Hypoallergenic Metals: What are the best metals for sensitive ears?

Best Metals For Sensitive Ears

The Best Metals For Sensitive Ears: A Beginners Guide (VIDEO)

Revised: 11/25/2020

If you have sensitive ears and are looking for the best metals to invest in for your jewelry collection, this guide was made for you.

Long story short, you want to avoid nickel, which is commonly used for virtually everything.

Until recently, I shied away from making earrings, given that over the years I’ve developed an allergy to nickel, but didn’t know it. 

I used to think that I was allergic to all metals, as many “good quality” earrings still caused me irritation.

When I started making jewelry, I felt frustrated and limited, because I wanted to make earrings. To me, they are the belle of the ball. 

They set the tone and make the first impression, and I thought I couldn’t make them as I wouldn’t be able to test them, or my design, on myself. 

Yes, I knew that there were such things as “hypoallergenic earrings” but I had the misconception that they were mostly plastic or materials of lower quality. 

Boy was I wrong. 

If you too have reservations about purchasing hypoallergenic earrings, then I hope this post helps clarify any questions you may have.  

If you have any questions or would like to comment on this post, please join my private Facebook Group where we discuss all things jewelry & vintage fashion.

My design process and why this topic is important to me.

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 for a long time, I did not understand the cause for my irritation so I opted to not wear earrings at all.
That was fine on a personal level, but as I started focusing on vintage-inspired jewelry,  I started getting requests for earrings and for matching sets.
This was a problem. I didn’t want to sell anything I didn’t test first. 
And not knowing which earring components would best accommodate my handmade vintage-inspired designs, was a major issue.
In response, I started doing research on hypoallergenic materials. I focused on hypoallergenic metals as I was on a quest to find the best quality and affordable metals. Specifically, I wanted to know what made them hypoallergenic. 
I am happy to report that through this research I have found various metals I can use without irritation. And I have FINALLY identified the culprit behind my irritation – nickel. 

What is the definition of "hypoallergenic"?

I think it’s important to understand this definition as whenever I used to see hypoallergenic jewelry for sale, I thought of it as completely safe for me or anyone who had a sensitivity to jewelry. 
Not so. 
According to Oxford Languages, the definition of hypoallergenic is “relatively unlikely to cause an allergic reaction.”
Hence, it’s safe for most people but not all. 

What is hypoallergenic jewelry & what makes jewelry hypoallergenic?

Hypoallergenic jewelry mainly 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.  

Pure metals, such as 24K gold, sterling silver, fine silver, copper, titanium, and stainless-steel are considered hypoallergenic metals.

They either do not contain nickel or contain trace amounts of nickel.

So what makes jewelry hypoallergenic is the absence of nickel, generally speaking. 

Why is nickel used to create jewelry?

Nickel, as noted by the Nickle Institute, is the fifth most common, naturally occurring element on earth with a silvery-white, shiny appearance. 

The properties that make nickel 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 as well as for a lot of commonly used products. Many handheld devices, eyeglasses, and watches also contain nickel.  

Clearly, nickel is everywhere. 

Which, I don’t know about you, but I find it a bit shocking given that 10 to 20 percent of the population – suffer from allergies to nickel.

The Mohs Hardness Scale

Soft metals are often mixed with metals that have more desirable properties to create alloys that are stronger & more durable.
How do we identify soft metals? We measured against The Mohs Hardness Scale
The Mohs Hardness Scale was developed in 1812 by Friedrich Mohs, a German mineralogist.  
He selected 10 minerals with varying degrees of hardness and categorized them on a range from 1 (talc) to 10 (diamond). Those closer to 1 were softer than those closer to 10. 
To test the hardness of an unknown metal or mineral, he would scratch it with a known mineral from his scale. 
If it scratched, it would mean that it is softer than the known material. 
If it didn’t scratch, it meant that it was stronger or harder than the known material. 
Moh's Hardness Scale

Why are pure metals mixed to create alloys

What if I told you that gold and silver have more in common to talc than to diamond? 
In terms of hardness, they do. 
Both gold and silver fall between 2.5 to 3 on the Mohs Hardness Scale, meaning that in order for these materials to be used to create fine jewelry, they need to be mixed with other metals. 
Here’s a chart that outlines the harness of various popular metals and minerals in terms of hardness on the Mohs Hardness Scale. 

What metals are considered hypoallergenic?

Metals that are classified as pure metals are considered hypoallergenic metals.
These include 24K gold, stainless- steel, platinum, titanium, niobium, and sterling silver.

24K Gold

The purest form of gold is 24K gold.
And while stunning, it is very soft and not suitable for making jewelry.
The solution is to alloy it, mix it, with other metals. For example, nickel or copper. 

STAINLESS-STEEL

Stainless-steel is often marketed as hypoallergenic however, not all stainless-steel is created equally.

As noted by the Nickel Institute, more than two-thirds of the global nickel production is used to produce stainless-steel.

And the alloying element that makes steel “stainless “is chromium; HOWEVER, it’s 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 isn’t there or it may be that this form of stainless-steel isn’t readily available. I am not sure. 

PLATINUM

Platinum ebbs and flows in popularity, as does its cost. It is 15 times rarer than gold and is often more expensive.

However, it’s an ideal choice to use when creating fine jewelry, specifically when creating it for those who have a sensitivity to nickel.

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.

TITANIUM

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.

The strong bond minimizes the likelihood of an allergic reaction to occur, making titanium a fine choice when looking for a hypoallergenic metal. 

NIOBIUM

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 a great choice when considering hypoallergenic options.  

Fire Mountain Gems notes that niobium was only recently introduced into jewelry making.

STERLING SILVER

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.   

Properties of silver jewelry & easy tips for taking care of silver jewelry (VIDEO)

In this video, I cover a lot of what I’ve covered in this blog post so far. 

  • Silver is hypoallergenic when combined with other hypoallergenic metals – not nickel
  • Silver is very soft  (2.5-3 on the Mohs Hardness Scale)

With these pieces of information in mind, let’s also talk about how best to take care of your silver jewelry. 

Do’s & Dont’s for taking care of silver jewelry

Do take your jewelry off when:

  • Washing dishes
  • Exercising
  • Applying lotion
  • Doing hard labor – i.e. moving
Do NOT: 
 
  • Use a solution of baking soda and vinegar to scrub off your jewelry with an old toothbrush
  • Leave your jewelry exposed to the air when you’re not wearing it. 

Do put away your jewelry in an airtight container when not wearing your jewelry. 

Why don’t you want to use baking soda & vinegar to clean your jewelry?

If you do a search on the best ways to clean your jewelry, baking soda, vinegar, and an old toothbrush are often mentioned as solutions to your problem. 

The problem is that while they clean your jewelry they also do a great deal of harm to your silver jewelry. 

First, silver is very soft & baking soda tends to be gritty, which may result in scratching your jewelry – something you want to avoid. 

Second, vinegar is acidic which could cause your jewelry to change in color. 

Third, an old toothbrush may be too hard on your jewelry, resulting in scratching, and it may contain particles of toothpaste, which could also be damaging to your silver jewelry. 

What should you use instead of using baking soda & vinegar?

You should try to prevent damage to your jewelry by taking it off when needed and put it away in airtight containers – like a Ziploc bag – when you’re not wearing it. 

If you do wish to clean it at home then place it in a solution of soft soap and water for a few minutes then clean it with a soft cloth.

If you wish to use a toothbrush, buy a new soft brush to avoid scratching as well as an unwanted chemical reaction. 

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.

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 with 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 on 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. 

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.

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 I’ll use 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.

By Jessica Gibson

By Jessica Gibson

Jewelry designer, content creator & headmistress of Kaleidoscopes & Polka Dots.

I hope you found this article useful. If there are any other topics you would like me to research, please let me know, either via a comment or email (sincerely@kaleidoscopesandpolkadots.com)