by Ms Nandita Ray

Labret or Mao is a form of body piercing started by the ancient tribes. Many parts of the body is pierced, nose, ears, belly button, eyebrows, breasts and lips. Piercing of the lips is called labret piercing and is usually done on the bottom lip. Some people prefer to call all body piercing as labret piercing.

Labret Piercing Introduction

Beauty has become a culture. It has been a conscious and well developed art, cultivated through history and is not ‘skin deep’, as often thought. Enhancing physical beauty is an accomplishment, which as time reflects, is ageless and imperishable. Subdued or garish, fashion is always a part of one’s personality. Apart from adorning the body with jewelry, the practice of piercing various parts of body and implanting ornaments has been widely used by ancient tribes. Piercing was once very popular with the people of yesterdays, it is slowly but steadily making progress and becoming a part of the fashion industry to day. Making resurgence in the early sixties it was the hippies and the punks, who wanted to break the boring and starchy traditions of staid life, shocked people by piercing nose, lips, and belly buttons. To day piercing has become a craft that is practiced by skilled professionals. Jim Ward, Doug Molly and Fakir Musafar are considered pioneers of Body Piercing Renaissance. Jim Ward opened the first Body piercing studio,’ Gauntlet’ in 1975, in Santa Monica. He also started the first Piercing magazine called Piercing Focus International Quarterly. This was the only source of information regarding piercing. In fact Jim also gave certificates of ‘Master Piercer’ to accomplished artists of this trade. Elayne Angel was the first recipient.

Labret Piercing Facts

labret piercingLabret or Mao is a form of body piercing started by the ancient tribes. Many parts of the body is pierced, nose, ears, belly button, eyebrows, breasts and lips. Piercing of the lips is called labret piercing and is usually done on the bottom lip. Some people prefer to call all body piercing as labret piercing. However if one goes by the meaning of the word ‘labrum’, then it is lip piercing since it is the Latin word for lips. Dictionaries clarify the meaning of Labret piercing “an ornament inserted into a perforation in the lip’ or Anthropology/Webster dictionary explains ‘A piece of wood, shell, stone or other substance worn in perforation of the lip or cheek by many savages’. Labret also called lip ring, lip plug or lip plate is inserted into the lips to alter the shape by some tribes. Dubbed an activity of the youth, traditional labrets were used to enhance beauty of the face by inserting a saucer like disc made of clay to spread the lips, after slitting it. This was practiced by many tribes like the Mayans and the Aztec, the Dogon of Mali, the Nuba of Ethiopia, the Mokololo of Malawi and the African Polcot tribal girls. Lip or labret piercing are also worn by the Nunivak tribes of North America. Some tribes in India wore labrets while upper labret piercing was unique to the tribes of Chad.

The Aztec and Mayan men wore labret made of gold to indicate their social status. The Makololo tribes of Malawi wore circular solid lip discs for beauty and wedding rites. Some African tribes wore them for religious reasons, some to ward off evil and keep harm at bay like the Nuban and Dogon tribes. Some Amazonian tribes wore them to denote their status, age and wisdom. The Nunivak tribes of N. America wore modest piercing just for decoration. Some wore it to show a new phase of their life, like puberty or adolescence or newly acquired marital status, power or virility or express a continuity of a particular way of life. The higher castes wore beautiful labrets made of gold and shaped like a serpent or embedded with stones or jade or obsidian.(Obsidian is a kind of natural glass like substance which is produced by the rapid cooling of molten lava). Some wore labrets made from walrus ivory, bone, wood, shell or colored cloth. Naturally all organic!

Simple Labrets do not change facial structure at all. But some do, like the wooden circular discs that are inserted in the lower lip or some times in both. The plug changes not only the shape of the lips but its own form too and becomes a real plaque. Lip plates are a form of body modification, practiced by some tribes. In order to protect the young girl and show her to be under a man’s protection, it is a wedding ritual and it is the husband who begins this physical change of her lips by inserting a blade of straw. The lips slowly begin protruding from the face completely altering the look. To some it would look awful. To some, like the men from the Makolo tribe encountered by Dr. Livingstone, it was ‘beautiful’.

Lip plugs or plates or pelele (in Malawi) or Tenteli (in Mayan) were worn for different reasons, religious, ceremonial, matrimonial orbeautification. To day it is worn for enhancing physical pleasure and for fashion. It is quite common to see a young person with a metal piercing. It holds no bar. Young highly qualified individuals, teenagers or young married couples have no hesitation to get piercing done. Many employers are debating on upgrading the dress code since many educated young adults are sporting this look. In a study conducted by a dermatologist Anne Laumann of Northwestern University, and published in June 2006, in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, the figure of young Americans sporting tattoos and metal piercing is growing. 27 year old Colleen Harris, a librarian holding multiple masters degrees, proudly displays her arms covered with tattoos without reservation. This primitive art of piercing, which dates back to 5,000 years ( as discovered in a mummy that old whose ears were pierced with huge plugs) has come into full bloom in the modern world. Body coloring and metal piercing is trendy and reflects a carefree attitude.

The process of inserting a labret is pretty simple. The lip is pulled or held away from the mouth with a clamp and a hollow needle is pushed in. The needle is inserted from inside the mouth and the labret which is at the end of the needle is placed in the opening and gently locked. The piercing takes hardly a few minutes. It is marking the right spot that takes up a whole lot of time. Marking and choosing the right place is crucial to the successful insertion and quick healing of the piercing.

Lip piercing can be placed anywhere around the mouth, the actual lips are usually avoided. Upper lips are pierced with a small stud. This piercing is more for style. While the lower lip piercing depends on the reasons for the piercing. There is lip ring; labret, vertical or horizontal lip piercing and these names indicate the place where the insertion is done.

Lip Ring

Lip Ring can be placed right in the center or slightly off centered. This way the jewelry has no contact with the gums as it goes through the bottom lip.


Lip pierced with a simple stud. It too can be placed centered or off center. The flat disc remains within the lips while the decoration/stone remains outside.Vertical Labret: – passes through the center of the bottom lip and shows below the bottom lip. It sticks out between the two lips and thus it is slightly curved.

Horizontal Lip piercing: – is a horizontal bar put on the lower lip through the soft red and sensitive part of the lips and is rarely done.

Low Bret: – is just the lower labret.

Vertical Low Bret: – the vertical low Bret is when the piercing is done from inside the mouth. It starts between the teeth and the lower lip and comes out from the lower edge of the jaw line and is seen outside.

Lip Plates: – large lip piercing stretched to its maximum so that it can be worn flipped out.

Madonna/Monroe: – as the name suggests it a piercing done on the exact spot where Marilyn Monroe had her famous mole. This style was started by Madonna who had a piercing placed similarly.

Medusa/Philtrum: – goes straight through the center of the upper lip and is perpendicular to the tissue.

Snake Bites: – when two lower lip piercing is carried out on the two opposite sides of the mouth. Rings or studs are worn.

Spider Bites: – this includes two piercing on the opposite ends of the lower lip along with a stud in the center.

The labrets are made from surgical steel, gold or silicone. Only the best quality materials are always used and are machine made or hand crafted. The shapes depend on their utility and ornamentation and the style one is looking for. Selection of the Labret should be done carefully and with great consideration. One has to keep in mind its long time use and the ‘pros and cons’ of the insertion. There are many designs to select from. A brief summary of the huge array of designs available: –


Can be made from gold or surgical steel or silicone. Simple barbell or a stud having a diamond or any other stones affixed at the top or just a ball, or it can have a hedgehog top which is a spiked ball with numerous spikes sticking out. This is always made from silicone. It can be simple colored silicone stud with a round top. The tops could be multi colored or have a bead on it. It can be glow in the dark type or have crystals. The Stud can have an arrow or spiked top. Butterfly, dragonfly, dolphin, skull or curved claws are also available. Cylinder, atom or rainbow colored studs is available. They are all usually push in Labrets.

Lip Ring

Also called lip plug or lip plate. There are various types of lip rings, like the slave labret ring, captive bead lip ring, acrylic captive lip ring, segment captive bead ring or the simple ring lip labret. There is the “D” shaped ring, dice captive ring, cat’s eye captive ring , UV ball captive bead ring and star, square or round gem captive rings can be got.

Spiked labret

Spiked labrets with arrow like top, made of surgical stainless steel or gold or silicone/acrylic,, tear drop spike, hexa spike, black titanium spike in various sizes, hedgehog spiked labrets with acrylic top in various colors, there is a world of such spiked labrets. One has to patiently go through a number of sites to get one of that is the most appealing.

There are Monroe studs or hard core “disturbed” lip rings available, atom labrets, horse shoe barbell labrets, flat back talon labrets, labret claws, slave flat back labrets for the enslaved look. There is also hand carved labrets made out of bone or horn available. These are organic. Labrets with logos, symbols, phrases, and flags can be ordered to specification.

Health Issues associated with Labret Piercing

The style that one chooses depends on individual taste and wants. Getting a part pierced is not all hunky dory. It needs careful research and consideration for the simple reason that a foreign body is going to be implanted in a part that might reject it or it might lead to some health problem. The most common problem is infection. Cleaning of the wound needs care and attention. Use of saline water is recommended.

Drinking fluid in the initial stage or when the wound is a day or two old is prudent. Avoiding spicy or hot food is advantageous.

Damage to the teeth and the gum is quite possible. This happens if the piercing is not properly placed or the jewelry worn is not proper. Besides due to constant friction the gum might erode.

Infection during healing and or piercing may lead to hepatitis, HIV, Tetanus, Bacteria or yeast infection.Damage to a nerve or excessive bleeding might result due to incorrect piercing.

Allergy to the material used in making the labret.

Chipped or broken teeth may result or the labret may prevent teeth from being X rayed or treated or cleaned.

Thick scars can be formed due to infection.

Therefore the need to select the right piercing studio is very important. A visit to the studio is essential and a careful examination of the following facilities should be kept in mind: –

– How good or experienced is the piercer.
– The professional piercer should be free of infectious diseases. No  wounds should be on his body.
– He should be using sterilized gloves, gauze, needle and the room should also be free of germs.
– Autoclave steam process should be used to clean the jewelry.
– Surgical mask should be worn.
– The skin should be cleaned with a surgical cleaner before piercing.
– Read their brochure and instructions thoroughly.
– Question your doubts and have them ironed out.

One can never be too careful! It is useful to keep these guidelines in mind while thinking of getting a piercing done. They will stand you in good stead. Happy piercing!