Health Topics » Allergy » Skin Metallics Of A Kind   Login


september 2012

Skin Metallics Of A Kind

Dr Sachin Varma 
Accessories have always been objects of fascination for both men women. From the royal courts of yore to the fashion ramps of our time, jewellery in particular shows up as the most favoured of accessories. It is not just the yellow metal, there is the stuff of costume jewellery too.

Cheaper prices, brighter colours and the latest designs make costume jewellery popular with people across all age groups.

That brings us to our skin metallics! Why all metals don’t suit all skin types? Or why some people have trouble with metal allergies? A large number of people who wear artificial jewellery on a regular basis suffer itchiness in the area where the jewellery comes in contact with the skin. The ear lobes, is the common example to mention. At times it could manifest as pain, swelling or oozing.

Metal In Costume Jewellery
Costume jewellery is commonly made of nickel alloys. It is nickel mixed with other metals. Nickel is easily mouldable, durable and cheap, making it the preferred metal for making artificial jewellery, watchbands, spectacle frames, hairpins, buttons, zippers and other metal items of daily use. However, nickel is also a notorious allergen and is in fact one of the commonest agents to produce allergic contact dermatitis.

The increased popularity/use of costume jewellery has only spelt an increase in the incidence of contact dermatitis. The incidence of nickel contact dermatitis is about 10 per cent and it presents itself as itchy red patches. Its primary onset is during adolescent years and is more common in women. The degree of allergy varies. While some people develop mild dry allergic dermatitis (also called eczema) others may produce oozy wounds. Allergy can break out even after several years of use of the metal.

Testing Your Jewellery
  • Nickel-testing kits are now available online and at pharmacies. The test kit does no harm to the jewellery being tested, irrespective of whether it contains nickel or not.

Sources & Risks Of Nickel Exposure
Apart from accessories, nickel is also found in some foods, such as oatmeal, chocolate, nuts, beans and dried fruit. Nickel may also be found in canned foods. Additional risk factors include:
  • Repeated ear or body piercings
  • Work/occupation that constantly exposes you to nickel
  • People exposed to nickel regularly while doing ‘wet work’ as a result of either sweat or frequent contact with water
  • Metalworkers, retail clerks and hairdressers
  • A family history of nickel allergy
  • A pre-existing sensitivity to cobalt or chromium
Mechanism & Symptoms
As in most other allergies, nickel allergy is a case where your body identifies the metal as something that harms you and reacts to it. At every contact with nickel, your immune system will respond and produce an allergic response. Nickel allergy can affect people of all ages. It usually begins within 12 to 48 hours after exposure to nickel. The reaction may persist for two to four weeks if not treated and if there is no further contact with metal. The symptoms include:
  • Rash or bumps on the skin associated with itching, redness or blister or fluid draining rash at the site of contact.
  • Chronic allergy, in which case it develops into a dry scaly eczematous kind of rash. It is so especially with metallic belt buckles.
  • Some people may develop intermittent or persistent eczema on their hands and feet. It is usually a blistering type of eczema, known as pompholyx. Though pompholyx can result from many causes, it can also be a distant reaction to nickel contact at some other site including a diet of nickel containing food.

Diagnosis & Treatment
Nickel allergy is diagnosed based on your skin’s appearance and a recent history of contact with nickel based items. You may also be subjected to a patch test or ‘contact hypersensitivity allergy test’ to confirm the clinical suspicion.

Once you have developed nickel allergy, you will always be sensitive to the metal and should avoid contact with it. All treatments for nickel contact dermatitis are therefore meant to reduce and offer relief from the symptoms only. Your doctor is likely to prescribe one of the following medications: corticosteroid creams, oral antihistamine, antibiotics, emollients creams.

Preventing Metal Allergies
  • Start early in life: When you decide to get your ears pierced, make sure your first earrings are made of gold or nickelfree pure stainless steel.
  • Choose the best: Most artificial jewellery and even 14 karat gold jewellery have some nickel in them. Go for nickel-free jewellery. Those made from titanium, sterling silver, gold and platinum could be your options.
  • Reduce exposure time: If you are wearing articles containing nickel or are unsure of the metal of your accessories then avoid prolonged exposure and never leave them on overnight.
  • Don’t sweat it: You stand an increased chance of developing an allergy in hot and humid conditions as perspiration leaches out some of the nickel. So take them off before you start a workout or go out in the sun.
  • Create a barrier: If you have costume jewellery made of nickel. Coat it with clear nail polish especially in the area that comes into contact with the skin.
  • Wear gloves if you are exposed to nickel at work. For buttons, snaps, or tool handles, duct tape may help in reducing direct contact.
  • Use substitute materials: Look for safer substitutes for common nickelcontaining items. Watchbands made of leather, cloth or plastic. Zippers or clothing fasteners made of plastic or coated metals. And, plastic or titanium eyeglass frames.