If your copper bracelet turns your wrist green and your favorite earrings give you skin eruptions, have no fear. You can probably still wear your jewelry if you take the right precautions.
Mild Reactions to Jewelry
The mildest skin reaction to jewelry is a greenish stain on the skin. As it turns out, this has nothing to do with allergies or even skin sensitivities. "It is the oxidation process of jewelry, other than gold, that causes skin to turn green," says David Herschthal, MD, a Fort Lauderdale dermatologist. "Fine jewelry, such as 18-karat gold, oxidizes far less, so the discoloring usually does not occur with those pieces." Sweating, Herschthal adds, exacerbates the problem because salt contained in perspiration slightly corrodes the metal. "So if you really love that copper necklace," he says, "do not wear it to the gym!"
More severe skin reactions to jewelry are usually caused by nickel contained in the metal. A nickel allergy can occur at any age. It typically manifests 12-48 hours after first contact. The reaction may appear as an itchy, red rash with watery blisters. The affected area is usually restricted to the site of contact, although, it can sometimes be found on other parts of the body. Once a nickel allergy has developed, you will likely have this same reaction every time the metal touches your skin.
What is Nickel? And Where Is It?
Nickel is a silvery-white metal found in nature. It is usually mixed with other metals to produce alloys. For example, nickel-iron, which is used to manufacture stainless steel, is the most common nickel alloy. Other nickel alloys are used to make a range of things, such as:
- Clothing items like bra fasteners, zippers, snaps, buttons, costume jewelry
- Everyday items like coins, utensils, pens, paper clips, tools, keys
One way to sleuth out a nickel allergy is to figure out if you have reactions to these other items, as well. If you do, you can use substitutes made of plastic, coated or painted metal, or some other material.
What about your jewelry? Wonder whether your favorite opal ring contains nickel? You can test it yourself using a nickel spot test, which safely tests your jewelry and other suspected metallic items for the presence of nickel. You can buy one of these kits online.
Latex Reactions and Allergies
Latex is sometimes used in producing non-metal adornments on jewelry. The solvents, curing agents, or other substances used in the production of latex sometimes cause localized skin reactions that are mistaken for latex allergies. However, a latex allergy can cause serious, health-threatening reactions, such as accelerated heartbeat, sudden drop in blood pressure, or difficulty in breathing. If a non-metal piece of jewelry causes more serious symptoms than hives, tell your doctor. She can test you for a latex allergy.
You Can Still Wear Jewelry
Even if you have had reactions, there is good news. There are ways to treat your jewelry so that you can wear it without adverse effects:
- Stick to the good stuff.—Insist that all your jewelry be either sterling silver or at least 14-karat gold. That is the most effective remedy, albeit an expensive one.
- Try stainless steel.—Try wearing stainless steel or plastic backs on your earrings, and purchase earrings that have stainless steel posts, as well. Although stainless steel contains nickel, it is bound so tightly that it does not leach out. If you think you are sensitive to metals and want to get your ears pierced, Dr. Robert A. Norman of Tampa, Florida suggests getting pierced with a stainless steel needle and using stud earrings that are nickel-free.
- Try hypo-allergenic.—Some jewelry companies carry specially treated, "hypo-allergenic" jewelry. This jewelry causes fewer reactions in people with mild metal sensitivities.
- Try clear nail polish.—Dr. Saida Baxt suggests painting jewelry with clear nail polish, so that the skin is never in contact with the offending metal. If that does not work, just put the jewelry away and save it as an heirloom.
Dr. Audrey Kumin, a dermatologist from Kansas City, has a few more options to try before you stop wearing your jewelry:
- Stay dry.—Keep your skin dry where your skin touches the metal.
- Moisturize.—Wear a good layer of protective moisturizing cream. The better the barrier between you and the metal, the less likely the reaction will be bothersome.
- Protect your skin.—Consider electroplating sentimental or really good pieces of jewelry. Take your ring, for example, back to the jeweler and see if a new layer of "good" metal can be applied to the contact surface. This prevents leaching of the nickel particles onto your skin, at least for a while.
- Wear it part-time.—Take your jewelry off when you do not need to be wearing it.