The 411 on Metal Allergies

The 411 on Metal Allergies

Got metal allergies? They’re old hat to people who’ve always had them. But if you’re new to this problem—it can start at any age—you may be wondering how to manage it: Will it eventually go away? Do you have to nix all your favorite jewelry? And, if so, is hypoallergenic metal the answer? The answers to these common questions are:maybe, probably not, and sometimes.

Let’s first explain the allergy. Nickel isn’t the only offending metal, but it’s by far the most common. Durable and bright, it’s often maligned as nothing more than a cheap top-coat for costume jewelry. While it’s certainly used to plate most costume jewelry, you’ll find it in lots of fine jewelry, too. It’s an excellent alloy, serving to brighten, whiten, and strengthen gold.

Here’s the problem: The body’s sweat and natural oils cause nickel to oxidize over time, which creates a thin layer of nickel salts on the jewelry surface. For some people, these salts are no biggie. For others, they can trigger an allergic reaction. A rash is most common, but sometimes blisters crop up, too. (Note that blisters may actually signal a type of eczema, known as pompholyx.) Nickel allergies are quite common, mostly among women. That’s why the European Union has all but outlawed nickel in jewelry. They allow only trace amounts, even less in parts that pierce the skin. The U.S. has yet to follow suit.

Once you’ve had an allergic reaction to nickel, you’re not likely to outgrow it. As with all allergies, however, there are degrees of severity. If yours is on the mild end, there’s still hope you can wear your old jewelry. Here are some options that you can try alone or in combination:

  • Stick with gold that is 14K or higher.
  • Shop for jewelry labeled hypoallergenic.
  • Apply a coat of clear nail polish over the metal, and reapply often.
  • Have a jeweler add Rhodium plating to your jewelry, but again, this will need to be done on a regular basis.
  • Wear the jewelry only for special occasions or for limited amounts of time.
  • Keep your skin dry where it touches the metal.

If your allergy is on the more severe end, you’ll probably need to say goodbye to your old jewelry and transition to new jewelry. Here are your best options:

  • Try titanium, 18-karat yellow gold, nickel-free yellow gold, sterling silver, copper, or platinum.
  • If these don’t work, try surgical-grade stainless steel.
  • Be sure that your earring backings also are made of hypoallergenic materials.

Don’t forget about the material used for your earring backs, by the way. And keep in mind that nickel is not the only metal that causes allergic reactions. Cobalt and chromate are also common offenders. If you’re struggling to find jewelry you love that doesn’t give you rashes or blisters, don’t despair. Come in and see us, and we’ll be happy to work with you to find a solution. We can even custom design something for you in a metal that makes your skin happy!

(Image credit staff. "Blausen gallery 2014")

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