Nickel allergy is a very common allergic reaction to small amounts of nickel found in jewelry, zippers, watches, snaps or even sunglasses when they directly come in contact with the skin. Occupational exposure to nickel is seen in metal factory workers, tailors, hairdressers, and restaurant workers and therefore they have increased risk of developing nickel allergy. Nickel allergy is also more common in women than in men as women wear more jewelry, especially costume jewelry that has a greater content of nickel. Generally, men only present with allergies when they have occupational exposure to nickel.(1)

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People with skin rashes, such as eczema, atopic dermatitis or other chronic open skin rashes are more prone to develop an allergy towards nickel. Furthermore, if nickel comes in contact with an open wound that can lead to greater sensitization; therefore, nose, ear, and body piercings are increasingly related to nickel sensitization. The body develops an immune reaction towards the nickel jewelry/alloy, so when it comes in contact with the skin, the immune reaction leads to allergic contact dermatitis. This can cause rash with itching, redness, scaling, cracking or skin blistering. The longer the exposure, the greater is the reaction.(1)

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Can You Suddenly Develop Nickel Allergy?

Most of the jewelry contain nickel, even if they are of pure gold or silver; they still have small amounts of nickel in them. Generally, cheaper jewelry contains a higher amount of nickel; however, nickel in gold or silver jewelry is covered by gold/silver. When the jewelry is worn for longer duration, such as for years, they tend to wear out and this wearing out can cause exposure of nickel molecules to the skin surface, thus leading to sudden allergic reaction to even fine jewelry. This allergic reaction can mostly seen with 24k gold since 24k gold is soft in consistency, nickel is mixed to it to increase its hardness. 14k or 18k gold is less likely to cause allergic reaction since they do not need any hardening agent.(1)

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How Do I Know If My Jewelry Has Nickel?

The term ‘nickel-free’ is confusing as jewelry marked as ‘nickel-free’ can still contain minor amounts of nickel. The European Union (EU) Nickel Directive limits the amount of nickel that may be released from the jewelry and other products onto the skin. Hypoallergenic and nickel free are two different terms and should not be confused; hypoallergenic means below the normal level of allergenic and not nickel-free. The jewelry components that meet the EU Nickel Directive include ear wires, clasps, links and connectors, bails, beads, and charms. The nickel-free metals and components include sterling silver (contains 92.5% pure silver, 7.5% copper), tarnish-resistant Argentium sterling silver (contains 92.5% silver, 6.3% copper and 1.2% germanium), niobium, titanium and 14k yellow gold (contains 58% pure gold, 25% pure silver and 17% pure copper). Gold can also be alloyed with other metals; however, it is important to note that white gold generally contains nickel, which is added to impart its desired color and strength.(2)

Even if a piece of nickel jewelry or watch is termed as hypoallergenic, it can cause a rash to sensitized individuals, so for these people, it becomes really confusing whether to buy the jewelry or not due to their past experience of allergy with such jewelry. There is a quick and easy way to test whether jewelry contains nickel or not with the help of a nickel test kit. This kit can be used to detect nickel in earrings, belt buckles, watches, and other metal items. A few drops of the solution from the kit can be placed on a cotton swab and rubbed onto the metal surface. The solution contains dimethylglyoxime (dmg) that picks up oxidized nickel ions and within 15 seconds the swab will turn pink/red in color if nickel is present in the jewelry or other tested metal surfaces. The solution is very sensitive and does not harm the metal surface.(3)

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Sheetal DeCaria MD

Written, Edited or Reviewed By:

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Last Modified On: August 22, 2019

This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer

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