I can only wear gold jewelry, everything else knocks me out.’ How many times did I hear this phrase from my mother as a child? Every time I gave her jewelry, that was her response.
Why does everything but gold tear my mother out? Is this statement generally true? When I started designing jewelry over ten years ago, I was determined to find out. I wanted to design jewelry for my mom that she could wear without fear of a breakout. Now I’m going to tell you about what I discovered.
My mother, like many people, develops contact dermatitis when her skin comes in contact with certain types of jewelry. Her dermatitis is the result of an allergic reaction to nickel, which is found in many types of jewelry. Nickel allergy is very common, in fact one in seven people probably suffer from a nickel allergy. Nickel allergy is more common in women than in men. Allergy treatment can help with nickel allergy symptoms. Unfortunately, once an allergy develops, a person will remain sensitive to nickel for the rest of their lives.
Nickel is found in many types of jewelry, especially in mass production. It can also be found in other everyday items such as coins, zippers, eyeglass frames, and cell phones.
So why is my mom allergic to nickel, you may ask. For some reason that science still doesn’t understand, her body mistakenly accepted nickel (or similar metals such as cobalt) as a threat. In response to this threat, her body mounts an immune response (aka an allergic reaction) to get rid of the threat. This reaction gives her an itchy rash. But others may have a more severe reaction to nickel.
Now that I knew what had caused my mother’s break, I decided to find out what types of jewelry were nickel free.
First I looked gold jewelry. In general, yellow gold (above 14 karat) will not cause an allergic reaction. However, white gold can. White gold alloys contain nickel and other “white” metals that impart silver. One in nine people will react to nickel in white gold.
Another form of gold jewelry filled with gold 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 applied gold. The layer used in gold-filled jewelry is typically 50-100 times thicker than the layer used to cover gold-plated items.
Next I looked at the silver jewelry. For those who are sensitive to nickel, sterling silver and sterling silver are excellent choices for “white” metals.
Pure silver defined as 99.9% pure silver. As a general rule, jewelry is not made of pure silver because the metal is extremely soft and does not withstand normal wear and tear.
Most silver jewelry is made from sterling silver. sterling silver by definition 92.5% pure silver. In most cases, the remaining 7.5% of the metal is copper. The copper is infused to harden the silver and make it more durable. I use this type of sterling silver in my jewelry, it is a great metal for people with nickel allergies. Sometimes you can tell sterling silver by the “925” mark on the jewelry. This is common on industrial jewelry, but may be absent on handmade items.
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% secondary metal, usually iridium.
Titan — Titanium jewelry is both hypoallergenic and durable. This metal is highly recommended for those who suffer from nickel allergy.
Niobium – This is a relatively new metal in the jewelry industry. It is a rare earth metal that can be anodized (a natural coating of beautiful colors). Like titanium, this metal is recommended for those who are allergic to nickel, especially those looking for a bright color.
Since I gave you a list of safe metals, I thought I’d also give you a list of metal terms to look out for when you’re shopping for jewelry.
Fashion and jewelry usually have base metals that include nickel. Sometimes these metals are coated; however, this coating wears off over time, exposing the skin to base metals. If you choose a coated metal, remember that it will need to be coated regularly.
Some suggest that brass may be a hypoallergenic option. However, my research has shown that brass is sometimes alloyed with a small amount of nickel or even lead to strengthen the metal.
Nickel silver or nickel silver is a metal to stay away from in jewelry. Neusilber does not contain silver. Silver refers to the silver color of the metal. The color comes from the combination of nickel, zinc, lead and tin found in the alloy.
Surgical or Stainless Steel – Surgical stainless steel is made to be inside the human body. However, the steel alloy contains eight to twelve percent nickel. I have heard mixed reports about how safe this metal is for people with nickel allergies. Since alloy steel contains nickel, I would avoid it, but some people swear by it.
If you are buying a piece of jewelry and are concerned that it may contain nickel, commercial testing kits are available online. These kits contain chemicals that react in the presence of nickel.
A little research can prevent a nickel allergy attack and still allow you to wear beautiful jewelry.