If someone asked me five years ago to locate the forward helix on my body, a wild guess would have been my only option. Nowadays, like many others, I know it to be the front rim of the ear, just above the daith and the tragus — all spots I’ve considered having pierced so I can add to my earring collection.

Like other newfound piercing devotees, I’ve found myself on the #curatedear bandwagon, fueled by the many close-up images of daintily studded lobes on my Instagram feed. With nearly 60,000 tagged posts so far and a cult following across all age groups, the curated ear movement is set to remain strong well into 2020.

While piercing has seen many placements, and jewelry styles fall in and out of favor over the decades, the appeal here is the uniqueness of each look. Jewelry is selected and fitted based on the client’s taste and anatomy, following a detailed consultation to “curate” the look. As the likes of Maria Tash and other luxury piercing brands grow their customer base (and their social media followers), like any trend, the concept is trickling down to the UK’s high-street and fast-fashion hubs, too. A number of retailers now offer their own “curated ear” services in store, but the techniques are proving to be risky.

The use of piercing guns has long been criticized by the professional piercing community.

One of the main issues is the use of controversial piercing guns, a tool and practice that has long been criticized by the professional piercing community. “I would advise avoiding the hand-pushed machine or gun for piercing completely,” says Nici Holmes, senior piercer and owner of Blue Lotus Piercing in Newcastle, England. “Ear cartilage is very delicate and needs to be pierced by a single-use disposable piercing needle. The gun creates way more damage and therefore pain. This can result in many complications, such as migration, scarring, and rejection.”

Rhianna Jones, head piercer at cult-favorite London studio The Circle, expresses concern about cross-contamination, too. “The classic piercing gun cannot be sterilized,” she says. “Some are used on many clients, and even if wiped down with an antiseptic cleaner would still risk spreading disease.” Gun piercing is also a one-size-fits-all approach, which has its downsides as earrings cannot be lengthened to accommodate excessive swelling or thicker lobes — and the consequence is a poor result.

What’s more, many high-street shops are not subject to the same health and safety requirements as a professional piercing studio, says Lola Slider, owner of Forest Piercing in Glasgow, Scotland. “This is a notion that I personally find ridiculous as it’s equally possible to contract an infection through an ear piercing as it is through any other part of the body,” Slider says.

Piercing guns create more damage and pain. This can result in many complications, such as migration, scarring, and rejection.

While there are countless arguments questioning both the cleanliness of piercing guns and the potential trauma they can cause, there’s not much official research on the subject. Those in favor of it insist that the individually packaged and sterile earrings are never touched by the user, ensuring a safe and hygienic service. But, in some cases, these instruments can also be used for nose and bellybutton piercing over the course of one day.

Like many, I had my first piercings done with a gun as a child, and luckily, I remember it to be fairly painless — but with completely uneven results. At 16, I added a second pair of holes to my lobes just to even them out. Would I trust this kind of service to give me the luxe, delicately decorated look I’ve been dreaming of today? I don’t think so. But at much lower prices, stores are certainly tempting the majority of us who don’t want to pay hundreds of dollars to join the ear party, gun piercing or not.

Curious, I decided to try both piercing methods — one on the high street and one at The Circle, where Jones pierced me in her studio. The experiences were vastly different in so many ways. While the assistant at my local high-street shop was friendly, she quickly admitted to me that she’d completed a day’s training in the staff room upstairs just the week before. Perusing the studs on offer, I was surprised by how blunt the earrings (which would be loaded into the gun to pierce me) seemed, but was assured the process would be safe and painless. I chose the cheapest stud, a 9-carat gold ball, and hoped for the best. It was decidedly painless and very quick, sitting pretty in its third lobe placement. But I left without much aftercare advice, feeling certain I would never risk a cartilage piercing using the same method.

The following week, when I headed to The Circle for my appointment, the process was considerably more detailed. Jones and I chatted about which of her wide selection of earrings would work best for my lower helix placement, and she explained to me how all her equipment is meticulously sterilized in an autoclave. On my consultation form, I was asked if I was prone to keloid scarring, as well as if I had any medical conditions and if I was anxious about the process.

It can take years to build up a healthy and professionally pierced earful of bling, not to mention a considerable amount of money.

As for the actual piercing, I’ll admit it hurt more than I’d expected. I chose to have it higher up my ear than the gun stud, and decided to have two placed close to each other, with the hope of eventually fitting two tiny hoops there. Would the pain stop me going back? Absolutely not. Since the appointment, I’ve had two check-ups at the shop, and I’m having my earring posts gradually shortened as the swelling goes down. Any questions I’ve had about my piercings (including my high-street stud), I’ve asked Jones, since I didn’t really trust the advice of a recently trained shop assistant.

Of course, my journey into curated eardom didn’t end as I breathed a sigh of relief and hopped off Jones’ piercing couch. Healing lasts months, and any small knock can cause a painful flare-up, as I learned when I caught my stud in a sweater a few weeks later. It turns out there’s a lot more to those perfectly punched Instagram ears I’d been lusting after for so long. Tricky healing, infection, and even scarring are all possible, since everybody reacts to their new jewelry in different ways.

The truth is, we’re not told how long each piercing took to heal in these #curatedear shots, or when each hole was pierced. It can take years to build up a healthy and professionally pierced earful of bling, not to mention a considerable amount of money.

So what’s the best way to get yourself a healthy piercing? Go local, and do your research. A good piercer will want to see you for follow-up checks and possible jewelry changes, so be prepared for more than a one-time visit. As for jewelry, three-figure prices aren’t the only option. “Medical-grade implant titanium with genuine Swarovski cubic zirconia is perfect for initial piercings and is both beautiful and inexpensive,” Holmes says. “Find a studio that offers a large selection of jewelry in different sizes, styles, and materials — that way you’re not limited to one price range or manufacturer when choosing your jewelry.”

Personally, I’ll be swapping out my #curatedear search for a new hashtag: #safepiercinguk. There are still delicate jewels and unique placements aplenty, but from a diverse range of piercers all over, rather than just London’s trendiest (and therefore most expensive) body-mod boutiques. Since the campaign is spearheaded by the United Kingdom’s Association of Professional Piercers (UKAPP), you’ll find plenty of talented people who are passionate about upholding safe and positive practices. The website is great for finding accredited members on your doorstep, too.

Slider has the last word. “When you support your local professional piercer you will typically experience a higher level of skill, a higher level of client care, and a higher level of hygiene,” she says. “You also become a little piece of a community and a subculture that’s so excited to have you.”

This story was originally published on Refinery29 UK.

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