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Metal Allergy and Living Nickel Free

By: Janice Enright
Editor
Nickel Free Life


We humans are sensitive creatures.  Almost any substance we come in contact with can cause us to have an allergic reaction and we are all allergic to different things.  Learning what you might be allergic to involves paying close attention to your body.  This article focuses on the allergic reaction caused by skin contact with metal and is designed to give a brief overview of metal allergy with a specific focus on nickel allergy.

There are two processes that need to be understood regarding nickel allergy.  How the metal gets into the body and what the body does that creates such a problem.  We will start with what the body does by presenting a simplified explanation of the allergic response:

Your skin comes in contact with many substances.  A substance can be solid or liquid, man made or natural, dangerous or harmless, hard or soft.  Every time a substance contacts your skin there is the chance it will enter the body through the skin cells.  Once this happens your body must decide if it is under attack and mount a defense. This defense is known as an allergic reaction.   When the body detects an invasion it converts ordinary white blood cells into the dreaded Macrophage, the ultimate warrior cell. This cell is a doomsday device and only does one thing; it destroys everything it contacts, including the body itself, in an effort to ensure the destruction of the foreign invader.  This destruction of human cells, or collateral damage, is what makes an allergic reaction dangerous. 

But how does the metal get into the body to cause this allergic reaction?  This is the other process that must be understood:

Most people think of metal as being impervious and rigid.  It is actually quite destructible.  Heat can turn metal molten and acid can melt it.  Many things can react with metal because metal is not really as solid as it seems. One substance that can have a powerful reaction with metal is water.  Ever left a garden tool out in the rain?  Water by itself is very corrosive but if you add salt it actually turns into a powerful acid.

Where do you find this powerful acid on the human body?  One place is in our sweat.  We are covered with a thin layer of sweat and oil.  Sweat contains water, and not just plain water, salt water!  The human skin is actually quite moist and is reacting with every bit of metal it comes in contact with; jewelry, belt buckles, watchbands, earrings, the list goes on and on.   As your sweat dissolves and corrodes the metal this moist concoction reacts with your skin cells.  It is absorbed by the skin and if your body does not like it, your body’s defense mechanism will react by fighting the invader.  Suddenly, the area of contact turns red and begins to swell.  Depending on the strength of the allergic reaction the skin can start to blister and large open wounds can develop as the macrophages destroy tissue.  In fact, the reaction caused by poison ivy and the reaction caused by the metal are no different.  This reaction is known as Allergic Contact Dermatitis and while many substances can cause it one of the most common is from nickel allergy.

Unfortunately, this problem is not going away soon.  For instance, nickel allergy is by far the most common form of metal allergy, yet nickel is an extremely useful metal and is used in almost everything we touch.  In fact, nickel allergy is on the rise.  Nickel is melted with soft metals, like gold and silver, to make them more durable and useful for jewelry.  Nickel makes dull metals shiny so many belt buckles and watches use nickel for this purpose.  If someone has nickel allergy the only cure is to live a nickel free life.

Nickel is just one form of metal, and metal is just one substance of many that can cause an allergic reaction.  If you think of the human body, and its natural instinct to fight off anything foreign, imagine how busy it is in a world that is being revolutionized by man.