I adore sparkly statement jewelry, yet some of my favorite pieces cause me to break out in itchy, uncomfortable rashes all over my neck, ears, and fingers. Such is my lot in life; I, like millions of other people, am allergic to nickel.
Nickel is a whitish-colored metal that’s often blended into other metals to make them stronger. It’s less expensive than other metals, so nickel alloys show up in costume jewelry as well as coins, zippers, buttons, hair pins, keys, and countless other products. I’ve gotten nickel rashes from a safety pin used to fasten my pants and I’ve had to throw away bras because their fasteners irritated my skin too much.
Since nickel is so ubiquitous, many people often find that they’re allergic to it—it’s one of the most common causes of allergic contact dermatitis. Although it’s possible to become allergic to nickel after a single exposure, it can also happen after repeated exposures, and unfortunately, once a person is sensitive to nickel, he or she is sensitive for life. Although there are treatments to assuage the symptoms, the allergy persists forever. No one knows exactly how nickel allergies develop, but it seems that people with eczema and other skin problems are more prone to developing the allergy. There’s also some evidence that it’s genetic and if other people in your family suffer from the allergy, there’s a good chance that you will, too.
When Accessories Annoy
Reaction to nickel can begin immediately upon contact, but it’s possible for it to take up to forty-eight hours before symptoms develop. Nickel usually causes an itchy, bumpy rash, along with redness or other skin discoloration, and severe reactions can include blisters or seeping sores. Sweating usually makes the symptoms even worse. Nickel allergies aren’t life threatening, but they can be supremely irritating. They’re usually easy to treat with an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream, but for people with extreme allergies, a dermatologist-prescribed ointment or antihistamine pill is necessary to curb the inflammation and stop the itching.
The most common advice given to nickel-sensitive people is to avoid it entirely, but while it’s certainly possible to be extra wary about belt buckles, zippers, and bra straps touching your skin, completely avoiding all exposure to nickel is sometimes unfeasible as well as undesirable. Most people wear a watch, a wedding ring, or some form of jewelry every day, and would be loath to go without it. It’s possible for allergy sufferers to enjoy jewelry, but it involves a bit of detective work about which metals are safe.
Are Karats Good for Your Skin?
Even people who think they only wear “quality” jewelry are sometimes surprised when an expensive pair of earrings causes them to break out in a rash. Not all jewelry is created equal and nickel can hide in the most unusual places. Gold and silver are very soft metals on their own, so nickel is sometimes added to them in order to make them harder. The purity of gold is measured in karats and the higher the karat, the purer the gold. Twenty-four-karat gold is 99 percent pure. It’s hypoallergenic for the vast majority of people and only alloyed with .01 percent of other metals for stability. Moving down the scale, 18-karat gold is only 75 percent gold, meaning that a full quarter of the product is comprised of other metals. Twelve-karat gold contains about 50 percent pure gold, and 9-karat gold contains about 37.5 percent. The lower the percentage of pure gold, the more likely it is that the jewelry contains nickel. Nickel alloys may increase the risk of skin irritation, but they do make the jewelry more durable. Pure gold is unlikely to cause skin irritation, but it’s more prone to damage than other blends.
Better jewelry is usually alloyed with pricier metals like silver or copper, so quality jewelry of any karat rating is usually safer than cheaper costume jewelry pieces. A piece of 12-karat gold from a reputable jeweler probably contains less nickel than an 18-karat piece from a mass-market or discount retailer. The gold content and the alloys are reflected in the price, so the cheaper a piece is, the more likely it is that it contains nickel or other cheap metals. Sometimes it’s even possible to become allergic to a piece of jewelry after years without any reactions. It’s possible for the gold molecules to wear away with use, leaving the nickel more exposed to the skin.
Platinum is hypoallergenic and a good choice for allergy sufferers. Unlike gold, platinum is always 90 to 95 percent pure, and the remaining 5 percent is usually comprised of gold, silver, or copper. Platinum is stronger than gold, although it’s much more expensive. Sterling silver is another safe choice. Although common silver jewelry can contain large amounts of nickel, sterling silver is always 92 percent silver and 7.5 percent copper, neither of which irritate skin. Surgical and stainless steel are other hypoallergenic choices and they’re especially good for body jewelry.
White gold is often made by blending gold with nickel (the nickel gives it the trademark whitish color). People who are sensitive to nickel should be sure that any white gold jewelry they wear is made instead with higher concentrations of silver and a coating of rhodium that protects it from tarnishing. This type of white gold is more expensive, but it’s less likely to cause allergy symptoms. Some jewelers document their manufacturing process and guarantee that their jewelry is nickel-free. Although nickel ratings are the law in the European Union, they’re not yet required here, so there’s no standard or oversight to guarantee a jeweler’s claims.
Being a jewelry lover who is allergic to nickel can feel like a lesson in self-punishment. Knowing the culprits that usually trigger my allergies has helped me to make better choices about the pieces I wear and for all those nickel-laden pieces I just can’t live without, a handy coating of clear nail polish usually does the trick.