Ear stretching (also called ear gauging) is when you gradually stretch out pierced holes in your earlobes. Given enough time, the size of these holes could be anywhere from the diameter of a pencil to that of a soda can.

Ear stretching takes time and effort. If you don’t do it right, you can cause permanent damage or scarring and raise the risk of infection.

Let’s get into how to do ear stretching right, how to avoid any complications or unwanted side effects, and what to do if you want to reverse your ear gauges.

Ear stretching began thousands of years ago as a form of beauty enhancement. It’s still widely practiced today by communities like the Maasai in Kenya and the Huaorani in the Amazon.

The famous “ice man,” a well-preserved human body found in Germany in 1991 and dated to more than 6,000 years ago, appeared to have stretched earlobes.

The first thing to do is get an ear piercing. This is as simple as going to a reputable piercing shop, getting your ear pierced, and letting the piercing heal for a few months.

After the piercing has fully healed, then you can get all the equipment you need to increase the size of your piercings.

You’ll need:

  • tapers
  • plugs
  • lubricant
  • tape (optional)

Tapers

These are the long, spiky things you put into your piercings to start stretching out the skin. They come in various sizes (or gauges), depending on how much you want to stretch out your piercing.

Most tapers are acrylic or steel. It’s really up to you which one to use. Many people recommend steel tapers because they slide through the piercing easier. They’re slightly more expensive, though.

The following illustration shows various sizes of tapers with their associated plugs.

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Illustration by Monica Pardo

Plugs

Plugs are the round jewelry you put in to keep your ear stretched. There are tons of options:

  • Acrylic is affordable and easy to find.
  • Steel is slightly more expensive but durable.
  • Titanium is like steel but lighter and less likely to irritate your ears.
  • Silicone is a hypoallergenic material. It may need more frequent cleaning.
  • Organic options include glass, finished wood, polished stone, or any nonartificial materials.

Many plugs have “flared” sides that make it easier to insert the jewelry. Get plenty of these so you can make sure you don’t have any trouble putting your plugs in.

Lubricant

Any kind of safe lubricant will help the taper slide through the piercing more easily.

Plenty of jewelry shops sell commercial-grade lubricant, but you can also use plant-based lubricants, like coconut oil or jojoba oil.

Try not to use any lubricants that have chemicals or additives in them, as these could irritate or infect your piercing.

Tape (optional)

Tape isn’t necessary for ear stretching, but it’ll help you increase your gauge size beyond what’s normally found on jewelry store shelves.

Basically, you snugly apply the tape around the edge of the plug so the plug still inserts properly but gives your ears that extra bit of stretch.

Be sure to use a safe material like polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) so you don’t irritate your ears.

Now that you’ve got all the materials you need, here’s how to do the actual process of stretching:

  1. Wait for your ear piercing to fully heal (no swelling, discharge, itching, etc.).
  2. Massage your earlobe to get the skin warmed up and stretched out. You can also take a hot bath or shower so blood flow to the ear is increased.
  3. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water.
  4. Sterilize all of your piercing equipment with rubbing alcohol.
  5. Lubricate your piercing and your taper from end to end.
  6. Begin pushing the taper through the hole, inserting the thinner side into the piercing first. Go slowly. Expect this to be a little uncomfortable.
  7. Put your plug at the thicker end of the taper so you can insert it into the stretched piercing immediately.
  8. Insert your plug into the hole once the taper goes all the way through.

Once you’ve first started the stretching process, the most important part is to wait. If you stretch your ears too much and too fast, you can tear or injure your ear cartilage.

Here are some tips to care for your ears during the stretching process and after you’ve finally reached your aspired gauge:

  • Wash your piercing at least twice a day with warm water and chemical-free soap.
  • Soak your earlobes at least twice a day in warm, clean water with about 1/4 teaspoon of salt for every cup of water.
  • Massage your earlobes at least once a day with coconut oil, jojoba oil, or another safe oil to prevent scar tissue formation.
  • Wait at least 6 weeks between gauges. Keep an eye on your piercing, though. Don’t go up to the next gauge if you notice any redness, swelling, or irritation after 6 weeks. It may take longer based on your own healing process.
  • Don’t touch the piercing with dirty hands to avoid introducing bacteria.
  • Be careful not to get anything caught or stuck in the piercing that can pull or stretch it, like a loose thread.
  • Don’t worry about a little odor. A gauged ear can smell a little bit because of dead skin cells that can’t be flushed out of the piercing while you’re stretching. This is totally normal.

You shouldn’t see too much redness or swelling during the ear stretching process. If you do, you may have torn or damaged your ear skin. Take extra care of the piercing, or see your piercer to check for infection.

A “blow out” happens when you stretch your ear too fast and scar tissue builds up in the hole. This can result in permanent scarring.

Stretching too quickly can tear your ear tissue in half or cause earlobe skin to detach and hang from your head.

Stretching too quickly or not taking care of your ear may also result in an infection. Here are some infection symptoms to watch out for:

  • painful redness or swelling
  • bleeding from the piercing
  • cloudy yellow or green discharge from the piercing
  • fever
  • lymph node swelling

A stretched ear can grow back if you didn’t stretch it too far. Extreme stretching may leave permanent holes in your earlobes.

Stretched ears can be surgically repaired. A surgeon will:

  1. Cut the stretched earlobe hole in half.
  2. Remove excess stretched tissue from the ear.
  3. Stitch the two halves of the earlobe together.

Ear stretching is safe if you’re patient and follow the steps closely and carefully. Stretch too fast, and you may get an infection or injure your ears permanently.

Taking good care of your ears is also crucial. If you don’t follow a good aftercare routine, you risk infecting your piercing or causing a buildup of unwanted scar tissue.

Stretch your ears slowly. Make sure you take the necessary aftercare steps every day until you’ve reached the gauge you want.