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Sterling hearts with niobium rings in six different colors

Designing and Buying for Sensitive Ears

According to the Cleveland Clinic, 10% or more of the US population is allergic to nickel. Nickel salts, commonly formed when nickel reacts with perspiration, bring on reactions that range from a mildly irritating rash to harsher effects like intense headache, fatigue, or nausea. 

If you're one of the unlucky few who have this allergy, you probably know that it can be hard to find earring materials that are safe for you. And if you're a jewelry designer, you owe it to your customer to know your materials and to design and sell safe alternatives. 

Why Is Nickel Used in Jewelry?

Nickel, and other materials like cadmium and cobalt, are added to softer steel, gold, or silver. This blend (called an alloy) allows the new material to be formed into a shape, and to retain that shape. 

In addition to alloys, there are elemental metals (metals represented on the periodic table) that tend to be more pure. Additionally, there are layered jewelry metals, such as gold-filled, which consists of a skin of gold over a core of other material, such as brass. 

How Can You Choose?

It can be relatively challenging to figure out which metals are the safest for allergy sufferers. If you have a severe allergy to jewelry metals, there are alternative jewelry materials, such as wood or plastic that may be safer for your use. You can also purchase pierced earring protectors, which provide a barrier between your skin and the earring post.

The following paragraphs provide some good jewelry metal choices for most people with nickel allergies. Be aware, however, that the standards governing the content of jewelry metals can vary by country and metal, and the makeup of products manufactured before a current standard may not meet the same standard.

Sterling Silver

Sterling silver is an alloy that must contain at least 92.5% pure silver, so it can contain, at most, 7.5% other metals. Most sterling is a mix of silver and copper, but it can be mixed with other metals. Silver is very reactive (think tarnish!)  and it will react to moisture, including perspiration. If nickel has been added to the sterling, contact may trigger a nickel salts reaction (see paragraph one of this post).

Stainless Steel (Including Surgical Steel)

Stainless steel is a often a good choice for sensitive ears, but not for the reasons you might think. Jewelry grade stainless steel, depending on the grade, can contain up to 12% nickel. However, stainless steel is highly resistant to moisture, including perspiration. This property makes allergic reactions to stainless steel far less likely than more reactive materials.

Surgical steel is also stainless steel. The "surgical" label means the material is deemed suitable for use in temporary medical implants or for surgical implements.

Niobium and Titanium

Niobium and Titanium are, by far, the best choice in jewelry metals for someone with nickel allergies. Both of these metals are considered safe for permanent medical implants. 

Niobium and titanium wire are available in natural gray, but each metal can also be anodized to produce other metallic colors or brilliant iridescents. This post's featured image shows a set of earrings with multiple colors of anodized niobium. Anodization creates permanent color. It can't fade or be washed away, though it can be scratched with a sharp tool.

I hope this post provided you with useful information about jewelry metal allergies and alternatives that can help avoid them. Whether you want to wear them yourself, or you want to design for others, there are good choices out there to help those sensitive ears!

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