Does your wedding ring make you itch? It might be a nickel allergy, and here's what you can do.
Updated: Aug 16
Even wedding rings can trigger allergic reactions
When you start to develop a red, itchy patch right underneath your wedding ring, it's no fun.
Why does this happen and what can you do about it?
You've probably developed contact dermatitis, which occurs when substances contact the skin and cause inflammation. Contact dermatitis can be caused by irritation, or it can be caused by allergy. Soap and water can irritate your skin. Surprisingly, soap and water can really irritate the skin. Soap removes the skin's natural oils, and exposure to water alters the skin barrier. It's very common for soap and water to become trapped under rings, and between that and the friction and rubbing of a ring against your skin, you can start to develop more irritation. Irritant dermatitis is the medical term for irritation leading to inflammation of the skin, which can result in red itchy patches.
Allergic reactions can also result in red itchy patches.
You can also develop an actual allergy to metal jewelry. The most common trigger is metal called nickel. Nickel is durable, and it's cheap, so it's used in all sorts of items. I've seen many cases of allergies to costume jewelry earrings and necklaces and pendants. I've also seen reactions to watchbands, to snaps and buttons on clothing, and even to other items such as eyelash curlers and scissors. I've even seen reactions to expensive jewelry and implantable medical devices, because nickel is so often mixed with other metals.
This kind of allergic reaction is delayed, and sometimes it can take 2-3 days after wearing the jewelry, and even as long as a week, before the rash begins. It can also begin at any point during your life-even if you've been wearing jewelry for years.
What can do you do if you suspect you're allergic to nickel in your jewelry?
1. 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. 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.
If your ring makes you itch, there are some solutions.
3. 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.
4. 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.
Even expensive costume jewelry can contain nickel.
5. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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. A rashy ring finger is bad enough; you really don't need a rash around that nose ring.
Dr. Rajani Katta is the author of Glow: The Dermatologist's Guide to a Whole Foods Younger Skin Diet. To receive future updates on preventive dermatology and the role of diet, sign up here.