I can only wear gold jewelry, everything else breaks me out.” How many times did I hear that exact phrase from my mother when I was a child? Every time I would give her jewelry that was her response.
Why does everything but gold break my mother out? Is that statement even true? When I started designing jewelry over ten years ago I decided to find out. I wanted to design jewelry for my mom that she could wear without fear of a breakout. Now I am going to let you in on what I have discovered.
My mother, like many people, develops contact dermatitis when her skin comes in contact with some types of jewelry. Her dermatitis is a result of an allergic reaction to the nickel found in many types of jewelry. Nickel allergies are very common, in fact one out of every seven people are likely to suffer from a nickel allergy. More often, women tend to suffer from nickel allergies than men. Allergy treatment can help with the symptoms of a nickel allergy. Unfortunately once the allergy has developed, a person will remain sensitive to nickel for the rest of their life.
Nickel is found in many types of costume jewelry, especially those that are mass-produced. It may also be found in other everyday items like coins, zippers, eyeglass frames, and cellphones.
So why is my mom allergic to nickel, you may ask. For some reason, which science still does not understand, her body has mistaken nickel (or similar metals like cobalt) as a threat. In response to that threat, her body causes an immune response (aka allergic reaction) to get rid of the threat. This reaction causes her to breakout in an itchy rash. But others could have a more severe reaction to nickel.
Now that I knew what was causing my mother’s breakout, I set out to find out which types of jewelry did not contain nickel.
First I looked at gold jewelry. Generally speaking, yellow gold (above 14 karat) will not cause an allergic reaction. However white gold may. White gold alloys contain nickel and other “white” metals to produce its silver coloring. One out of every nine people will react to the nickel in white gold.
Another form of gold jewelry is gold filled or “GF” jewelry. Gold filled jewelry metal is created when a base metal is coated with a layer of gold. Gold filled differs from gold-plated by the amount of gold applied. The layer used in gold filled jewelry is typically 50 to 100 time thicker that the layer used to coat gold-plated products.
Next I looked at silver jewelry. For those who are nickel sensitive, fine silver and sterling silver are great choices for “white” metals.
Fine silver is by definition 99.9% pure silver. Jewelry is generally not made of fine silver because the metal is extremely soft and does not withstand normal wear and tear well.
Most silver jewelry is made using sterling silver. Sterling silver is by definition 92.5% pure silver. In most cases, the remaining 7.5% metal is copper. Copper is infused to harden the silver and make it more durable. I use this type of sterling silver in my jewelry designs it is a great metal for nickel allergic people. Sometimes you can distinguish sterling silver by a “925” mark found on the jewelry. This is common on manufactured pieces, but may not be present on artisan jewelry.
Some other metals that are considered safe for people with nickel allergies are:
Copper – Copper jewelry is generally considered pure and not mixed with nickel or nickel alloys.
Platinum – Platinum jewelry contains 95% platinum and 5% of a secondary metal typically iridium.
Titanium – Titanium jewelry is both hypoallergenic and durable. It is a highly recommended metal for those who suffer from nickel allergies.
Niobium – This is a relatively new metal in the jewelry industry. It is a rare earth metal that can be anodized (naturally coated with beautiful colors). Like titanium, this metal is recommended for nickel allergy sufferers, especially those looking for a pop of color.
Since I have given you a list of safe metals, I thought I would also give you a list of metal terms to watch out for when you are shopping for jewelry.
Fashion or costume jewelry typically has base metals that include nickel. Sometimes these metals are plated; however that plating will wear off over time exposing the skin to the base metals. If you choose a plated metal, remember that it will need to be re-plated regularly.
Some have suggested that brass may be a hypoallergenic option. However my research has suggested that brass is sometimes alloyed with small amounts of nickel or even lead to strengthen the metal.
German silver or nickel silver is a metal to stay away from where jewelry is concerned. German silver does not contain any silver. The silver refers to the silver coloration of the metal. The color is derived from a combination of nickel, zinc, lead, and tin found within the alloy.
Surgical or stainless steel – Surgical grade stainless steel is made to be in the human body. However, the steel alloy contains between eight and twelve percent nickel. I have heard varying reports about how safe this metal is for people with nickel allergies. Since the steel alloy does contain nickel, I would tend to avoid it, but some people swear by it.
If you do buy a piece of jewelry and are concerned that it may contain nickel, commercial test kits are available online. These kits contain chemicals that react in the presence of nickel.
Doing a little research can prevent a nickel allergy attack and still allow you to wear beautiful jewelry.