Vol.2, No.4

Common piercing jewelry allergies

Learn about common allergies to metals used in piercings, which hypoallergenic metals are best for sensitive skin and what symptoms to watch for after being pierced.

Piercing jewelry
Photo Credit: Matt Harrod
When getting a piercing, regardless of where on your body it is, there are usually two major concerns regarding the actual piercing: contamination and allergy. The issue of contamination (that is, use of dirty tools or unclean jewelry) can be mitigated by choosing a reputable piercing place and making sure that sanitary or disposable needles are used during the piercing. By following the instructions for cleaning given to you by the piercing shop, you can prevent the painful and dangerous infections from occurring after the piercing. Allergies to metal, however, are less easily dealt with. The best course of action is quite simply to know all you can about common allergies to metals used in jewelry and choose the piercing studs (or needles) appropriately.

The single most common allergy to a piercing metal is to nickel. Some studies estimate that up to 40% of women exhibit some allergic reactions when exposed to nickel. As with most skin allergies, the more often a person is exposed to the irritant, the more likely they are to develop an allergy. Once an allergy is developed, it is also likely that the allergic person will remain allergic for the rest of his or her life. Though nickel is a common irritant, those considering getting a piercing should also be aware that some people are also allergic to other metals. It is less likely, but surgical steel and copper can also be irritants for those with extremely sensitive skin.

Metals with the potential to be irritants are prevalent in everyday life. From belt buckles to watch clasps, rings, zippers, and eyeglasses, there is metal in almost everyone's wardrobes. On one hand, this suggests to those who do not exhibit symptoms of allergy with daily metal exposure that they may not have an allergy. However, their prolonged and unavoidable exposure increases the chance that they may develop an allergy. Additionally, a piercing remains against your skin for a far longer time frame than regular clothing items. Though occasional exposures with no adverse reaction may indicate a true lack of allergy, still be aware of any signs of allergy with a nickel-based piercing. Those with particularly sensitive skin, eczema or who are prone to rashes should probably opt for a hypoallergenic alternative to be on the safe side.

There are a number of piercing options for the allergy prone. Stainless steel is an extremely popular option, as it is readily available and inexpensive. Due to the frequency of problems with nickel, stainless steel has become the standard for piercing. 14- and 18-karat gold posts are also good options for those with allergies. However, both tend to contain traces of nickel and copper (18-karat contains less than 14-) which can still cause allergic reactions in some. Titanium, a pure metal, is also an option. Titanium, though cheaper than gold, has the drawback of not being as common. Finally, platinum (usually around 90% pure and mixed with another non-allergenic metal) is another option. The major problem with platinum is its high cost and unavailability.

If you begin to exhibit any signs of allergy, make sure to contact your doctor or dermatologist. Symptoms of allergy include itching, swelling or redness, pain and scaly skin. With a new piercing, it is natural for moderate amounts of swelling, redness and pain to be present. If the symptoms of a new swelling do not decrease within a reasonable amount of time or get worse over time, make sure you get medical attention. Even if you feel unsure about whether your symptoms are indicative of a reaction, remember that it is better to be safe than sorry, and seek help.