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Jewellery Allergy? Nickel is the likely culprit but not the only one

Do you avoid wearing certain pieces of jewellery because they leave your skin irritated, itchy or discoloured?  It’s likely that this adverse reaction is being caused by an allergy or sensitivity to something in - or on - your jewellery.  But don’t worry, there are solutions! Let’s take a look at what might be causing your reaction, and what you can do to avoid it.

What causes an allergic reaction to jewellery?

An allergic reaction occurs when the body overreacts to a typically harmless substance that has come into contact with the skin.  Jewellery related allergies can be tricky to determine!

Nickel allergies and jewellery

The vast majority of jewellery related allergies are caused by nickel. Nickel is a silver-coloured metal often mixed with pure gold in a process called alloying.  Alloying the gold lends strength and also helps to whiten the natural, rich yellow hue of gold. Yellow and rose gold is also alloyed, but brass and copper are usually used instead. While it is not as common to be allergic to these metals, a reaction is still possible.  

Pure gold is 24 Karat; this means it is a full 24 parts gold. While you can find finished jewellery in this high Karat, it is not as common. Lower Karats such as 10, 14 & 18 are much more common.  10 Karat, for example, is made up of 10 parts gold and 14 parts alloy (other metals). The higher the Karat, the higher the content of gold. So depending on the severity of your allergy, you may find you are able to wear higher Karats of gold or perhaps only certain colours of gold, depending on the alloys used.

It is also possible to have a reaction because of your jewellery but not due to the piece itself.  The skin can react when moisture, lotions, bacteria or other substances get caught between the wearer’s jewellery and their skin, especially when combined with heat or consistent friction.

What might an allergic reaction look like?

Any sort of reaction of this nature on the skin is known as contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis is a rash or inflammation of the skin.  It may look like redness, dryness, swelling or even blistering. For some, the reaction is immediate, and for others, it only occurs after prolonged wear or in combination with other substances contacting the skin.

How to prevent a reaction?

Individuals will have varying levels of tolerance when it comes to allergens.  We have laid out some possible solutions below, but keep in mind that it may take some trial and error to see what will work best for you.

What metals are you wearing?  As previously mentioned, sensitivities will vary with each individual. Some people are able to tolerate trace amounts of nickel, brass or copper and therefore may be able to wear higher Karat golds. However, for more sensitive skin 18K gold alloyed with hypo-allergenic metals such as Palladium or Platinum is a better option.  There are also many nickel-free silver or gold lines or alternative metals such as tungsten, stainless steel, cobalt or titanium that can be suitable options.

Clean & Dry:  Moisture trapped under your ring can often cause skin irritation, especially under wider rings or sets of ring stacked or welded together.  If you couple that with bacteria trapped in a dirty ring you are likely to see a reaction. It is important to dry your hands thoroughly after washing and have your jewellery cleaned regularly.

Take your jewellery off:  We are not suggesting you stop wearing your beautiful pieces!  But it is helpful to take off your jewellery when you are showering, swimming, using detergents or chemicals, working out or sleeping.  Sweating or other moisture can increase the chemical reaction between the metal and your skin. Occasionally removing your pieces gives your skin time to breathe and reduces unnecessary wear and tear on your jewellery.

How do I treat a reaction?

As mentioned above the first thing to do is remove the jewellery, clean the affected area and the piece, dry it gently but thoroughly and allow full healing before putting any jewellery on again.  You can also use calming lotions such as calamine to reduce irritation. It is crucial to avoid itching or touching the affected area. If the symptoms persist, see a doctor or dermatologist.

European Goldsmith