How Body Branding Works

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Once you get home with your new brand, you must clean your wound gently every day, coat it in an antibiotic ointment and add a new cellophane wrap. After about three days, as the skin begins to heal, you can add an irritant (like sugar) to hinder the production of healthy skin and encourage scarring. After about 10 days, stop the irritant and let your wound dry out and form a scab [source: Foxx].

After about a month and a half, some people disturb the wound by slapping or rubbing it to make the scar tissue more pronounced. Either way, it will take months for the wound to completely heal. In the meantime, experts recommend keeping the branded area away from any potentially germ-carrying substances, like bodily fluids [source: Foxx].


The complexity of branding aftercare underscores the risks involved in the procedure. As any burn expert will tell you, the possible complications associated with third-degree burns are not to be taken lightly.

The skin's three layers are the body's greatest defense against foreign invaders, and breaking through that defense leaves the body exposed to all kinds of contaminants. The big concern is infection. It's the most common cause of death among burn victims [source: University of Maryland Medical Center]. Being a volunteer instead of a victim doesn't change the potential harm.

Bacteria can enter through the wound at the time of branding or after the fact. Unsterilized equipment, dirty hands and sneezing can all introduce germs that cause serious health problems. Some people start taking prescription antibiotics before the procedure to shore up against this risk [source: Foxx]. But even with proper application and aftercare, infection remains a huge concern.

Improper tools, too, can cause damage in the form of metal poisoning. The coating on a wire hanger can easily flake off in the branding process, leaving potentially toxic foreign material behind [source: Skin Artists]. Technique plays a role, as well: An iron pressed too hard and/or too long on the skin can burn into layers of subcutaneous fat and muscle and cause permanent nerve damage [source: Kelly].

All of this makes branding one of the more risky forms of body modification which is perhaps why many colleges have rules against it, considering it a dangerous hazing ritual. In states like Florida, hazing is a felony, and students who participate in branding could potentially land in prison [source: Battle].

Author's Note: How Body Branding Works

Writing about the "why" of any subcultural practice can be tricky. It's tempting to generalize, but that's usually a faulty approach. For instance, I once knew a woman who branded her pelvis after a miscarriage, in memoriam. Neither aesthetics nor "separateness" played into her decision. And in researching this article, I read about a Muslim man who wanted a tattoo but found it forbidden by his religion, so he opted for branding instead. I tried to avoid absolutes in the discussion of branding's appeal, which I hope readers will take as an overview of possible motivations and not a comprehensive or definitive list.

Related Articles


  • ABC Nightline. "Body Branding: a 'Hot' New Trend?" (April 1, 2013)
  • Battle, Ashley L. "For some black fraternities, body branding is a symbol of devotion." Columbia News Service. March 27, 2007. (April 1, 2013)
  • Church of Body Modification (CoBM). (April 5, 2013)
  • Cox, James A. "Bilboes, Brands and Branks: Colonial Crimes and Punishments." The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Spring 2003. (April 4, 2013)
  • Foxx, Russ. "Scarification." Russ Foxx Body Art & Modification. (April 1, 2013)
  • Guynup, Sharon. "Scarification: Ancient Body Art Leaving New Marks." National Geographic News. July 28, 2004. (April 10, 2013).
  • Hickman, Leo. "Is human branding an animal-rights stunt too far?" The Guardian. Jan. 21, 2013. (April 4, 2013)
  • Israel National News. "Humans Branded in Tel Aviv for Animal Rights." Oct. 3, 2012. (April 10, 2013)
  • Kelly, Tom. "Forget tattoos, branding is the hottest new trend." The Daily Mail. Oct. 28, 2007. (April 8, 2013)
  • Knink. "Scarification." (April 3, 2013)
  • Laylin, Tafline. "269life Activists Etch and Burn White Calf Branding Number Into Skin." Green Prophet. April 4, 2013. (April 10, 2013)
  • Macfarlane, Jo. "The woman bringing horror of 'human branding' to Britain: Vegan to mark volunteer with hot iron in protest against animal cruelty." The Daily Mail. Jan. 13, 2013. (April 8, 2013)
  • Parman, Sami. "Human branding, scarification yield dramatic results." The Ranger. March 6, 2008. (April 4, 2013)
  • Skin Artists. "Body Branding." (April 8, 2013)
  • Snider, Dana. "IU Students Are a Different Brand." The GW Hatchet. April 26, 1999. (April 7, 2013)
  • University of Maryland Medical Center (UMM) Medical Reference. "Burns." (April 8, 2013)
  • University of Michigan Health System (UMHS) Newsroom. "Pleasure and pain: Study shows brain's "pleasure chemical" is involved in response to pain, too." Oct. 19, 2006. (April 8, 2013)
  • Vice. "Stick 'n' Burn: A Guide to DIY Branding at Home." (April 1, 2013)
  • Ward, Clarissa. "Branding Their Bodies." ABC Nightline. Nov. 29, 2007. (April 1, 2013)