If you have metal sensitivity then you know it. It's uncomfortable, irritating, and downright annoying. It often rears its ugly head as an allergic reaction or dermatitis. As a person who has incredibly sensitive skin, I've experienced the rashes, swelling, and itchiness; it's not any fun. Jewelry shopping is also difficult because it's hard to discern whether a metal you're sensitive to is present or not. So for all those with metal sensitivities like myself, I wanted to break down and explain some common metals that can cause irritation and also those that are safest.
Common Metals To Avoid if You're Sensitive:
It's a commonly used metal in fashion jewelry because it's inexpensive. It's also often part of an alloy combination such as nickel-silver or nickel-copper. These are commonly mixed with other metals in order to keep costs down. According to the Mayo Clinic, "females are more likely to have a nickel allergy than are males...A recent study found that overweight women seem to have an even higher risk of nickel allergy."
I'm personally not a fan of stainless steel for a couple reasons. First, it contains trace amounts of both nickel and iron so if you've got a nickel sensitivity, stainless steel is going to bother you as well. Second, it's a bacterial breeding ground. Unlike other metals that actually kill off bacteria or keep it from multiplying, stainless steel does neither (the inner germophobe in me cringes). Even if you aren't sensitive to stainless steel, don't forget to wipe your jewelry pieces down with some rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide. Better safe than sorry.
Like nickel, chromium is a very common metal allergy. Chromium is also a very common metal used in fashion jewelry as an alloy. Most jewelry that contains nickel is likely going to contain chromium as well so you'll need to avoid all jewelry with base metals or alloys.
While plain old zinc isn't found in jewelry pieces, zinc alloys are. These zinc alloys are more commonly known as brass and nickel-silver. Brass is a combination of copper and zinc while nickel-silver is a combination of nickel-copper and zinc. You may discover that you aren't actually allergic to brass though, not in it's purest form. Some brass contains nickel which is more likely the culprit. You want to ensure you're purchasing real brass jewelry that's reputable and not being passed off as pure brass but really contains nickel.
Metals Typically "Safe" For Sensitive Skin
I've seen copper mentioned before as an irritant for sensitive skin. In reality, copper is a hypoallergenic and anti-bacterial. If your skin turns green after wearing copper jewelry that doesn't mean you're allergic. Copper reacts with our body oils and sweat and creates a copper salt (think of a perspiring drink on a glass table leaving a water ring). This copper salt is what is actually turning our skin green. But that doesn't mean you're allergic. Copper in jewelry can also be in the form of nickel-copper (this just gets confusing doesn't it?). Making sure the jewelry you purchase is truly what it claims to be is paramount when you're sensitive.
Silver is a soft metal, making it difficult to use in jewelry making without it containing an alloy. Sterling silver is 92.5% silver with the remaining 7.5% copper. Except it's not actually always copper. Sometimes nickel is snuck in for one reason or another (for example nickel can create a better finish so some jewelers prefer it to be added). When nickel alloy is present, an allergic reaction is common. If the sterling silver is true then you're not very likely to have a reaction from it since both silver and copper are anti-bacterial metals.
24K gold is its purest form and not used often because its such a soft metal. Instead, 14K and 18K gold is much more commonly seen. The problem however is that in order for gold to be strengthened, its must have other metals mixed in. Nickel, copper, zinc, and silver are often added to gold for that reason. Are we noticing the nickel trend yet? White gold contains nickel. If you're sensitive then steer clear because unfortunately it's going to cause a reaction. Unless it specifically states that it's palladium white gold. Palladium belongs to the platinum family so you should be safe since it's considered hypoallergenic. Yellow gold and rose gold on the other hand usually doesn't. Instead, copper and silver are combined with the gold. If you're going gold, I'd stick to those two and skip the plated gold pieces. Plating is a thin layer of the metal laid over nickel alloys. There isn't enough clear nail polish in the world to keep it under wraps because over time the plating will rub away.
Platinum (and it's cousin Rhodium)
Platinum is expensive but it beats breaking out in rashes if you can afford it. Platinum and rhodium are both hypoallergenic. Rhodium is commonly seen in fashion jewelry. Don't fall for it. Rhodium is incredibly rare, a noble metal, and the most expensive metal in the world. Since pure rhodium is expensive so jewelry uses rhodium as a plating instead. Meaning that good old nickel is lurking beneath the surface.
So What's Okay When You're Sensitive?
If you're allergic or react to nickel, which is most common, then you'll need to know where the jewelry's raw materials have come from or carefully read the jewelry's metal description. Plated jewelry tends to have a nickel layer placed between the base metal and the plated metal. As the plated metal begins to wear away, you'll be exposed to the nickel underneath. If you're purchasing a sterling silver piece, ensure that it's in fact real sterling silver (925). Pure sterling silver doesn't contain nickel. We use Harmony brand recycled sterling silver for all of our sterling silver jewelry. Like gold and platinum jewelry, sterling can be worn everyday without any problems. (Remove tarnish easily with a quick wipe down using a polishing cloth.)
Regardless of the metal, keep your jewelry clean. The means a wipe down with a cotton cloth before storing your necklace, bracelets, or rings. For earrings, this includes cleaning your earring posts/wires with rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide. Do not submerge your earrings in these though because it can harm the gemstone(s). Use a cotton ball or q-tip instead.