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Nickel Allergy FAQ's

Here are some frequently asked questions about nickel allergy.

A picture of a chunk of silvery, white metal.  Nickel in it's raw form.
What is nickel?

Nickel is an element classified as a metal. It is a hard metal with a silvery-white color and can be polished to a high shine. It is also very corrosion resistant. These qualities are the main reason you find nickel used so much in manufacturing even though nickel allergy is a huge problem. If you have a metal that needs to be shiny, hard and durable, you melt it down and mix it with nickel!

Why is nickel used so much?

Nickel is a metal that mixes easily with other metals. Since nickel is a hard metal it is mixed with soft metals (like gold) to make them more durable. It is also easy to polish a metal that has been mixed with nickel so nickel is mixed into things like surgical instruments, jewelry, tableware, cookware and accessories. The list is nearly endless so you must always be aware of the products you buy and try to shop nickel free.

A picture of belts, jewelry, tableware and watches that all contain the metal nickel, and can cause nickel allergy.
What is nickel allergy?

Nickel allergy is actually classified as “Allergic Contact Dermatitis”. That name is given to any substance that causes an allergic reaction when in contact with the skin. It usually starts as a redness and swelling. Without removal of the agent causing the reaction it can progress to blisters and open fissures. These wounds can then become infected. In addition, there are many foods that are high in nickel and there is a school of thought that nickel can attack from the inside as well.

What foods are high in nickel?

We hate to say this but…..chocolate is one. Nuts, beer, tea and coffee are a few more. Studies suggest that if a person has a severe nickel allergy they might suffer from chronic skin rashes, especially on the hands, if they eat a high nickel diet. Some of these studies found that people with chronic hand rash had flare-ups after eating high nickel foods. This is something that you may want to discuss with your doctor. We found a great article that has a chart on nickel containing foods here.

A picture of a young woman's belly.  It has a nasty rash below the belt from an allegic reation to her belt buckle.How dangerous is nickel allergy?

Well, that all depends on how allergic you are. One problem with nickel is that the more you are exposed to it, the worse the allergy becomes. There is no cure for nickel allergy, so living nickel free is the only choice. The American Contact Dermatitis Society voted nickel it’s “2008 Allergen of the Year”, a very dubious award and a warning to the public at large! The Federal Government considers it a toxin and has a 400 page toxicology report on nickel. Europe has all but banned nickel in clothing and jewelry manufacturing since the mid 1990’s. Certain exposure to nickel has been linked to cancer. One thing is for sure, we can all do with less nickel!

What metals ARE safe?

Technically, most metals can cause allergies. Nickel is the leading culprit by far. Titanium, Tungsten, Zirconium, .925 pure Sterling Silver, 24k gold, Niobium, and Zinc are considered the safest.

An image of a red, swollen ear from wearing earrings that were not nickel free.

Special note on titanium: Titanium is nickel free, but it is not allergy free! Please read this interesting article on titanium allergy. We feel that this article is a must read. Once you have read it you understand that ALL metals can be an allergic agent. You also realize that we are using metals without thought. Did you know that 4% of the population will test allergic to titanium? Did you know that many candies are sprayed with titanium dioxide paint? This article helps put the whole nickel allergy phenomena into perspective.

Special note on gold: Gold in it’s pure 24k form is considered safe, but gold is too soft for practical use unless it is mixed with something to make it more durable. Enter the evil cousin, nickel. Nickel is often used with gold for hardening purposes. In fact, white gold is usually made from mixing in heavy amounts of nickel as a bleaching agent. If you suffer from nickel allergy, but love the look of gold, try jewelry with 24k plating over a nickel free metal like .925 sterling silver, titanium or niobium. If you must have white gold try looking for white gold where palladium was used instead of nickel, but read the special note on platinum and palladium below.

Special note on platinum and palladium: These metals are often reported as being safe for nickel allergy sufferers. This is not necessarily true! Some people with nickel allergy have been shown to have allergic reactions to the ions in the platinum family of metals also. With so many replacement choices out there we suggest using caution with these metals.

Special note on stainless steel: Stainless steel and “surgical grade stainless steel” contain nickel. The reason so many sites say it is nickel free is that it is less likely to cause a reaction, but it can cause a reaction. Nickel is actually very water soluble. When nickel contacts sweat on the skin a nickel salt compound is created that is easily absorbed. Stainless steels tend to hold on to the nickel so tightly that it does not leech out easily, but it is not nickel free! Sensitive people will often have problems when wearing stainless steel items. It is important to understand this. Also, cookware that is stainless steel can leach nickel into the food being cooked if the food is acidic, like tomatoes. Always be observant of stainless steel items.

A picture of a ladies wrist with the watch pulled back to reveal a severe alleregic reaction.Why is nickel allowed?

This is a very good question. The first country to limit the use of nickel in products was Denmark, all the way back in 1991! Statistics show a dramatic drop in nickel allergy in people born after that year. All of Europe followed Denmark's example in 2000. Since then, all of Europe has shown a marked decrease in nickel allergy. So why not in the United States? Most likely it has to do with economics. So many companies have products sourced from China, where pricing competition is fierce, that it is considered too costly to cater to a minority of nickel allergy sufferers. However, this is changing. Some statistics show that the true number of people with nickel allergy is getting closer to 20% of the population. This is no longer a small minority! The more we get pierced (by so called "surgical grade stainless steel") the more of us develop nickel allergy. Many larger companies are starting to recognize this skyrocketing population and are adopting "nickel free" sourcing guidelines. We do believe that this is a trend that will continue and someday, hopefully soon, all products will be free of nickel! Until that day, we are here to help you shop, learn and live nickel free!