Pinning Down Jewelry Allergy

Speaking of nickel, that metal is blame to for more skin allergies than any other metal – probably because it's so widely used. Everything from zippers and snaps to coins and costume jewelry contains some nickel.

What’s more, the salt in perspiration dissolve nickel. People who wear costume jewelry with no problem during the winter often find that in summer, the same jewelry will make them itch and feel prickly within just 15 to 20 minutes. An hour or so later, they break out.

Or rub against tights, for example (incidentally, tight clothing in general tends to be more troublesome – another good reason to keep your weight down). Nickel molecules also tend to affix themselves to skin cells, prolonging symptoms even after you’ve removed the article in question.

One in every ten women is allergic to nickel, and most of them, says Dr. Schorr, are young women who have had their ears pierced and subsequently developed nickel allergy. The problem begins, obviously enough, on the earlobes, and later resurfaces on the wrist, neck or abdomen due to contact with nickel in watches, bracelets, necklaces, buckles and clips.

Nickel sensitive people resort to various schemes to put a barrier between their skin and nickel. Earring fasteners can also be coated with clear nail lacquer (if you can wear it safely). You can wear powder underneath your necklace and clasp bracelets. And buy eyeglass frames of plastic or with plastic sleeves on the stems.

If you’re going to have your ears pierced, you can avoid nickel allergy by having it done by a doctor, and requesting that he or she use a stainless steel needle. Wear only stainless steel, stud earrings for the first three weeks, until the hole heals over completely. After that, you can wear any earrings safely, says Dr. Fisher (Journal of the American Medical Association, June 3, 1974). The Appendix lists a source of nickel free earrings.

Stainless steel is non-allergenic, even if it contains nickel, because the nickel is bound in so firmly that even sweat cannot free up the metal. Certain other metals – especially copper and silver – corrode readily and can occasionally cause trouble, especially when dampened by perspiration.

Gold is far less apt to cause allergy than other decorative metals. Some people can wear no jewelry unless it's 24 karat (100 percent) gold. But even ”pure” gold may be contaminated with traces of nickel or other metals. And sulfur and other chemicals in smog can tarnish gold.

When a tarnished gold ring is slipped on the finger or a bracelet is placed on the arm, the tarnish may cause a reaction. Also, some gold rings and class pins made before 1950 have been found to be contaminated with radioactive gold (stolen from x-ray machines), which is capable of causing cancer. While this problem is not an allergy, you should see your doctor promptly if you have any skin sores associated with pre-1950 gold jewelry.

Common Sites and Sources of Nickel Allergy

Site Nickel Source
Scalp Hairpins, curlers, bobby pins
Earlobes Earrings
Ears canals Insertion of metal objects
Back of ears Eyeglass frames
Sides of face Bobby pins, curlers, dental instruments
Lips Metal pins held in mouth, metal lipstick holder
Neck Clasp of necklace, zipper
Upper chest Medallions, metal identification tags
Armpit Zipper (usually on one side only)
Breast Wire support of bra cup
Palms Handles of doors, handbags, carriages, umbrellas, keys
Fingers Thimbles, needles, scissors, coins, pens
Wrists Watch bands, bracelets
Arms Bracelets
Inner forearms and elbow Metal handle of handbag
Thighs Garter clasps, metal chains, keys or metal coins in pockets
Ankle Bracelets
Instep of foot Metal eyelets of shoes
Foot arch Metal arch support
Pubic area and vulva (women) Safety pin on napkin
Bullet wounds Nickel alloys in bullets and shrapnel (other than stainless steel)
Postoperative sites Screws, bolts, plates in orthopedic implants (other than stainless steel)

Source: Contact Dermatitis, by Alexander A. Fisher.