MORE ABOUT METALS
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As common as nickel allergies are, you would think that it would be easy to learn what metals you can wear safely, and how to find those metals. Although true safety is relative, there are a few guidelines that you can adopt in order to make your choices easier. Nickel in jewelry is avoidable, and you can get smart about what to wear. I hope some of the information I have learned helps you too.
Niobium is 99.99% pure. It does not react to skin chemistry, and will never corrode or tarnish. It is the safest metal for allergy sufferers to wear. It is used for surgical implants. From a jeweler’s point of view Niobium is fabulous because it can be easily shaped, is as strong as steel, and has a natural shine. It can be anodized to be a rainbow of colors.
It is a pure element, not combined with any other metal. It does not cause problems that alloys may cause. Even if you have never been able to wear metal jewelry comfortably, you will be able to wear Niobium.
Titanium is as strong as steel, but as light as aluminum. It does not corrode, does not tarnish, and in its pure state, is totally non-allergenic. It does not react to sunlight, salt-water, or any body chemistry. It can be anodized to be a rainbow of colors.
Grades 1-4 of Titanium are pure titanium. Lower grades (higher numbers) are alloys with other metals. Grade 5 Titanium is called “surgical grade,” and although nickel free, is still an alloy.
Argentium Sterling Silver
Argentium Sterling Silver, also called Argentium Silver or Non-Tarnish Silver, is made of 93.5% pure silver, even a little more than traditional Sterling Silver. It also contains about the same amount of copper, but it also has a small amount of germanium. Germanium acts as a hardener, and has the added benefit of making the silver tarnish-resistant. It is guaranteed to be nickel-free. It is actually whiter and brighter than Platinum and White Gold, and maintains its shine with very little care.
Brass and Bronze
Brass is made of copper and zinc. Bronze is made of copper and tin. These are nickel-free and beautiful all by themselves. Bare metals or oxidized metals are nickel-free, and beautiful to wear.
Modern-day brass is not produced with lead, although it never hurts to ask. However, do avoid antique brass, or brass of uncertain origin. If it passes your questions, wear it and enjoy!
Pewter might be considered to be the inverse of bronze. Instead of copper with a little tin, it is tin with a little copper. This may be an oversimplification since other minor ingredients may include antimony, bismuth, or silver, but it is decidedly nickel-free. Tin, itself has quite a noble history, and is actually classified as a precious metal. Although pewter used to be combined with lead, it no longer is. Avoid “antique” pewter, or pewter of uncertain origin. Ask your questions, and enjoy wearing this versatile metal.
Platinum and Fine Silver
These are also safe to wear if they are not alloyed or plated with nickel. They can be quite expensive, but if you can afford them, enjoy!
Metals to be Cautious About
Although 925 Sterling Silver is often nickel-free, it is not always nickel-free. To me, that is a big difference. What the number means is that 92.5% of the metal is pure silver, the remaining 7.5% is copper, and trace elements of some other metal that is used as a hardener. This trace metal may be zinc, tin, boron, lithium, germanium, platinum, indium, or it may be nickel. If it is guaranteed by the supplier to be free of nickel, you can enjoy it for years to come.
Surgical Stainless Steel
Although Surgical Stainless Steel does not cause a reaction in many people, it does in fact contain 8% to 12% nickel. This nickel is chemically bound to the other metal that is there, so that, in theory, it does not leech out into the skin. You may or may not have any problems with wearing Surgical Stainless Steel. If you can wear it without problems, it can be a nice option.
Pure copper is allergy-safe, though since it is so soft, it may be alloyed with nickel when is is made into jewelry. If you can be certain it has not been alloyed with nickel, it’s lovely to wear. Enameled or oxidized copper is generally fine, though be cautious of “antique” plating, as I mentioned under Brass and Bronze. It does, of course tarnish easily, and expect it to turn your skin green.
14 Karat Gold and above
Gold is a soft metal, and unless it is 24K gold, it is alloyed with something else to harden it and make it slightly more affordable. Hardening elements that are combined with gold can include some combination of silver, zinc, nickel, copper, and palladium. The higher the number, the more pure gold is used in the alloy. Try to stick to 14K to 24K gold for your best chance of having something safe to wear.
White Gold gets a special mention. White gold get its color from alloying pure gold with nickel or palladium. If it is alloyed with palladium you will be fine. If it is alloyed with nickel, even your lovely (and expensive) wedding band can cause you to break out in a rash. Since nickel is a white metal and a hardener, it can often be the metal of choice to give white gold that nice “shine.” Unless proven otherwise, white gold probably contains nickel, and is not safe to wear.
Metals That Are Health Hazards
For many years, nickel has routinely been used as a standard hardener to alloy with softer metals in jewelry and other items. It is also used as an inexpensive plating to increase the shine of silver jewelry.
About 10-20% of people have an allergy to nickel. The number seems to be hard to pin down, in part, because people with the allergy don’t always know what it is. One thing is certain, though, once you have been sensitized to nickel, you will continue to get a rash from nickel exposure for the rest of your life. Continued or periodic contact with nickel will continue to make your allergy more severe.
Even if you are not currently allergic to nickel, you can still benefit from avoiding nickel. A nickel-allergy rash will appear only after the allergy has begun. The rash may subside and disappear, but the allergy itself will be with you for the rest of your life.
Also known as “German Silver,” this shiny metal contains no pure silver at all. Its silver color comes from a combination of nickel, zinc, lead and tin. Stay away from this. It is not only not Nickel-Free” -- it is not even Lead-Free.
Of course. Long term exposure can cause brain damage and birth defects. Don’t worry. My fascination with Nickel Allergies has not made me forget that Lead is still the Number 1 no-no.
I must congratulate you for reading this far! If you’ve been reading for this long, you must really be interested. Do you wonder, as I do, why it all has to be so complicated? Here are a few more reasons that simple jewelry is not so simple.
An alloy is by definition a combination of metals. Metals are alloyed for the purpose of achieving the color, strength, and malleability desired by the jeweler and the wearer. Even if the alloy does not contain nickel, the presence of combined different metals in the presence of moisture (which your body has plenty of) can be enough to cause an electrochemical reaction. That reaction can show up on your skin as an itchy, blotchy rash. Even if you are not allergic to any of the individual metals, you can still be allergic to the alloy.
Even if the base metal of your jewelry is safe, the plating may not be. Sometimes good silver is actually plated with nickel to make it shinier and less prone to tarnishing. On the other hand a cheap base metal containing nickel may be used, and covered with good silver plating. When the plating wears off after a time, however, the nickel will be exposed, and cause an allergic reaction. Rhodium-plated silver should in theory be safe, but rhodium does not stick readily to silver. In order to get it to stick, another metal is used, and that metal is usually nickel. I have read about some electro-plating techniques that are safe, but if you want to avoid the confusion, I think it’s best to just avoid plated metals.
“Nickel-Free” vs. “Hypo-Allergenic”
Many nice-looking pieces of jewelry are on racks for display with one of these tags on them. Items labeled “Nickel Free” may not be free of Nickel at all. According to US government regulation, items can carry this label and still contain up to 5% nickel. Just to confuse issues more, there are different regulations about the use of this term in different countries.
As for “Hypo-Allergenic,” it doesn’t really mean anything. It technically means “less allergenic,” which is not really a guarantee at all. (Less allergenic -- than what?) By the way, that stuff called “Fashion Jewelry” in the stores? If the jewelry isn’t labeled, assume it contains nickel.
The Real Wild Card: Skin Chemistry
A few people may experience a reaction to any alloy, even if there is no nickel at all. The reason for this is that the presence of any dissimilar metals is enough to cause an electrochemical reaction with your skin. This type of allergy is rare, but possible. The alloys I use in my work have absolutely no nickel in them, but some of them are alloys.
So, Here’s How I Use This Information
My own system of metal choice for Naturally Nickel Free is not supposed to be be hard to figure out. If a wire goes through your ear, it is made of Niobium, Titanium, or Argentium Sterling Silver. Additional metals I may use for chain, charms, or metal beads may also include nickel-free & lead-free brass, bronze, and pewter. I choose stones with aplomb, since these are my eye-candy.
I do not use commercial earwires or clasps. I make them myself out of the wire I have chosen for you so that you will never have to wonder what’s in them.
My list of acceptable metals is short on purpose. I want to make sure you wear the best I can offer. My goal is to give you affordable, artistic jewelry that you can wear all day, every day. There are still a lot of places in life where nickel is present, but your jewelry shouldn’t be one of them.
It’s a journey. . . I am pleased and proud that you have included my shop and my website as a part of your exploration. I invite you to continue your own research, and keep on learning about your allergy in whatever ways suit you. You can choose your jewelry with confidence, and wear what you love.
©2010-2023 Naturally Nickel-Free. All contents and material on this website are copyrighted by Naturally Nickel-Free unless otherwise stated. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer: None of the information on this or any of my pages is intended to be medical advice. If you think you might have a medical condition, such as a nickel allergy, please seek the advice of a qualified doctor.