You may have worn the same gold-color cuff or silvery earrings every day since you bought them on vacation, but now the skin around the jewelry has become red and itchy.
Allergies to metal accessories can appear without warning, sometimes brought on by a combination of summer heat and your body’s sweat. “Sweat can destabilize a poor-quality metal alloy and lead to the release of many metal atoms from the alloy, which can penetrate the skin,” Annick Barbaud, a professor on the faculty of medicine at the Sorbonne in Paris, wrote in an email.
And there is more bad news: “You remain allergic for life, and there is no desensitization possible,” she added.
The culprit is often nickel — a durable and low-cost metal frequently used in inexpensive jewelry — but chrome, cobalt or other metals also can cause problems, Dr. Barbaud said. And, as labeling practices vary, even some jewelry labeled hypoallergenic or nickel-free actually may contain traces of nickel.
“There is no scientific definition of the term ‘hypoallergenic.’ It is a marketing term,” Dr. Barbaud said. “We can hope that ‘hypoallergenic’ jewelry complies with European regulations that limit the release of nickel from objects in close contact with the skin. However, for someone who is already sensitized to metals, particularly nickel, even hypoallergenic jewelry may still cause a reaction.”
High-end gold jewelry can present problems, too, because 24-karat, or pure, gold is soft and usually is mixed with some other metals for strength. White gold, for example, mostly is alloyed with nickel, while yellow gold typically is alloyed with silver or copper, although some nickel may be added too. And the 9-karat or 12-karat gold used in inexpensive jewelry could contain a high percentage of alloy.
The European Union regulates the amount of nickel allowed in jewelry, but the United States does not. “The E.U. regulation applies to all jewelry, but the rules are different depending if it is for piercing or for regular jewelry,” said Nina Andersson, chief executive of Blomdahl, a jewelry company founded in 1985 in Halmstad, Sweden, that focuses on jewelry allergies. “This regulation allows a nickel leakage in piercing jewelry of up to 0.2 micrograms per square centimeter per week. For ordinary jewelry, the limit is higher; it is 0.5 micrograms per square centimeter per week.”
Leakage, the term used to describe the release of atoms from metal, is aggravated by warm weather. “When you sweat,” Ms. Andersson said, “the leakage is higher and your exposure is higher.”
Blomdahl, which promotes its products as “feelgood jewelry,” has designs for both adults and children, priced from 14 euros to 136 euros ($15 to $149). Ms. Andersson said the company’s annual sales totaled about 75 million Swedish kronor ($7 million); its affiliate in the United States is authorized to use the Blomdahl name and sells most, but not all, of its designs.
“According to our dermatologists, medical titanium and medical plastic are best for the skin,” Ms. Andersson said. So the brand makes plastic jewelry for children, including a pair of drop earrings with pastel crystals cut in blossom shapes and set in medical-grade plastic, at €32. Titanium is used for its adult designs that come into direct contact with the skin, such as earrings, rings and nose rings. A simple eight-millimeter titanium nose ring, for example, is priced at €21.50.
For necklaces, bracelets and anklets, Ms. Andersson said, the company uses “the highest grade of stainless steel, covered with a ceramic coating on top that we developed with our dermatologists and tested in hospitals, that encapsulates the nickel inside the jewelry.
To maintain the company’s strict standards, she said, “All nose and ear jewelry is sold in hygienic ‘clean packs.’ You cannot try them on. If you open the pack and the seal is broken, you cannot return them.”
Blomdahl also has developed an ear and nose piercing service, available in Europe and the United States, and makes its own perforator, registered with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a medical device.
A bad personal experience with piercings was behind Louisa Serene Schneider’s decision to create hypoallergenic jewelry and her own piercing program. “I had to have my ears sewn up twice” because the piercings were badly placed, she said.
So when it came time for her daughter to get her ears pierced, Ms. Schneider pivoted from her work in investment banking and hedge funds. “My daughter deserved a safe experience,” she said. “What if I can get nurses to pierce ears and create a brand about it? I had the idea to start a company that would prioritize safety and build the medical standard for ear piercing.”
In 2017, Rowan was born. The company’s name is a reference to the rowan tree, which has been considered by many cultures to have protective powers and which grows throughout Rowan County, N.C., where Ms. Schneider’s family was originated.
The company offers a hygienic piercing process, created with the help of an advisory board of medical professionals, including doctors, and executed by registered nurses trained in the procedure. And, “at Rowan,” Ms. Schneider said, “we pierce with a longer post to allow for airflow and swelling; posts that are too short can get infected.”
Rowan makes only earrings, including its Endless Hoop, which comes in three sizes and two metals; the 10-millimeter version in 14-karat gold on silver, for example, is available online at $56 a pair. “We say they are nickel- and brass-free,” Ms. Schneider said. “We use medical grade stainless steel, titanium, 14-karat gold and hypoallergenic sterling silver.”
The brand also carries silicone studs, which Ms. Schneider said “are ideal for swimming and sports and summer activities. Silicone earrings are not affected by sweat or bug spray.” Fifteen studs, with a small case, are $39.
Ms. Schneider said Rowan’s approach was proving to be effective in avoiding infections and irritations. “The current industry standard for adverse piercing outcomes sits at 30 percent,” she wrote in a later email. “Data from 7,155 piercings shows our rate of adverse outcomes being less than 1 percent — defined as customers experiencing infection, embedded jewelry, allergic reaction or any other reason that may cause them to lose the piercing.”
Yet Kimberly Huestis, the jeweler behind the Boston-based brand Porcelain and Stone, said she preferred to avoid nickel entirely. “A lot of folks might think surgical steel is safe, but for me personally, it still may contain small amounts of nickel bound in the molecular structure of the steel,” she said. “In the past when I visited the dentist, I might get a reaction, a rash or a raw feeling on the mouth where the dentist’s tool rested.”
She eliminates the possibility of allergic reactions by using ceramic and stone, and creating settings “that are 14-karat-gold filled, which is a 14-karat gold sheet heat-pressure bonded over an inner core of copper and zinc.” Her 14-karat gold rainbow moonstone necklace on an 18-inch chain costs $186.
Ms. Huestis’s own allergies guided her toward her current career: “As a child, I could only wear gold; my parents said I was an expensive child.”