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Plug earrings, ear plugs, flesh tunnels, earspools, or whichever other name you wish to use, are a type of ear piercing that’s been used by men and women alike throughout human history.
Yes, there are quite a bit of negative and mixed preconceptions surrounding these plugs, but that seems to be the case with any counterculture type of jewelry.
So, what exactly are plug earrings and what are the main things you need to know about them if you’re curious about trying them out? Do they hurt as much as they look like they do? Are the holes from a plug earring reversible? And what types of plug earrings are there anyway?
Let’s take a look.
What Are Plug Earrings?
Plug earrings, earplugs, earspools, or flesh tunnels, as they are often called, are very simple devices – they are short, cylindrical pieces that are meant to fit in large-gauge body piercing holes. Such holes can be pierced in various places on your face or body – your nose and lips being two other more popular places.
However, the earlobes are the most common places for a plug earring as large-gauge holes are easy to make there and they don’t obtrude a person’s day-to-day activities.
Due to their typically simple design and large size, earplugs can be made from various different materials: glass, metal, bone, and silicone are among the most popular materials but you can also get flesh tunnels made out of acrylic glass, wood, stone, horn, porcelain or others.
If the ear hole is stretched carefully and properly, and if the earplug is of good quality and is disinfected, fitting a plug earring should be completely risk-free. However, to make sure that that’s the case, it’s best to get your earplugs only from reputable vendors.
History Of Plug Earrings
As we alluded to above, plug earrings have been around for millennia. Plenty of ancient cultures used to wear earplugs, as well as nose and lip plug piercings. The Egyptian New Kingdom era, for example, is quite famous for the large-gauge hooped earrings both men and women were wearing.
A lot of indigenous cultures in the Americas also used to wear such piercings with the Maya and Aztec civilizations in the Mesoamerican region being the most famous examples.
Further down south, Inca men used to wear gold or silver earplugs as an indication of their nobility and social status. Their flesh tunnel piercings often reached up to 2 inches in size which prompted the Spanish to name them orejones (“big ears”).
Such plug earrings have been used in Mesoamerican and South American cultures ever since the Preclassic Period which can be traced back to 2,000 BCE.
A lot of other cultures across the globe have also worn similar earplugs, with some still using them to this day. Ivory earplugs, for example, were commonly used by the Hmong people of Southeast Asia. The Aka women (also known as the Hrusso people) from India are also well-known for wearing silver plug earrings called rombin.
In Europe and in most of the Western world, this type of piercing has been viewed as countercultural and has been largely forbidden and frowned upon due to the religious and cultural norms of the Middle Ages. The few examples of plug piercing you might find throughout that era of European history will typically be related to the Gypsy or Bohemian cultures.
Today, of course, that’s not the case. While plug earrings are still viewed as a counterculture accessory, and while there’s still quite a bit of controversy surrounding them, they are getting more and more normalized and accepted. With each passing day, it gets a little bit more common to see people with large gauge plug earrings, as well as tattoos and other similar accessories working in office and business settings.
Do Plug Earrings Hurt?
They certainly do look like they hurt a lot, don’t they? And we’re definitely not going to make the case that ear plugs “don’t hurt at all”, as stretching your ears does involve a fair bit of discomfort.
However, when done adequately and with enough know-how and care, ear stretching pain and discomfort is not just tolerable but hardly noticeable.
How to Stretch Your Ears for Ear Plugs
The whole process of stretching an ear hole usually takes about 25 minutes once every month or two. Ear stretching is done slowly and gradually with the use of stretching tapers.
Between each stretching session, there is a rest period with the new gauge flesh tunnel of a month or two so that the ear can get used to its new shape. That month-long period is typically 100% pain-free unless, of course, you hit or damage your ear in any way.
It’s the 25-minute stretching session once per month that’s uncomfortable. Where standard ear piercing involves a short and sharp pain, ear stretching is more of a medium stinging and burning sensation in your earlobe that’s very tolerable and that passes as soon as the stretching stops.
And that’s about it. If the stretching is done carefully and slowly, there won’t even be a wound – the earlobes will just stretch a little bit.
Do Stretched Ears Grow Back?
With plug earrings, there is a “point of no return” after which the ear can’t shrink back to its original size. The precise point for this is different for most people as different men and women have different levels of skin elasticity.
Still, the generally accepted average for this “point of no return” is 6mm or 0.24 inches. Stretching your ear piercing beyond that size will almost always mean that it won’t ever shrink back completely.
It is possible for you to “fix” this with surgical procedures but those tend to be quite pricey. So, if you’re not 100% certain that you want your ears permanently pierced and stretched, it’s best to stay below the 5-6 mm size.
What’s The Process Of Getting Plug Earrings?
The process of stretching your ear for earplugs is simple but long – it starts with a small initial piercing. After that, once per month, the ear needs to be stretched with stretching tapers.
Each stretching should last less than half an hour and stretch your ear hole to the next size up.
Depending on how large you want the piercing to be, the whole process can take anywhere between two or three months or up to a year or more.
Can I Get Fake Plug Earrings?
Of course, as with anything else, there is a fake plug earrings alternative. They are nothing more than standard earrings that are made to resemble earplugs. For example, take a look at these very real looking black plugs or these pair of vera wood fake plugs.
These are easy to wear and give you the hard-core look without the pain and commitment. However, while these look like the real thing, it only takes a second glance to see that they’re not real plugs.
What’s The Difference Between Plugs And Gauges?
This is a common misconception that’s caused a lot of confusion as is evident even by the links we shared above.
A lot of people call plug earrings “gauges” as if the two words are interchangeable – they’re not.
Gauge is the term used to describe the thickness of the jewelry. The word “gauge” can also be used for the stretched earlobes themselves but that’s more of a slang term.
The actual jewelry pieces, however, are what are called plug earrings, earplugs, earspools, or flesh tunnels, but they are not (or shouldn’t be) called gauges.
How To Put In Plug Earrings?
Plug earrings are attached to the holes in your earlobes in a couple of different ways:
- By their ends being “flared out”. These flesh tunnels have their ends slightly flared outwards in order to keep the earring safely attached to your ear. It’s a very simple and practical design that has only one notable drawback – the fistula, or the ear hole, needs to be wide and elastic enough for the plug to fit in it initially. Once the plug is in, you can rest assured that it will stay in place.
- With the help of o-rings. These sliding o-rings are attached on top of the plug to make its ends wide and prevent it from falling off the ear. This is a painless and very safe way to make sure your plug earrings stay in place.
Types Of Plug Earrings
Plug earrings can vary greatly in style, design, materials, color, and size. However, the main way to distinguish the different types of plug earrings depends on the way they are attached to the ear. With the two different mechanics we mentioned above, there are three general types of plug earrings:
1. Straight plugs
Also called grooved plugs or no-flare plugs, these are plug earrings that use o-rings on both sides to stay in place.
2. Double-flared plugs
Also called saddle plugs, these plug earrings flare outwards on both ends. Here’s a very popular example made of iridescent convex glass.
3. Single-flared plugs
This type of plug earring is a combination of the two types above – one side, usually the one on the outside, is flared out, while the other, usually the one on the inside, is kept in place with the help of an O-ring.
If you’re looking to get plug earrings and to have your ear stretched, make sure you find a reputable and trustworthy piercer to get the job done. It’s worth paying more for expertise and skill than to have an irritated and sad ear job.
If you’re looking to explore a range of ear plugs, you can check out specialist stores that only deal with pierced jewelry. We also recommend searching Amazon plug earring collection or Etsy’s wide range for a variety of quality products.
Always check the customer reviews, after-sales policies, and product specifications before you purchase, and make sure to ask any questions from the seller in case of doubt before you buy.