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.
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.
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 the 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).
Nickel is the element which is 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:
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’.
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:
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:
If you suffer any of these symptoms, please go to see your Doctor.
Nickel can be found in a huge variety of common items, including:
… And more:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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!
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:
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:
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!