On Metal Hypersensitivity: What It Is, How It Forms, and What It Means for Your Piercing January 17, 2023 – Posted in: Informative, Piercing Advice

Highlights

  • A metal sensitivity occurs due to prolonged exposure to an allergen.
  • The most common metal hypersensitivity is to nickel.
  • Anyone can develop a metal hypersensitivity at any time.
  • Metal allergies are on the rise, possibly due to the increased popularity of cheap jewelry in body piercings.

A common side effect of piercings is skin irritation. While this can pop up for a number of reasons—friction from the jewelry, sensitivity to chemicals in certain products, etc.—a common and growing cause is metal sensitivity. 

While some people have naturally sensitive skin, many people form metal allergies over time due to exposure to certain types of metals. They are especially common in piercings that wear jewelry that contains cheap alloys, like nickel. This is why it’s imperative to choose high-quality jewelry materials, especially as your piercing is healing, but throughout the life of your piercing as well.

To better understand which jewelry materials to choose, we must first understand what causes metal allergies and why we need to avoid certain types of metals.  

What is metal hypersensitivity?

Metal allergies, also referred to as metal hypersensitivity, are the body’s immune reaction due to exposure to certain types of metals. They are the same as any other allergy; the body encounters a foreign body that it believes to be a danger to its system, resulting in an intense immune response.

Most metal allergies are to nickel, cobalt, or chromates, but you can form an allergy to any metal. They can be triggered by anything that contains the metal allergen, and depending upon the severity of the allergy, metal allergy sufferers can trigger a reaction through prolonged exposure or simply by touching the offending metal. Luckily, most who experience metal hypersensitivity see minor side reactions like skin irritation, rashes, or scaling, but some may experience life-altering effects from their metal allergy. 

How does a metal hypersensitivity form?

Currently, metal sensitivities affect about 10 – 15% of the population, but its occurrence is on the rise, possibly due to prolonged exposure to nickel found in jewelry. It occurs due to prolonged exposure to certain types of metal, after which the body develops a sensitivity. Once sensitization develops, it cannot go away. A doctor can, however, prescribe topical ointments to help relieve symptoms associated with the allergy.

Because metal hypersensitivity arises due to prolonged contact with a metal, usually nickel, cheap jewelry should always be avoided, even if you have not developed a sensitivity. Anyone can develop a sensitivity to metal, and reactions aren’t reserved for jewelry. Those who have metal hypersensitivities can experience a reaction from any metal, including clothing clasps and buttons, utensils, and any other metal that is used on a daily basis.

Symptoms of a metal allergy

When a metal sensitivity begins to arise, symptoms include redness, swelling, itchiness, rash, bumps, and/or blisters on the skin where the metal makes contact. If you wear cheap piercing jewelry, you’ll start to notice a slight discomfort when you wear certain types of earrings. 

Most of the time, symptoms associated with a metal allergy are quite mild, if annoying. Once the metal is removed, they should go away on their own in a short period of time. However, in rare cases, a true metal allergy is formed in which a life-threatening immune response is triggered when the body is exposed to a metal allergen. 

If you develop a metal allergy, simply avoid metals that contain the metal allergen (usually nickel). A topical cream can be used to soothe discomfort if a rash is to appear. Persistent and severe symptoms should be treated by a medical professional.

Which materials are appropriate for initial jewelry?

woman with nostril and vertical labret piercings

Photo by Monstera

Metal sensitivities are on the rise, and many doctors believe that it is due to the increased popularity of piercings and the cheap jewelry that goes along with them. It’s always a good idea to invest more in high-quality jewelry so that you don’t end up developing a metal sensitivity. However, during the healing period, you may be more apt to develop a metal sensitivity, so you must be extra careful about the jewelry that you choose.

According to the Association of Piercing Professionals, these are the materials suitable for initial piercings

  • Implant-grade stainless steel
  • Implant-grade titanium
  • Niobium
  • Platinum
  • 14k or 18k gold
  • Soda lime, fused quartz, or borosilicate glass

Titanium is the most popular initial jewelry material choice among piercers because it contains very few alloys, and it’s inexpensive. This makes it ideal for the short wear time associated with initial piercing jewelry. (In almost all piercings, you will be fitted with a longer piece to accommodate swelling which will then need to be switched with a shorter piece once the swelling has gone down.)

Although it’s always important to inform yourself before you get pierced so that you can make safe choices for your piercing, a reputable piercer will be well-versed in suitable materials for initial piercings, and they will be able to help you choose a body jewelry piece that’s safe for your piercing and your body. This is another reason (among many) why it’s so important to do your research and invest in a reputable piercer.

Which materials are suitable for healed piercings?

Certain trends, like filling piercings with safety pins, have led many of us to mistakenly believe that, once a piercing is healed, you can stick pretty much anything into it. On the contrary, you can only wear jewelry that’s made of biocompatible materials. Unfortunately, there are still many retailers who offer jewelry that contains nickel and other metals known to cause metal hypersensitivity, so before purchasing your body jewelry, you must always do your research to ensure that it’s safe.

White gold can be safe when alloyed with palladium, but you’ll want to avoid white gold alloyed with nickel. White gold that’s nickel-free is usually advertised as such. Similarly, you should avoid gold-plated jewelry as the underlying base material is a mystery and may cause sensitivity. When the gold plating wears off, it exposes the mystery metal to your skin.

Sterling silver should also be avoided. It tends to tarnish and can cause irritation because of this. This tarnish can even permanently discolor the site of the piercing.

To ensure the health and safety of your piercing, opt for body jewelry made of high-quality materials. Stay away from cheap jewelry; it may be nicer on the wallet, but it’s rarely nicer on the body.

 

Practicing proper aftercare is only a part of piercing care. You need to ensure that you’re taking care of your piercing for as long as you have it, and that includes protecting yourself from metal hypersensitivity. Make sure to do your research whenever you buy a new piece of body jewelry, always shop from retailers who offer full transparency in terms of their materials and, when in doubt, buy directly from a reputable piercer.

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