...so, now what?
In my years working the front desks and piercing booths of body modification shops, I have heard some variation of this question more times than I would ever attempt to count. While any reputable shop will go over aftercare with you before you ever get any work done, the chances that your excitement, nervousness, and anticipation will allow it to go in one ear and out the other are pretty high. Most people smile and nod while listening to my little aftercare speech, and then call the shop 20 minutes after leaving to ask me how the hell they take care of this thing. It's okay. We understand. I still get that excited after all these years, and it is only because of my experience that I now know what to do -- and so, I thought it ideal to create an online reference that anyone, anywhere can turn to when they realize they weren't paying any attention to what their artist told them!
Standard Piercing Aftercare
The way you take care of a piercing often depends on where it is -- oral (lip/tongue/inside the mouth) piercings and "below the belt" piercings, for example, involve a different aftercare technique than most others. Those will be covered below; this section deals with most other piercings, such as your nostril, eyebrow, ears, nipples, and navel.
Immediately upon getting pierced, you will likely feel the area begin to swell and become a bit tender. This is completely normal -- you did, afterall, just shove a piece of steel through your body. What you need to keep in mind is that your body does not know the difference between an intentional wound and an accidental one. All it knows is that there is a hole in it, and it will attempt to heal it. While you obviously don't want the hole to disappear, you do want to respect your body's attempt to heal, and treat it in much the same way you would any other injury. This means, first and foremost, keeping it clean.
Unfortunately, many body mod artists disagree on the best way to do that, but I tend to take the hospital's word for it. If you come into emergency with a hole in you, they are not going to rub peroxide on it or spray it with alcohol -- they are going to flush it out with saline solution. Peroxides, alcohols, and many of the fancy aftercare products offered on the market will indeed clean your wound, but they will also kill all of the good bacteria that is helping you heal, and dry your already tender skin out terribly. Cleaning your piercing a couple of times a day with saline gives you the perfect combination of cleanliness and ability to heal.
Also important is to keep the things that may be touching your piercing clean. This means pillow cases, hats, clothing, and, of course, yourself! Avoid wearing make-up, applying lotions, swimming, or anything else that will introduce foreign matter into your new piercing for the first 3 weeks, minimum (6 is actually preferable).
You will probably notice lymph (that white/yellow crusty stuff around your piercing) during the healing process. While you don't want to leave it all there, you also don't want to irritate your piercing by picking at it all the time -- opt instead to put some saline on a Q-Tip and gently clean it away.
Besides keeping your piercing, clothing, and self clean, the best thing to do to a new piercing is nothing. Do not listen to people that tell you to turn the jewelry, or that it's okay to change it two days in. The less you mess with it, the faster it will heal. It's just that simple.
Oral/Below the Belt Piercing Care
As I mentioned earlier, there are a couple of piercings that you will treat a little differently. These are oral piercings (anything in or near your mouth, including lips, tongue, smilie/frownie, cheeks, and labret), and "below the belt" piercings (anything on or near your genitals). The reasons they require different care should be obvious: these are sensitive areas, and keeping these areas clean without irritating them takes a slightly different approach.
When it comes to the oral piercings, you can do the standard saline wash on the outside, but when cleaning the inside, an alcohol-free mouthwash will clean food, coffee, and nicotine (not that you would be silly like me and smoke, of course...) remnants from your mouth. Take care to not change the jewelry for a bare minimum of six weeks -- oral piercings are far more sensitive than others, and any irritation will greatly slow down the healing process. Also try to avoid spicy foods, or very hot beverages. Not only will they irritate your piercing, they will simply not feel all that great. Colder drinks will bring down the swelling, and milder foods will help avoid a wound on fire!
Below the belt piercings are, believe it or not, some of the easiest to care for. If need be, you can do a saline spray, and should clean lymph the same way as I recommended in the "standard piercing" guide, but, in all honesty, your own body is the best cleanser. Urine will naturally clean your piercing, so simply do what you do, and shower often. It is very important to not irritate these piercings, however, so as hard as it may be, avoid sexual activity during the healing process.
Listen to your body -- and your piercer!
A good piercer will always be happy to answer your questions and address your concerns. If anything looks or feels funny to you, never hesitate to contact them and have them offer their advice. Similarly, be willing to listen to them. It's always tempting to change your jewelry early, or take your mother's/best friend's/partner's advice, but piercers are professionals, and most have done thousands of piercings before yours. If anyone knows how to take care of it, it's them.