As of 2021, I'm advising the use of compresses rather than soaks, reflecting the updated information in the second edition of The Piercing Bible. However, if you still want to do saline soaks, please read on:
This information is from the first edition of my book, The Piercing Bible. It contains everything you need to know about saline soaks and also serves as a preview so you can see the level of detail included in the text. Since I've been suggesting Briotech for piercing care, most of my clients are healing better than ever without any soaks.
But, if you are experiencing complications, or are slower than usual to heal, they can be extremely helpful. Note that if your piercing is bleeding, do not soak! Soaking can prevent clotting. Wait at least 48 hours after any bleeding or spotting is fully resolved before soaking.
NOTE: if you're having piercing problems and haven't tried Briotech, check it out. If you need professional help with a troubled piercing, book a consultation!
One of the best things you can do for all healing or irritated piercings is a saline soak. A warm, mild saltwater solution irrigates, cleanses, and allows the cells to rejuvenate. [Reference 1 in endnotes] Saline soaks keep the cells well hydrated while simultaneously flushing out fluid and cellular material that accumulate in the wound. This reduces crusting and helps prevent pockets of trapped matter, which can create unsightly and difficult-to-eliminate bumps. If this debris is not removed, it can impede healing.  The warm water also opens capillaries and stimulates blood flow, which transports oxygen to the region, promoting healing.
This is not an invitation to swim in the ocean, where you might encounter numerous microbes, motor oil, and other hazards. The goal is to use a solution with a saline concentration similar to that of the human body. Either make your own by following “The Recipe,” below, or use normal saline (a 0.9 percent sodium chloride solution).
What to Use and Where to Buy It
Use non-iodized, fine-grain sea salt for your soaks. It is superior to regular table salt, which typically contains additives to prevent it from drying or clumping and other components that could be incompatible with wound healing. Do not use coarse kosher salt or rock salt either, because their large crystals do not dissolve readily. Lastly, do not use Epsom salt; it is magnesium sulfate, which does not share the same properties as sodium chloride.
Sea salt has a long history of use as a curative. It was advocated for wound care by both Imhotep (considered the first doctor known by name, born in Egypt around 2650 B.C.E.) and Hippocrates, the famed Greek physician (born around 460 B.C.E.). Today sea salt is a cooking product, not a medicinal one; it is not sold in pharmacies.
Many piercers sell or supply sea salt, so you might be able to obtain it at the studio when you go in for your piercing. Otherwise, look in the spice section, near the table salt, or in the natural foods aisle of your regular grocery store. It is routinely available in health food stores, or you can order it over the Internet from piercing supply vendors or food and spice websites. Natural sea salt is superior because it usually contains trace elements that are beneficial for health and healing.
An excellent—if more expensive—option is normal saline. It is isotonic (it matches the saline concentration of human blood), which is what the sea salt and water recipe is intended to emulate. Normal saline is widely used in the medical field. It is a mild but effective cleaning agent and will not harm normal tissue, unlike many stronger antiseptics.12 This product is sold in drug stores and can be warmed for soaks.
The saline products sold for contact lenses and ear or nasal irrigation sometimes contain additives that may not be suited to healing piercings. To be safe, a prepared saline solution should be used only if the label confirms that the container holds “isotonic saline,” or 0.9 percent sterile saline without additives (meaning that it is, in fact, normal saline).
If you are making your own saline solution, the proper ratio is 1/4 teaspoon (not table-spoon) of fine-grain, non-iodized sea salt to 1 cup (8 fluid ounces/250 ml) of clean warm water. The correct proportions are critical. If the solution is too strong (hypertonic, or containing more salt than your blood), it can irritate your skin. If your soaks cause your skin to become dry, use a mixture of 1/8 teaspoon sea salt per cup of water. Premixing a large batch may be convenient, but it is safest to make a fresh solution every time you soak, as a stored supply can become contaminated.
How to Soak
Pour normal saline into a clean container and warm it in a microwave or mix up the sea salt with warm water. The solution should be the temperature of a drinkable hot beverage. Distilled water is best, and bottled water is a second choice; depending on your local water quality, you may need to avoid tap water unless it is filtered or first brought to a full boil for a minute or longer and then allowed to cool sufficiently before use. Even if you believe your water supply is clean, should you experience difficulty healing, use cleaner water for your saline soaks and final rinses.
Soak your piercing in saline solution for five minutes at least once or twice daily, optimally prior to showering (which will rinse away the salt crystals and piercing secretions). If you’re not on your way to the shower, follow your saline treatment with a thorough clear water rinse to remove any residue and debris from the wound, as dried salt crystals and piercing crusties are sharp and can cause damage. Dry with clean paper products. Cotton swabs or sterile gauze squares are helpful for drying ears, navels, and other spots that have nooks and crannies. They can also be used to remove any stubborn matter that remains following a soak. Additional soaks to remove matter can last just a minute or two, but the brief duration won’t produce all of the benefits as described in “The Soak,” above.
Depending on the location of your piercing, a mug, glass, or shallow bowl can be an appropriate soaking vessel. A cup or shot glass is perfect for a navel or nipple piercing. Just lean forward and seal the container of solution over the area to create a vacuum. Keep a clean cloth or paper towel handy in case of leaks. For an ear piercing, use a smallncup or lay your ear inside a shallow bowl. A mug or small bowl can be used for soaking a genital piercing, depending on its placement. Saturate a sterile gauze pad in saline solution to form a small compress for hard-to-soak spots. Disposable cups are a safe (if not environmentally friendly) option; you can also use clean kitchenware. Before use, clean reusable soaking containers in hot soapy water or in a dishwasher.
Depending on the location of the piercing, the soaking process can be challenging or awkward. Hanging around with your ear in a bowl isn’t especially comfy. The process can be time-consuming and seem like more trouble than it’s worth. Still, keeping up with soaks for at least the first few weeks will give your piercing maximum support during the early healing stages.
As your healing progresses, you can try reducing the frequency to once a day or even less. Of course, any time a piercing has a flare-up, you accidentally injure it, or it is aggravated by a stretch, go back to regular saline soaks. Following such a setback, treat your piercing like it is new by following all the guidelines in this chapter.
A good time to do an extra soak is before physical labor, sports, or other movement. This is especially helpful for torso and genital piercings. Crust on your jewelry can get worked into the piercing as you move, causing discomfort and damage. After intense physical activity, you may want to do another saline soak or perform one of your daily cleanings—or at least give your piercing a clear water rinse.
When you aren’t able to soak, you may want to use a saline spray that is formulated for use on piercings. Some are normal saline in a clean-delivery can, and others have enzymes or other additives. Barring an inappropriate ingredient or an overly strong stream, these products are safe and convenient. However, spraying does not provide all of the benefits you receive from soaking. See “Specialty Products,” page 198.
If you eat a low-sodium diet due to high blood pressure or other medical problem, you may need to limit the use of saline on your piercing as well. Consult your doctor for advice.
Sidebar: Soaking Etiquette
Do not leave the water you used to soak your Prince Albert (or any other piercing, for that matter) in a mug on the kitchen counter to be sipped by a sleepy spouse or housemate. A former co-worker unhappily fell victim to this situation—but only once.
1 Eberhard J. Wormer, “A Taste for Salt in the History of Medicine,” Science Tribune (March 1999), www.pdwconcepts.com/userfiles/file/CaseStudy.pdf (accessed September 14, 2007).
2 René A. Jackson and Crystal H. Kaczkoski, “Wound Care,” Encyclopedia of Surgery: A Guide for Patients and Caregivers, www.surgeryencyclopedia.com/St-Wr/ Wound-Care.html (accessed November 11, 2006).
3 Wormer, “A Taste for Salt in the History of Medicine.”