People are so weird about nipples. They're usually either buried beneath layers of clothing (bras, ugh) or covered up with emojis on Instagram, because in the year 2016, we have yet to #freethenipple from its boobie prison. Cosmopolitan.com spoke with a few nip-experts to bring the nipple out of its hiding place, and shine some light on a body part that seldom sees the light of day (or your Instagram feed).
THE SIZE AND COLOR OF YOUR NIPPLES
First off, to clarify what I mean when I say "nipple," I mean the part nearish the center of your breast where where your breast ducts connect to the surface of your skin. The areola, often included in the definition of "nipple," is the pink- or brown-tinted skin around it.
Nipples and areola come in all kinds of sizes. None of which are abnormal, so if some depraved person ever critiques you for having "pepperoni nips," tell them to kindly fuck off—it's just how your body developed. There's no medical reason to distress over the size of your nipples—it's all good and fine in nip land.
The only reasons the size or shape of your nipples might be cause for concern is if they become asymmetrical over time. Dr. Sarah P. Cate, a breast surgeon with Mount Sinai Beth Israel, clarified that "a long term asymmetry is less concerning than an acute one," so if you notice a sudden change in how your nipples match up to one another, you should see a doctor.
If you're deeply concerned about your nipple size (for purely aesthetic reasons), there is a surgical procedure to resize them. Dr. Helen Colen, a surgeon with Colen Plastic Surgery in Manhattan, said it involves either removing or adding tissue to the nipple to deflate or puff it up a bit. To make the areola smaller, Dr. Colen said surgeons cut around it and then size it down—"just like you'd resize a dress" (!!!!!). A tattoo is usually done to make the areola appear bigger, or patients can get a skin graft that takes skin from the inside of their mouth or their labia (YES, LABIA), but that's a pretty rare choice.
As far as color, anything that isn't clearly irritated is normal—usually your nipples and areola are a bit darker than the rest of your skin. Dr. Cate said that during the winter, you might get eczema on your nipples, but if your nipples are cracked, or red and clearly irritated, you should see a doctor.
THE BUMPS AND HAIRS AROUND YOUR NIPPLES
There's a lot going on with your areola. First there are those little bumps that almost all women have, not the nipples obvi, but the little pimple-esque bumps around the nipple. Those are called areolar glands, or glands of Montgomery, and the only gross thing about them is that they're named after a man. They are not pimples, so do not squeeze them and try to pop them. Their function is to make little oily secretions that keep the areola and nipple lubricated and protected, and when the nipple is ~*~stimulated~*~ they might raise up like goosebumps. Most women have anywhere between four and 28 of these glands around their nipples and areola. IF YOU HAVE 29 AREOLAR GLANDS YOU'RE ABNORMAL. Just kidding, you're still fine.
Despite the rumor that women are naturally hairless, like slick, shiny bowling balls, about 30 percent of us also have a few little hairs around our areola. These hairs are very much normal, and a big moment in most female friend groups is the first time you all openly address your nipple hairs with each other. A truly magical time. But if you're really concerned with what others might think when they catch a glimpse of your baby hair friend, yes, it's OK to pluck it. Just do it after your shower, when your pores are more open.
Some women (about 10 percent, as studies have shown) have nipples that don't stick out, but lie flat or sort of fall back into the breast. This is called inverted nipples, and while they might not be ~mainstream~, they're certainly not harmful or bad. They're just, like, cool indie-alt nipples that listen to bands you've never heard of.
According to Dr. Colen, inverted nipples are a result of the tissue that connects your nipple to your breast being a bit shorter. Dr. Colen also said that—while women can come to her practice to get their inverted nipples surgically everted—inverted nipples are totally functional. Meaning yes, you can breast feed with inverted nipples, and yes, you can still get turned on when someone plays with your inverted nipples. Having them surgically altered is just an aesthetic choice.
Some women have two inverted nipples, others might just have one. As Dr. Colen puts it, no two breasts (or nipples) are the same—even when they're on the same woman. But pay close attention to the state of your nips, because according to Dr. Cate, an inverted nipple can, in some cases, be a sign of breast cancer. "If the nipple has previously stuck out and starts to invert, or to sink in, this can be a sign," she said. So if you've noticed a change like that, get it checked out.
WHEN YOUR NIPPLES MIGHT HAVE CANCER
You should give your boobs a self-exam at least once a month, but TBH just do them every day in the shower. There are some things to look for, other than breast lumps, that could be signs of cancer. "Dry, cracking skin with bleeding can be indicative of breast cancer, known as Paget's," Dr. Cate said. "In addition, spontaneous nipple discharge that comes from one nipple only can be a sign of a breast cancer." Even though the average age of breast cancer diagnosis is 61, younger women can get it, too, so don't just write off suspicious nipple activity as your nipples being weird.
To sum up: If your nipples have always been the way they are, they're normal. If they've changed a lot recently, or just one has changed, that's not normal and you should take your nipples to a doctor.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.