When contemplating body jewelry and piercings, you're likely to come across a slew of terms that are unfamiliar, from helix to rook. And while some of the lingo isn't necessarily important, there are terms that are crucial, particularly when it comes to shopping for threaded body jewelry. "There are two types of threading on body jewelry: internal and external," notes Britton Johnson, a professional piercer in Atlanta. Whether a piece is internal or external refers to the style of screw that’s used on the jewelry itself and whether it's on the outside or inside of the barbell (i.e. a straight piece of jewelry with balls on either end).
Confusing? Sort of but, as experts explain it, the difference between internally and externally threaded jewelry is a pretty big one, as one type is safer and higher quality than the other.
Keep reading for more about internally and externally threaded body jewelry.
What Is Threaded Body Jewelry?
"Threaded body jewelry is jewelry — such as straight barbells, curved barbells, and circular barbells — that have balls that screw off of the ends," explains Johnson. The "thread" is a spiraled ridge that winds around the metal like that on a screw or the inside of a nut. As you'll read below, the two types of threaded body jewelry—internal and external—are vastly different.
Internally Threaded Body Jewelry vs. Externally Threaded Body Jewelry
This is where things get slightly more confusing. "Internal threading would mean the threading goes into the barbell itself," says Brian Keith Thompson, a body piercer with Body Electric Tattoo. "And external would be [threading] on the outside of the barbell. So, if you had a nipple barbell and you had it internally threaded, when you took the balls off either side of that barbell, you would have a female end on the barbell itself, and the ball would have a male end." On externally threaded jewelry, he says, you'll find the reverse. "If you took one of the balls off the barbell side, you would have a male end [on the barbell] and the ball would have the female end."
Externally threaded jewelry tends to be more dangerous than internally threaded pieces, because of the way it's worn: "When you insert externally threaded jewelry, it can cause damage to the tissue, such as scraping and micro-tears," says Johnson, who adds that internally threaded jewelry is generally much higher quality than externally threaded. "With internally threaded jewelry, the barbell itself is super smooth and the threading comes off of the ball (so the hole is in the barbell and not the ball). This leads to a much easier and safer insertion and removal of jewelry, without damaging tissue." Logically, the internally threaded body jewelry sounds more comfortable. Still, the debate over internal versus external jewelry is not just about comfort.
Benefits of Internally Threaded Body Jewelry
- Less abrasive on new piercings
- Less likely to cause an infection in a new piercing
The Association of Professional Piercers (APP) sets the standards to be followed by professional body piercers, and it's made its position very clear in regards to threaded jewelry: “Internally threaded jewelry is part of the APP standard for initial piercing jewelry. The part of the jewelry that passes through your skin is smooth, and the threads are on the removable end(s), such as balls, gems, or spikes. Internally threaded jewelry avoids any possibility of scraping your tissue with sharp threads, which is especially important with fresh piercings.”
Side Effects of Externally Threaded Jewelry
Externally threaded jewelry is much more susceptible to irritation and infection: "Those threads are like little, tiny knives," notes Keith Thompson. "And if you’re putting it in a new piercing, it can cause more trouble than the wound has already received from the actual piercing itself. And later, when you take it in and out, it can cause cutting, scraping, and inflammation." Bacteria can make itself a home in the nooks of the threading, and, if it comes in contact with the raw flesh inside a new piercing hole, it may cause a whole host of problems. If you have externally threaded body jewelry, it should only be used on well-healed piercings. If the piercing isn't healed, you may be risking all kinds of nasty bumps (aka keloids) with even nastier stuff inside them.
While classic piercings are often the first thing to come in mind, the APP points out that steering clear of externally threaded jewelry is especially important during the stretching, or gauging, process, as the sharp ridges of the jewelry can tear and irritate the healing tissue inside your piercing.
Side Effects of Internally Threaded Jewelry
Internally threaded jewelry is a much safer option but, with any piercing, you still could run into trouble—particularly if you have an allergy to a specific type of metal. "Most people have an allergy to nickel," notes Keith Thompson, adding that nickel is often used on lower-quality jewelry. "If you have a nickel sensitivity and you put a barbell that is lower grade in your nipple, you're going to think you have an infection." Redness and oozing at the piercing site, though, is likely from an allergic reaction. "To quickly solve that problem, go see a piercer and have them upgrade your jewelry to either surgical grade (the stainless steel) or—what I recommend—either gold or titanium," he says.
The easiest way to prevent infection or an allergic reaction is to research your piercer, says Johnson. "You want to make sure the piercer you are going to uses implant-grade titanium or solid-gold pieces," she notes. "These come from a small handful of high-quality companies that only sell to shops directly."
What to Expect When Shopping for Internally Threaded Jewelry
Internally threaded body jewelry does, admittedly, cost more. But there's an obvious reason for that: It’s more difficult to manufacture. Novelty stores and mall shops (hello, Hot Topic) often sell body jewelry for less because the quality is much lower, and the jewelry sold by stores and kiosks like these should never be used in an unhealed piercing. High-quality jewelry from reputable shops (physical or online) will ultimately cost you much less in regards to your health, which is something you can't put a price tag on.
While internally threaded jewelry is better for new piercings, it's worth noting that fresh piercings can still get inflamed: "You want to follow correct aftercare, using sterile saline wound wash is the best and healthiest way to keep your piercing clean," says Johnson. "You need to avoid alcohol, peroxide, creams, ointments, tea tree oil, or Claire’s/Wal-Mart piercing solutions. Sterile saline wound wash is the only thing you need to keep your piercing happy and healthy."
Aftercare continues, notes Johnson, even after the swelling minimizes. "Downsizing the jewelry in your piercing after your swelling goes down (the time frame varies according to what type of piercing) can give you extra protection against piercings migrating or getting irritation bumps," she says.
When it comes to drying your internally threaded piercing, the APP says that you should only ever use disposable paper products, as reusable cloths can be a breeding ground for bacteria. Plus, the fibers of said cloths are more likely to snag on piercing jewelry of all kinds.
In addition to regularly spritzing (and drying) your new piercing, be sure to wash your hands regularly so that you never touch it (or any piercings for that matter) with dirty, bacteria-ridden fingers.
The Final Takeaway
If you're planning on getting a new piercing anytime soon, make sure that the studio you visit utilizes internally threaded jewelry. While it's an APP standard, you'd be surprised by the number of shops that don't comply.
Additionally, when you feel like switching out your jewelry, make sure to, again, look for internal threads. If you can't find any that truly fit your fancy, feel free to take a risk with external threads—just always remember that new piercings call for internals at all times.