A beginners guide to finding the best metals for sensitive ears.
Until recently, I shied away from making earrings, given that over the years, I developed an allergy to nickel. I used to think that I was allergic to all metals, as many “good quality” earrings still provoked irritation. When I started making jewelry, I started looking at alternatives and found that hypoallergenic earrings exist and that I can wear them without irritation. I can’t say that all hypoallergenic earrings have all been equally effective, but many have worked very well.
The purpose of this post is to spotlight good metals for sensitive ears.
Topics Covered In This Post
My Design Process
Before I get started, I thought it would be good to cover a little about my design process.
I do not make one of a kind pieces or commissioned pieces. Everything I create, I create intending to reproduce and make as accessible as possible. As such, I begin with a prototype, I test it, and I adjust as I see necessary.
I follow this process as a way of testing quality, form, and structure. If pieces do not sit well or are quite challenging to wear –I have made a few of these – I may post about them on Instagram, but they do not make it to my shop.
Notably, earrings are the newest additions to my shop. You may be surprised as they have overtaken my inventory. I have sensitive ears and, given my design process, for a long time, I did not know which earring components would best accommodate my goal here, which is to create accessible vintage-inspired handmade pieces.
To me, earrings are often the bell of the ball as they inevitably make the grand entrance – and, I find that they are the best solution for using beads that are too delicate for use in other forms of jewelry as they do not come in contact directly with the skin. These were just a few reasons I was determined to find a solution to my sensitivity to earrings this year.
The key to taking this direction was to finding affordable components that are good metals for sensitive ears as I needed to be able to test my work. This process sometimes involves many hours of wear, and if I cannot tolerate wearing them, my prototypes may never see the light of day.
Enter hypoallergenic components. Specifically, I am looking for earring components that are affordable and readily available. Which will I choose? Read on to see.
What makes jewelry hypoallergenic?
Hypoallergenic jewelry assists those with an allergy to nickel. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, about 10 to 20 percent of the population is affected by an allergy to nickel.
Jewelry Information Place notes that jewelry made from pure metals – such as 24K gold, sterling silver, fine silver, copper, titanium, and stainless-steel – are considered hypoallergenic jewelry. They either do not contain nickel or contain trace amounts of nickel.
Therefore, the absence of nickel makes jewelry hypoallergenic.
Why is nickel used to create jewelry?
Nickel, as defined by the Nickle Institute, is the fifth most common element on earth. It is a naturally occurring element with a silvery-white, shiny appearance. Properties that make it a desirable metal to work with include:
- High melting point
- Resists corrosion and oxidation
- Highly ductile
- Alloys readily
- Can be fully recycled
These are just a few reasons why it is used frequently to create jewelry and s a lot of commonly used products. Many handheld devices, eyeglasses, and watches also contain nickel.
This is a bit shocking given that so many – 10 to 20 percent of the population – suffer from allergies to nickel.
So, why is it used so frequently?
Again, because it is malleable, durable, corrosion-resistant, and given that it is readily available, it is an affordable option.
What materials are considered hypoallergenic?
Metals that are classified as pure metals, such as 24K gold, stainless- steel, platinum, titanium, niobium, and sterling silver are all commonly used hypoallergenic jewelry making materials.
The purest form of gold is 24K gold. While stunning, it is very soft and not suitable for making durable jewelry. The solution is to alloy it, mix it, with other metals, for example, nickel or copper.
Stainless-steel is often marked as hypoallergenic however, not all stainless-steel is created equal. As noted by the Nickel Institute, more than two-thirds of the global nickel production is used to produce stainless-steel. Decidedly, the alloying element that makes steel “stainless “is chromium; however, it is the addition of nickel that enables stainless-steel to become a versatile alloy.
According to Golden Age Beads, an eCommerce beading shop, the best hypoallergenic stainless-steel is marked as XC45 steel or 430 stainless-steel. These usually have less than 1% nickel.
To my misfortune, I have found a few retailers that have this identification for their products. It may be that the demand for including this designation is not there or it may be that this form of stainless-steel is simply not readily available. I am not sure.
Platinum ebbs and flows in popularity, as does its cost. Given that it is 15 times rarer than gold it is often more expensive. However, it is an ideal choice to use in creating for fine jewelry and for those who have a sensitivity to nickel as it can be up to 95% pure, versus that of gold which is generally only 75%, according to this article by Keezing Kreations.
Pearlman’s Fine Jewelers published a Platinum 101 article where they further explain that it is an excellent metal for people with sensitive skin. However, they warn that it is a dense material that might not make it the best choice for people to wear long-term as it could prove uncomfortable.
Fire Mountain Gems explains that nickel is found in titanium, but given that it is so firmly embedded in the metal, it is also categorized as hypoallergenic. This strong bond minimizes the likelihood of an allergic reaction to occur.
Niobium is a newer metal discovered in 1801 by English scientist Charles Hatchett. It is a shiny, white, ductile, metal that when exposed to air, forms an oxide layer. This layer makes it turn various shades of blue, green, and yellow. According to Chemicool, it is this layer of oxidation that makes niobium corrosion resistant, and therefore hypoallergenic.
Fire Mountain Gems notes that niobium was only recently introduced into jewelry making.
This article by Jewelry Shopping Guide notes that 925 sterling silver is made of 92.5% pure silver, which means that the remaining 7.5% consists of something else. The options vary between copper, zinc, germanium, silicon, platinum, and at times nickel. These are meant to enhance the durability of the product made with silver; otherwise, they may be too soft to create lasting products.
What is rhodium?
Rhodium – like gold, silver or platinum – is a precious metal only more expensive as it is scarce in nature.
In their article, The Truth About Rhodium Plating, TEEDA explains that it is mainly found as a byproduct of mining for platinum. When the demand for platinum drops, so does the availability of rhodium. This symbiotic relationship is what drives its price. Sometimes it is readily available, and therefore affordable, others it is scarce and quite pricy.
In its pure form, rhodium is brittle and hard to work with, yet it is tarnish-resistant. This property makes it ideal as a hypoallergenic metal. However, as previously mentioned, it is often quite expensive, given low supply, therefore, it is seldom used to create hypoallergenic jewelry. A more cost-efficient option would be rhodium plating.
Is an alloy a metal?
Don’t judge me, but I didn’t know the difference before embarking on this research.
The answer is, no.
Merriam Webster defines an alloy as a substance that is composed of two or more metals or of a metal, and a nonmetal intimately united usually by being fused and dissolving in each other when molten to give durability or some other desired quality.
Pure vs. plated vs. filled - Which is more desirable for sensitive ears?
Notably, pure metals are highly valued, but they do not make the best option when it comes to creating long-lasting jewelry.
As noted above, the purer the metal, the softer and the more malleable it will be. Therefore, a better option is filled or plated jewelry.
oNecklace.com wrote a detailed article titled – Differences between solid gold, gold-filled, and gold plated. While they mainly focus on gold, they are describing methods used throughout metalsmithing.
Filled jewelry is created by pressure bonding a second layer of new metal to another metal. The process creates a synergy where one metal enhances the properties of the other, and vice versa.
Plated jewelry is made by using electricity or chemicals to deposit and bond a very thin layer of one metal over another metal. This layer can be as thin as 1/1000 to 3/1000, making it the most affordable option and the least durable option. Overtime plated jewelry tarnishes and fades as the base metal coating breaks down.
How do you treat an allergic reaction?
Per WebMD, the most important thing you can do is avoid contact with the object that caused the reaction. Hydrocortisone cream and antihistamine pills would assist mild symptoms. For more severe symptoms, you may need a doctor to prescribe a steroid cream or something stronger.
Personally, I have found that cleaning my piercing, as well as the earring, with alcohol and following it up with a dash of Neosporin in the affected area, works wonders.
Conclusion: What is my preferred metal for sensitive ears?
Honestly, after all my research, I do not feel comfortable with using the term “hypoallergenic earrings” definitively. The opportunity for nickel to be present is vast, and its absence in most alloys infrequent.
I also have concerns about using the term “hypoallergenic”, as it seems to imply that it is good for people with sensitivity to all metals, when in fact it usually only describes an absence of nickel and therefore a good option for people with a sensitivity to nickel. What about everyone else who may have allergies to stainless-steel or silver or gold? They too may be looking for “hypoallergenic” options but may be unaware that in most cases, they will not find a suitable alternative.
Instead, I will note the metal used for each earring component. I will include as much information about the alloy mix and link back to this article for further reading.
As for which metals will I sue going forward? To start off, I will work with surgical stainless-steel components. They are readily available, versatile and thus far have not caused me irritation.
Eventually, I would like to incorporate gold or rhodium plated brass as it suits a lot of vintage-inspired designs.