What does 'Hypoallergenic' Jewellery Actually Mean?

Ear lobe allergic reaction to jewellery

Have you ever worn a new piece of jewellery, only to discover later that you have an itchy rash where the jewellery sat? Then you may have a jewellery allergy!

But what exactly does ‘hypoallergenic’ mean? There’s a bit of confusion around this term, so let’s take a closer look at what exactly hypoallergenic jewellery is. Knowing the difference between ‘hypoallergenic’ and ‘normal’ jewellery can help you make an informed decision.

In the dictionary, ‘hypoallergenic’ means “relatively unlikely to cause an allergic reaction”.

So, you can have an allergic reaction with the different metal compounds the jewellery is made from. The most common metal element that people react to is nickel

Over the last few years, hypoallergenic is a term that’s gained popularity in jewellery as being ‘safe to wear’. Generally speaking, hypoallergenic jewellery is made of metals that are less likely to cause allergic reactions… Because of this, many people use the words hypoallergenic and nickel-free interchangeably. However, ‘hypoallergenic’ does NOT mean ‘nickel-free’ or ‘no’ allergic reaction!

It’s a word that has no medical definition or any sort of testing to back it up. Therefore, anyone can use the word hypoallergenic in describing jewellery (or anything else) – there’s no regulation for amounts, or quality, of the metals used.

Causes of Jewellery Allergies

As talked about above, metal components that make up jewellery are the most common cause of Allergic Contact Dermatitis (ACD) or jewellery allergy. 

Unlike viruses and bacteria, our immune systems do not react to an allergen which it hasn’t come across before. This means multiple exposures to one type of allergen must occur before our immune systems see these foreign bodies as threats, and ‘attacking’ it. The inflammation we later see is actually the immune system ‘winning’ and successfully attacking the foreign bodies, and causing an allergic reaction.

Between 10 – 20% of people suffer sensitivity to certain types of metals. It generally shows, as redness, rashes and itchiness – usually in the places where jewellery was in contact with your skin. The most common sites of jewellery allergy are the earlobes (from earrings), the fingers (from rings), and around the neck (from necklaces).  The affected areas become intensely itchy and may become red and blistered (acute dermatitis) or dry, thickened and pigmented (chronic dermatitis).

Allergic reaction to wearing a ring
Allergic reaction to jewellery around neck
Ear lobe allergic reaction to jewellery

The element Nickel, is the most often used in the manufacturing of precious metal alloys, to make them stronger and brighter.  It is commonly used as a base metal due to its properties – malleability, availability, and price. Nickel can also occur as a trace element (naturally occurring) in gold or silver.

Nickel allergies cause a skin reaction to occur – usually at the site of contact, but sometimes it can spread to other parts of the body. It usually begins within hours to days after exposure to nickel and may last as long as two to four weeks. The reaction tends to occur only where your skin came into contact with nickel, but sometimes may appear in other places on your body. Nickel allergy signs and symptoms include:

  • Rash or bumps on the skin
  • Itching, which may be severe
  • Redness or changes in skin color
  • Dry patches of skin that may resemble a burn
  • Blisters and draining fluid in severe cases
Skin reaction to nickel_metal allergy

Most metals described as hypoallergenic still contain trace amounts of nickel.

Hypoallergenic simply means that the amount of nickel is below normal and is less likely to cause problems. It’s so miniscule that it requires highly sensitive instruments just to measure it.  

Just think of it as meaning a ‘very low chance of getting an allergic reaction’.

Allergy vs Irritation vs Infection

If the skin that comes in contact with your jewelry develops an itchy rash, there is more than one explanation for it. You could have:

  • Had an allergic reaction to the metal components in the jewellery 
  • Had an a reaction to an irritant beneath the jewellery (such as soap, debris or moisture)
  • Have a skin infection as a result of bacteria getting into an abrasion beneath the jewellery  

In order to rule out the moisture or debris buildup being the source of your rash or skin irritation, firstly try cleaning the jewellery. If this does not solve the problem, try removing the jewellery before washing your hands, and make sure your skin is completely dry and free of moisture before putting the item of jewellery back on.

You could also consider putting the clean jewellery onto another area that is free of moisture and not affected by the previous rash. If these measures serve to resolve the problem, then you are most likely not allergic to the metal contained in your jewellery, but your skin has been irritated by something else.

If your skin irritation and rash persists after you determine that your jewellery is clean and the skin underneath it is dry, then you are probably allergic to the metal used in that particular item of jewellery.

Furthermore, please note an allergic reaction is NOT the same as a skin infection where bacteria is present. Signs and symptoms that indicate an infection include:

  • Increased redness
  • Warmth
  • Oozing
  • Pus in the affected area
  • Pain

If you suffer any of these symptoms, please go to see your Doctor.

Common Triggers of Nickel Allergy:

Nickel can be found in a huge variety of common items, including:

… And more:

  • Water
  • Food 
  • Archwires/braces
  • Piercings
  • Surgical implants
  • Furniture fittings

However, it’s not all bad. Nickel is also needed for healthy living, specifically for keeping nickel deficiency at bay. Nickel is also used in the treatment of osteoporosis and iron deficiency because it assists in the metabolic release of calcium and iron.

Other Metals

Although definitely the most common cause of jewellery allergy, nickel is not the only metal element to cause an allergic reaction. Other metals that can also cause reactions include:

  • Cobalt
  • Chromium
  • Palladium 
  • Molybdenum
  • Mercury
  • Copper 
  • Brass
  • Silver 
  • White Gold

You’ll notice that this list includes precious metals such as Silver and Gold – which are usually expected to be hypoallergenic. However, it all depends on what other metals the main one is alloyed (mixed up) with – i.e what are ALL the metal elements that make up the piece? 

Sometimes, Copper, Brass and Silver can be alloyed with Nickel to increase their brightness and durability – and decrease their price. However, most of the time these elements are alloyed with a combination of each other (e.g. Silver is usually alloyed with Copper), or Tin and Aluminium, which are less likely to cause problems.

What to avoid:

  • White Gold – Generally, white gold contains nickel, which is added to enhance its whiteness and durability. Rhodium plating can keep the nickel from contacting your skin, but when that wears away, you’re likely to have problems.
  • German Silver – This isn’t silver at all, it’s just a nickel alloy with a fancy name. Also known as nickel silver, it looks like silver in colour, but does not contain any silver at all.
  • Cheap costume jewellery – Costume jewellery usually comprises a base metal plated in gold or silver, which can also cause problems. While plated jewellery is often less expensive than that made from more pure metals, the plating wears off over time. The fading material then exposes the metal underneath, which has often been reinforced with nickel, and leads to the development of reactions where there were none present before.

It’s also a good idea to remember, if you are allergic to any metals, wearing jewellery with no metal or just small amounts of nickel-free metals will mean you are also unlikely to react. 

‘Hypoallergenic’ vs ‘Sustainable’

It’s also important to note the difference between ‘hypoallergenic’ and the words ‘Eco’ or ‘sustainable’ in relation to jewellery — as they have different meanings and are not interchangeable. 

‘Eco’ or ‘sustainable’ jewellery refers to where the various components have come from and if they have been created from recycled materials (or not). I have talked more about what makes jewellery ‘sustainable’ or ‘environmentally friendly’ in my FAQ’s. You can check it out here.

Hypoallergenic Paua and Pearl Earrings and Bracelet with recycled Sterling Silver and faux suede cord

Wearing Hypoallergenic Jewellery

If you have a reaction to wearing jewellery, a dermatologist (skin doctor) can perform a skin patch test to determine if you have a nickel (or other metal) allergy.

Once a metal allergy is confirmed, it is essential to avoid contact with those metals. Obviously, the best way to avoid a metal exposure is to avoid jewellery that contains that metal! Generally, the higher the purity of the metal, the less likely it is to cause an allergic reaction. For example, some people are allergic to 14K (58.3%) gold, but have no issues with 18K (75%) gold.

So, when looking for hypoallergenic jewellery, it’s a good idea to know about which are ‘safe metals’ and therefore less likely to cause a reaction:

    • Platinum – is the most rarest and valued precious metal – even more so than gold. Being a flexible, silverish-white metal at high purity levels, makes it very safe to wear. It is always alloyed with small amounts of other metals (especially iridium) to increase durability. However it is also very expensive, due to being more rare and being mined much less than gold. 
    • 18k Yellow Gold and higher – yellow gold is made up of 75% gold and a combination of copper and silver, meaning it is completely nickel free and safe to wear.
    • Titanium – is an element that is silver in colour. It’s light, strong, corrosion-resistant and inexpensive properties make it popular for surgical implants. Curlicue NZ now has a small amount of Titanium wire with which to make nickel-free earring hooks, if required.
    • Sterling Silver – The 100% recycled Sterling Silver used by Curlicue NZ comprises 92.5% fine silver and 7.5% Copper, making it nickel free and environmentally friendly.
    • Argentium Silver – At 93.5% pure silver and 6.5% germanium, Argentium Silver poses no risks for those with metal allergies. It is more tarnish-resistant than Sterling and also highly durable and scratch resistant. What’s more, Argentium Silver is made from only recycled silver, making it perfect for the eco-conscious. I use Argentium Silver in many of my Curlicue NZ creations. 
    • Copper – Known for its beautiful reddish-brownish color, copper is a favorite among jewellery lovers. It is distinct in its appearance, highly durable, extremely affordable and can be shaped into stunning designs. It is usually alloyed with Zinc or Tin making it nickel-free and very safe to wear. Allergies to copper are reported very infrequently.
    • Surgical Stainless SteelSurgical-grade stainless steel can still contain small amounts of nickel, but it’s generally considered hypoallergenic for most people. If you continue to have issues, try an alternative hypoallergenic metal (such as Titanium or Sterling Silver). Be sure that your earring backings are also made of hypoallergenic materials.
    • Niobium – An element rather than an alloy, niobium is nickel-free and very safe to wear. It also doesn’t tarnish or corrode easily and is highly durable.
    • Rhodium – is in the same metal family as platinum and is often used to ‘finish’ jewellery (i.e plating) to make it more shiny and lustrous long term. Although it tends to be a bit more expensive than other metals, it rarely tarnishes and doesn’t cause a reaction.

Thankfully, only a small percentage of people have non-nickel metal hypersensitivity. With only about 1-3% sensitive to precious metals such as gold, platinum, palladium, etc, compared to 15-25% who are allergic to nickel.

What about Brass?

Brass is not necessarily hypoallergenic and can sometimes cause either an allergic or skin reaction. Brass is made by alloying copper and zinc, but sometimes nickel is included in the combination. The copper in the brass can turn your skin green – but this is not harmful and doesn’t mean you’re reacting to the metal. 

A bit like iron rusting, the green covering on copper and brass (called patina) is a result of the metal corroding after mixing with moisture and elements in the air and on your skin. However, once covered in patina, the metal does not continue to corrode like iron does and it is easy to wash off!

Tips to avoid allergic reactions

Generally, people who are allergic to metals are mostly allergic to the “base metal” present in the item, which also means these metals can often be ‘covered up’ to reduce the likelihood of a reaction.  Some things you can do to prevent known or potential allergic reactions to your jewellery are:

  • Cover the item in clear varnish or nail polish; 
  • When having ears or other body parts pierced, have it done with a stainless steel needle and make sure your jewellery is made of stainless steel or either 18- or 24 karat gold.
  • Look for jewellery that is nickel-free
  • If you are finding you are still reacting, try an alternative metal component (eg Sterling Silver earring hooks)
  • If you must wear earrings that contain nickel, add plastic covers made specifically for earring studs.
  • Purchase Nickel Guard, a solution alert and guard system – you can test your metal items to see if they contain nickel, and if so, use the guard to cover the main area that is in contact with your skin.
  • If an item of jewellery that you wear daily causes a reaction, you can ask a jeweller about having it plated in a non-allergic metal, such as rhodium or platinum. However, the coating will eventually wear off and need replating.
  • Use antihistamines and/or steroids to reduce the discomfort of developed reactions.

Things to consider when buying jewellery:

To avoid ruining the joy of wearing new jewellery with an unknown, or forgotten, skin sensitivity, here are some things to think about when purchasing jewellery:

  • Warranty: If problems arise, you’ll need to return or exchange the jewellery 
  • Hypoallergenic – If jewellery is stated as being hypoallergenic – ask what makes it so? 
  • Price: More expensive doesn’t equate to hypoallergenic. Research your metal types before making your choice.
  • Allergies This includes food and medication allergies. A person who is allergic to certain medications or foods may also be sensitive to certain metals.

Ready to go shopping? It may all seem pretty overwhelming. But the good news is that Curlicue NZ’s use of recycled sterling and argentium silver and recycled copper, mean that the majority of my jewellery is ‘hypoallergenic’ – as well as being environmentally friendly!

Curlicue NZ Handcrafted Accessories by Suzie Horne

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