NICKEL ALLERGY AND JEWELRY
Many people develop rashes after wearing costume jewelry or other types of jewelry. In one of the most common scenarios, wearing certain earrings will trigger a red itchy rash on the earlobes.
The most common trigger for this type of allergic reaction is a metal called nickel. Nickel is one of the most common allergy-producing substances in America. It's widely used, in all sorts of objects. Nickel is cheap and it's strong, so it's used in many types of jewelry. It’s also used in all sorts of personal and household items, such as watchbands, snaps and buttons on jeans, eyelash curlers, cell phones, and scissors. It's even used in some implantable medical devices.
You can't tell if an object contains nickel just by looking at it, and you can't rely on price either.
How can you tell if you have an allergy to nickel?
When people are allergic to nickel, they’ll develop a rash right at the site of contact. With time, that rash may spread. A common scenario is when women wear earrings and start to develop a red itchy (and sometimes oozing) rash on their earlobes. With this type of allergic reaction, the rash is delayed – it usually takes 2 to 3 days before the rash shows up, although it may take as few as hours or as long as one week. Once the rash is there, it can take up to 8 weeks for it to go away.
While you may suspect an allergy to nickel, patch testing is required to confirm this allergy.
What strategies can help protect you against nickel in your jewelry?
There are strategies to help protect you against the nickel in your jewelry, such as using barrier coatings or metals. You can also purchase jewelry that does not contain nickel.
I'll mention several sources below for these, but please note that I do not have affiliations with any of these companies, and therefore cannot certify them. Shop, as always, with caution.
1. Use a protective lacquer coating
You could try to use a protective lacquer to help prevent the release of nickel from an object. Eventually, the lacquer wears off, so you'll have to reapply it periodically. You could use clear nail polish, although you have to make sure the nail polish itself doesn't trigger an allergic reaction. You can also buy a commercially available solution, such as Nickel Guard (available at www.nickelsolution.com), to provide a protective lacquer that's similar to nail polish but without potential allergens.
2. Ask your jeweler to apply a protective metal coating
For an expensive jewelry item, like a wedding ring, you can take it to your jeweler and have them apply a coating (NOT a plating) on the inner surface of the ring. Platinum or rhodium are hard metals, and would provide a layer of protection.
3. Check your jewelry at home with a nickel test kit
If you're purchasing jewelry, and aren't sure if it contains nickel, you can purchase a nickel test kit. This kit contains a chemical (in solution) called dimethylglyoxime. The use of this chemical does not harm the object being tested. When applied to a metal object with a cotton swab, the solution will turn pink in the presence of nickel. This test may not pick up miniscule amounts of nickel, but it's usually a good screen for jewelry. One company that sells the test kit is www.nickelsolution.com.
If you think you may be allergic to nickel, what kinds of jewelry can you wear?
1. Look for nickel-free costume jewelry, with caution
You can look for costume jewelry that’s labeled as "nickel-free". One company that sells nickel-free costume jewelry is www.SimplyWhispers.com. They sell a wide variety of costume jewelry, including accessories such as earring posts.
You do have to be careful, though, in general, with costume jewelry that's marketed as "nickel-free." At this time, there's no US standard to define this term. In the US, some manufacturers define the term "nickel-free" as being free of nickel in the plating or top layer. When this plating wears thin, which happens over time, nickel may be released. As a general rule, be careful with plated jewelry, and pay attention to any rashes that develop after wearing so-called "nickel-free" jewelry.
2. Consider "medical plastic" earrings
You may be able to use "medical plastic" earrings, as some are certified to contain "0% nickel". One example is "medical plastic" earrings sold by www.BlomdahlUSA.com.
3. Consider surgical stainless steel earrings
Surgical stainless steel earrings may be an option. Surgical stainless steel is, as the name suggests, a very high quality stainless steel. Stainless steel actually does contain nickel, but the nickel is typically so tightly bound that it is unlikely to be released from the object.
That is why I often recommend stainless steel objects for my patients who are allergic to nickel. One example of a company that sells surgical stainless steel earrings is Comfy Earrings.
What about more expensive jewelry or items made from precious metals?
Even expensive gold and titanium jewelry can sometimes have nickel mixed in, so you can't rely on price.
This is what to look for when you're choosing other types of metal jewelry:
1. Many sterling silver items will be fine, although not all.
Some sterling silver items contain nickel mixed with the silver. It's best to look for makers of sterling silver who certify that their items contain no nickel. James Avery, for example, certifies their silver as nickel-free.
2. Avoid German silver or alpaca/nickel silver
What about German silver or alpaca or nickel silver? These terms refer to the silver color of the item, not to actual silver. These items actually do contain nickel. DO NOT choose these items.
3. Be discerning with gold
18 karat gold and above is usually fine. The exception is white gold. In order to make white gold, yellow gold is usually mixed with either palladium or nickel. Unless you know for sure that your white gold is free of nickel, don't choose it.
4. Titanium objects may or may not be OK
Can you rely on titanium objects? Not necessarily. Titanium is often mixed with nickel. Some jewelry manufacturers will specify that their titanium items are fee of nickel, so make sure you look for that information before purchasing. One example is titanium jewelry sold by www.BlomdahlUSA.com.
Certain manufacturers will certify their precious metal jewelry as being nickel-free
Certain companies have informed us that they do not use nickel in their jewelry. You can check with these companies to confirm.
Sterling silver jewelry from James Avery
Jewelry from CRISLU
Titanium jewelry from Blomdahl USA
Jewelry from Van Cleef and Arpels
Jewelry from Cartier
There are multiple others
The Bottom Line: With Rates of Nickel Allergy Rising, You Need to Be Careful
The rate of nickel allergy in the United States continues to remain high, and the American Academy of Dermatology is urging regulations to limit the amount of nickel used in personal items. Until that happens, remember that a big risk factor for nickel allergy is piercing. If you or your child are getting pierced, use nickel-free earrings or body jewelry, and definitely don't use any nickel-containing jewelry until the skin is completely healed over.