There they are. The cuteness/awesomest/absolutely most stunning-est pair of earrings you never knew you needed. But as you hold them up to your ears to confirm just how great they'll look, a little voice in the back of your mind reminds you of that itchy, painful sensation you feel all too often after buying new earrings. Why does this happen?
The Whats of Metal Sensitivity
Metal Sensitivity (also called metal hypersensitivity) is a form of an allergic reaction. This can be caused by having certain metals in jewelry (as well as dental and orthopedic implants) come into contact with your skin. Most costume jewelry is made of a mixture of different metal alloys such as brass, copper, and nickel. Just like being allergic to cats or pollen, when molecules of the metal are picked up by our skin cells, the body treats them like a cold or flu and gives you that itching and redness in the earlobes.
An allergic reaction can begin within hours or even days after exposure to the offending metal. Depending on the severity it can last as long as two to four weeks. Of course, the main problem will be in the area where your skin came into contact with the jewelry but sometimes a reaction may appear in other places on your body.
Metal Allergy Symptoms include:
Rash or bumps
Itching, anywhere from a slight to quite severe
Redness or changes in skin color
Dry patches of skin that look burned
In bad cases, blisters
The Main Offender - Nickel Allergy
Metal allergies often show up after you've had enough contact with that metal. Since nickel is in so many consumer goods (even coins, zippers, and keys) nickel allergies are the most prevalent. According to healthline.com, 36% of women under 18 have this allergy; and once sensitive, always sensitive.
A major issue is that nickel and nickel alloys are not very strictly regulated in North America. Jewelry called "nickel-free" can be sold as long as the nickel portion is less than a couple of percent. While this may be fine for most, it can still cause an allergic reaction.
Earrings cause more of a problem than necklaces or bracelets. The reason is simple, earrings go right through the skin where there is very close contact. The skin cells on your earlobe more readily absorb the metal molecules.
3 other common metal allergies:Cobalt is found in many of the same products as nickel, but also in 'blue' things as it is used as a pigment.
Chromium is used extensively as a thin outer coat (electroplating) in plated jewelry for a long-lasting shine and luster.
Zinc is a softer metal and is often used instead of lead to make jewelry safer.
How to Find Earrings for Sensitive Ears
OK, so let's run down the options we have for wearing beautiful jewelry that doesn't irritate our skin. You'll quickly see that some options might not be the perfect fit for you. But here's the secret: Titanium is the best.
"Earrings for sensitive ears" or "Hypoallergenic Earrings"
This can be slapped on any product as a marketing ploy; it is purposefully vague since there is no way to tell what the earrings are made of. Often times earrings sold with these descriptions but no other details are a warning sign. If you don't know what metals have been used in making the jewelry, you can't know if it will cause problems with sensitive skin.
Cons: It's a gamble at best; an allergic flare-up and wasted money at worst.
Again, this is quite vague. Without any regulations in the USA or Canada, it is possible these earrings have some allergen, maybe not nickel but cobalt or zinc. The cheaper the earring, the more likely they are to have metals that will bother sensitive skin.
Pros: Cheap. May work for some.
Cons: Cheap. Could cause irritation later on.
PlatedSome companies use various alloys containing nickel and then plate them with higher-quality gold or silver. There are two problems with this: first, there is a small percentage of nickel in the gold and silver they use; and second, the plating wears off over time, eventually exposing the nickel underneath. The plating is super super thin (a couple microns thick) and could wear off rather quickly. Because of the extra step involved in making this jewelry and the higher value of metals, these earrings will be on the more expensive side but won't last as long as pure gold or silver.
Pros: There is a vast amount of selection. If you are not so sensitive, or an occasional wearer; this might be enough.
Cons: Doesn't last. Can be overpriced and can't be "re-plated."
Surgical And Stainless Steel
This metal is not a good option since it's not 100% allergen-free. It is used in costume jewelry because it's cheap, doesn’t rust, and stays shiny for ages. Stainless steel is an alloy with 100s of elements including nickel or chromium in large enough amounts to cause irritation. Surgical steel is just stainless steel that has been treated to be harder, this helps needles and similar implements stay sharp.
Pros: Long-lasting and no fuss.
Cons: May irritate some ears. Not truly hypoallergenic.
Medical-Grade Plastic Earrings?Seemingly a perfect solution to metal sensitivity since there are no metals in plastic. Medical Grade Plastics won’t cause a reaction to sensitive ears and can be very light. Plus, they stay cleaner and more germ-free than plain plastics. However, to keep the posts from breaking, they are generally thicker than usual and some women find it difficult to fit through piercings. And of course, plastics are not as lustrous as metals and designs often focus on children's wear.
Pros: Truly hypoallergenic as it has no metal. Cheap and readily available.
Cons: Thick posts and limited designs for adults.
CopperCopper has played a huge role in human civilization. While it is possible to be allergic to copper, this allergy is not a common as nickel/cobalt sensitivity. Copper has a stunning luster and is highly prized for its ease of shaping and low cost. Of course, copper is also known for a tendency to turn skin green or blueish. This is a normal effect from contact with copper and can easily be washed off but the extra hassle is a deal-breaker for some.
Pros: Elegant and huge selection of artisan designs, relatively cheap and safe.
Cons: Leaves stains and needs maintenance.
SilverMoving into higher-value metals, silver is a classic favourite. Silver by itself is too soft to keep its shape as jewelry so, you guessed it, silver is alloyed with other metals. Sterling Silver is often identified with the number 925 -- this means the metal is 92.5% silver and 7.5% other metals. This is where copper and nickel sneak in again. Bonus if the earrings state “Nickel-Free Sterling” or similar, but this is still not a guarantee of no irritation. Sometimes silver is plated with gold, but again, plating wears off and the gold is mostly alloyed with allergenic metals.
Pros: High-grade jewelry is nice to have. Most women should have no problem.
Cons: Not 100% safe for all women. Hard, if not impossible to tell what other metals are alloyed in.
Diamond setters love this superhard long-lasting metal for rings. It's virtually indestructible, can withstand heat and cold, and the surface scratches make a desired patina for the wearer. For piercings, it's very safe as it has no nickel or other troublesome metals. One thing to keep in mind is that when storing platinum earrings, be wary of damaging other softer pieces of jewelry. With such high praises, however, there is a price. Because of platinum's rarity and value, platinum jewelry is expensive -- up to 30% more than gold.
Pros: Safe and beautiful. A true luxury earring metal.
Cons: Is expensive.
Tungsten has seen a boost in popularity lately as an inexpensive and durable alternative. Tungsten is a heavier metal, so expect any jewelry made to have more heft. Tungsten on its own is rather soft. That's right, tungsten earrings are alloys. High-quality tungsten carbide that is properly manufactured and polished should only have small amounts of nickel and/or cobalt.
Pros: Growing selection of inexpensive options. Lasts long and keeps its luster.
Cons: Can be heavy for earrings. Not truly hypoallergenic.
Pros: Safe, beautiful, and classic.
Niobium is a modern metal used extensively in industrial applications similar to platinum and titanium. Niobium jewelry is biocompatible and hypoallergenic. As always, buy from a reputable seller with a solid refund and return policy so you don't get stuck with subpar jewelry. Niobium is newer to the jewelry world, so the selection isn't as good.
Pros: Truly hypoallergenic.
Cons: Limited selection. Can be pricey.
Medical Grade Titanium earrings are an excellent choice for sensitive skin. This grade of titanium is also called implant-grade because it is used in surgical implants restoring hips, knees, and shoulders. Titanium earrings won't rust or fade and when highly polished are a perfect solution for keeping your ears happy. Thousands of people are finding out about this metal for hypoallergenic earrings and jewelry and are happily wearing earrings again. Titanium studs that have magnetic surfaces can be used in interchangeable earrings for convenience and speed.
Pros: Truly hypoallergenic. Huge selection. Affordable.
Updated for 2022