long term contact with body fluids and tissue. Please note that "stainless steel" means nothing in the context of the human body. Steel must be ASTM certified as "implant grade" with the proper finish because steel contains nickel that can potentially cause allergic reactions and "implant grade" material minimizes this effect.

Materials that are safe for general daily wear in healed stretched piercings include the above materials, precious metals (gold, silver, platinum) and natural materials such as stone, bone, horn, ivory and wood materials that have low potential for toxicity (some woods can cause allergic reactions and should not be worn in the body). 

Single flared or non-flared jewelry is ideal for stretching. Double flared jewelry can be used, but is far easier at larger sizes and can be problematic if swelling or other issues occur. Flares also trap more naturally secreted oils, resulting in more buildup on the jewelry that is harder to wash off. Spirals and shapes that taper are not recommended as jewelry for healing because of the inherent movement of these styles during your daily routine, which can increase healing times.

Onetribe recommends the affordable jewelry made by Gorilla Glass, a quality glass product suitable for stretching and wearing during the healing process.  (If you do not see your size listed, please email us and we will order it for you.)

A note about natural materials: those materials classified as "organic" and having once been alive (wood, horn, bone) are NOT suitable for stretching because of their porous nature and inability to be adequately sterilized. However, some natural inorganic materials (minerals) with high density, low porosity and the ability to be autoclaved can be used for stretching purposes or wear in initial larger sized piercings. The primary materials we use for these pieces are dense jades and obsidian, which is a natural glass.

Care for stretched piercings

Caring for freshly stretched piercings

There are many different methods for healing a freshly stretched piercing - these are our favorite methods for care.

LITHA (Leave It The Heck Alone): In our opinion, the best way to care for a fresh stretch is to simply leave it alone and let your body heal itself naturally. The vast majority of the time, our efforts to "care" for our bodies do more to prolong healing time than they do to help. Our bodies are quite adept at healing wounds without our help, except of course for basic hygiene to create a clean environment for healing. Simply let clean, warm water run across your piercing in the shower to flush away any buildup. We advise waiting at least a week before removing the jewelry (carefully and after rinsing away any exterior buildup) and cleaning the piercing and jewelry.

Sea Salt Soaks: Sea salt soaks help to ease discomfort and cleanse a piercing. We recommend them when a piercing is irritated or inflamed. If your piercing is not having problems, sea salt soaks are generally helpful, but we again advise letting the body do its job before trying anything else. To perform a sea salt soak, first dissolve 1 teaspoon of non-iodized sea salt (available at most grocery stores) in a coffee mug of warm (slightly cooler than shower temperature) water - preferably deionized or distilled water, but tap water will do. Then submerge your piercing in the solution for 10-15 minutes. This can be done twice a day & soothes your piercing while drawing out impurities. Note: Do not overdo it on the salt - too much salt has an adverse drying effect and can prolong healing. For a quick on-the-go solution, consider the Onetribe Sea Salt Soak Therapy Pack, which contains a pack of pre-mixed salt and herb soak bags.

Dr. Bronner’s Soaps: Dr. Bronner’s soaps are all natural and quite mild, with herbal ingredients that will not irritate your skin or leave chemical residues. Any other equivalent brand of plant based non-chemical soap would be equally beneficial.

Antibacterial/Antimicrobial Soaps: We generally do not recommend these soaps as they contain harsh chemicals and simply are not needed in most cases. If you have an excessively dirty or irritated piercing, just went swimming in a lake (which you shouldn't be doing with a fresh wound anyway) or have any other circumstances that might require these soaps, look for Satin, Provon or another similar soap that is meant for sensitive skin and is less harsh than brands like Dial.

Caring for healed stretched piercings

By far the most important things that you can do for your stretched piercings are to massage them and let them relax without jewelry. Massages can be done with any plant based oil such as jojoba, or Vitamin E oil that you might find at a health store. Onetribe offers a variety of oil blends for piercing and jewelry care. Jojoba oil is great because it is an extremely close match to the oil that your body naturally secretes, and it therefore much less likely to irritate your skin long term. Vitamin E oil also has an extremely beneficial effect, as it aids the body in breaking down scar tissue. In stretching, scar tissue makes future stretches more difficult and effects the aesthetic of your piercing. Doing the equivalent of a deep tissue massage on your ear lobes (or any other healed, stretched piercing) will help increase blood flow and break down any scar tissue that might be present. To relax your ears, we recommend spending time without your jewelry in to regain blood flow and allow the tissue to relax.

Allowing lobes to relax

There are many benefits to allowing your lobes to relax for a few hours each day. While wearing jewelry, no matter what type, stress is being put on your lobe, thus restricting the flow of blood, oxygen, nutrients, etc. to the bottom of your lobe. Over time, this can cause your lobe to thin out, and also cause it to become irritated. One of the best ways to alleviate this problem is to take your jewelry out for a few hours each day to allow the piercing to breathe and increase blood flow to the bottom of your lobe. Over time, this will promote healthier lobes, including thickening the tissue, thus providing more room to stretch in the future.

There is no steadfast rule on when it is a good idea to start allowing your lobes to relax. We personally believe that at ANY size it is beneficial to leave your plugs out for at least a little while, and that at any size larger than 2 gauge (1/4”) anyone should be able to leave their jewelry out overnight. If you are concerned about leaving your jewelry out, take it out for a progressively longer period of time each day until you find the amount of time that is the longest you feel comfortable with. If you have trouble reinserting your jewelry after leaving it out, a hot compress for 5-10 minutes and some lube along with a taper will quickly resolve your problem. You can also wear jewelry of a slightly smaller size for a short amount of time to achieve the same effect.

Potential issues

What is this gunk on my jewelry? I thought my ears were healed...

If your ears are healed and you seem to have some funky stuff on your jewelry when you take it out, this is most likely dead skin cells. Your entire body sheds dead skin cells as it grows new skin, you just don't see it (guess what a good part of the dust in your house is!). Since there's a significant amount of skin touching your plug, those dead skin cells don't have anywhere to go, so they build up on your jewelry. This effect and the smell that goes along with it varies from person to person and from material to material, with metals generally seeming worse than other materials, like organics.

After stretching, my piercing is very sore / bleeding - HELP!

If you are experiencing anything beyond a slight soreness, or you are bleeding, then you have stretched your piercing too quickly. Unfortunately, this means that you are going to have to backtrack to heal before you can consider stretching again. If you leave your jewelry in and heal without relaxing your ear lobes or other piercing, you have a high risk of your damage forming as scar tissue instead of healing properly. Downsize your jewelry to at least your previous size (if not farther) and treat your ears as if they are a fresh piercing or fresh stretch (refer to information above). Once you think that your ears are completely healed, wait another two weeks and begin doing vitamin e oil massages for at least another month prior to stretching.

I think I have a blowout! What exactly is this and what do I do about it?

A blowout happens when one stretches too fast. This is generally an issue with ear lobes as a result of stretching too much, or too fast. These generally happen during or immediately proceeding (within 48hrs) a stretch. A blowout occurs when the pressure on the insides of the piercing (the fistula) is too great, and the hole deforms itself by twisting inside out, resulting in the "blowout," or section of tissue that appears as a flap on (generally) the backside of the piercing. First and foremost, you must downsize immediately. Being stubborn and not taking this action could result in the blowout healing, which results in a ring of unsightly scar tissue around the piercing, making future stretching more difficult. Second of all, the piercing absolutely must be treated like a brand new piercing. Blowouts go hand in hand with tears, and most blowouts result in at least minimal tears to the lobe, so the aftercare becomes especially important.

Additional resources from Onetribe

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