When you get a new piercing, you’re welcoming a foreign object into your body. Sometimes your body isn’t as welcoming as you are. It wants to push the foreign object out.

In the early stages of rejection, your piercing will begin to migrate toward the surface of your skin. Eventually, your body will push the piercing to the surface, and your skin will crack open to let it out.

Piercing rejection isn’t nearly as common as some other piercing complications, like infections, keloids, and dermatitis. When rejection does happen, it’s usually in a flat area of the body. Rejection is more common in the following types of piercings:

  • eyebrow
  • belly button
  • surface piercings
  • nape
  • hip

Read on to learn about the symptoms of piercing rejection and how you can treat it.

Your body is all about self-defense. It spends every minute of the day protecting you from an incalculable number of hazards: viruses in the air, bacteria on your skin, fungi, germs, and more. When you injure yourself, your body’s immune system kicks into gear, helping you to heal as quickly as possible.

The symptoms of piercing rejection are actually signs that your body is working to protect itself from what it perceives to be a threatening invader — your jewelry.

Following are some of the symptoms that you’re rejecting a piercing:

  • The jewelry has noticeably moved from its original place.
  • The amount of tissue between the entrance and exit holes gets thinner (there should be at least a quarter inch of tissue between holes).
  • The entrance and exit holes increase in size.
  • The jewelry starts to hang or droop differently.
  • The skin between the entrance and exit holes is:
    • flaky
    • peeling
    • red or inflamed
    • calloused-looking or unusually hard
    • nearly transparent (you might see the jewelry through your skin)

Rejection usually happens in the weeks and months following a new piercing, but it can also happen years, even decades, later. If you bump your old piercing in an odd way or have an infection that kicks your immune system into overdrive, you might suddenly see signs of migration and rejection.

Your skin is the largest organ in your body and the only one that comes into contact with the outside world. It holds in all your bodily fluids and keeps out harmful microbes that cause infections. When your skin is injured, it goes through a complex process of healing that begins with inflammation and ends with the formation of scar tissue.

Your body will only build up scar tissue around a piece of jewelry if that process is easier than pushing the jewelry out entirely. In the case of surface piercings, the body is often tempted to push the jewelry out rather than “wall it off” with scar tissue. Part of wound healing involves contraction, which means your skin is pulling itself back together. This is what allows holes to “close up” when jewelry is removed.

There is no specific cause that leads to piercing rejection. It happens due to a combination of factors, including:

  • Genetics. Some people heal differently than others.
  • The skin surface. Flat surfaces are more prone to rejection.
  • The tautness of skin. Piercing into tight skin around the belly button or chest puts more pressure on the piercing to hold the skin together (like a staple).
  • The size and shape of the jewelry. Ill-fitting jewelry is often the initial cause of migration.
  • The material of the jewelry.
  • Weight changes. Pregnancy and obesity cause the skin to stretch, which may put pressure on the piercing.
  • Physical or emotional stress.

It can be frustrating when your body rejects a piercing, but there’s no danger other than scarring. The best thing to do is prevent the jewelry from pushing itself through the skin’s surface. If the jewelry cracks open your skin’s surface, it will cause more damage, which means more scar tissue. Excessive scar tissue at the piercing site makes re-piercing difficult.

Here are a few tips for dealing with migration and rejection:

  • If you see your jewelry migrating toward the surface, take it out.
  • Try a new piece of jewelry in a different size, gauge, shape, or material.
  • Talk to a qualified piercer for advice.
  • Try a nonirritating plastic ring or bar.
  • Try a larger piece of jewelry if your ring won’t lay flat or your barbell looks like it’s getting swallowed up.
  • Wait about a year before re-piercing.
  • Try applying a topical vitamin E oil to reduce the appearance of scars.

The most important thing you can do before getting a new piercing is to research the best piercers in your area. If you’re getting a surface piercing, make sure to talk to the person about their experience. Ask about rejection rates for the spot you want done. Keep in mind that anytime you’re damaging your skin, you may be left with a visible scar.

Here are a few tips to reduce the likelihood of rejection:

  • Getting a larger gauge, or width, may reduce your chance of rejection.
  • Talk to your piercer about the depth of the piercing and the best size for jewelry to wear while you’re healing.
  • Follow all aftercare instructions. Keep the site very clean and soak it in a saltwater compress.
  • Stay healthy, eat well, and avoid stress.

Piercings are a great way to express yourself and adorn your body. But they are risky. Migration and rejection are some of the least serious complications that can result from a new piercing. If you suspect something is wrong, take out your jewelry and talk to your piercer. A new piece of jewelry is often enough to stop migration and prevent rejection.