BEST METALS FOR SENSITIVE EARS: A Beginners Guide (VIDEO)
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 even expensive “good quality” earrings still caused me irritation.
When I started making jewelry, I felt frustrated and limited, because I wanted to make earrings.
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 out for myself.
Yes, I knew that there were such things as "hypoallergenic earrings," but I had the misconception that they were primarily plastic or materials I wouldn't like to work with or wear.
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.
My design process and why this topic is important to me.
Before I get started, I thought it would be good to talk a little about my design process.
I do not make one-of-a-kind pieces or commissioned pieces.
Everything I create, I intend 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 challenging to wear – & I have made a few of these, to say the least – 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!
Knowledge is truly a gift and the reason I've changed course.
You see, I have sensitive ears, and for a long time, I didn't understand the cause of my irritation, so I opted to not wear earrings at all.
That was fine on a personal level, but as I started focusing on creating vintage-inspired jewelry, I started getting a lot of requests for earrings and for matching sets.
Fulfilling these requests, to me, seemed impossible.
I didn't want to sell something I hadn't tested.
In response, I started researching earring sensitivity, its cause, and what in the world were hypoallergenic materials?
I went on a mission to find the best quality materials that were also affordable, and discovered the world of hypoallergenic metals.
I also wanted to understand what made a specific set of earrings or jewelry “hypoallergenic.”
I am happy to report that through this research, I've found various metals that are suitable and have FINALLY identified the culprit behind my irritation - nickel.
What is the definition of "hypoallergenic"?
I think it's important to understand this definition.
Whenever I used to see items for sale labeled as “hypoallergenic jewelry,” I used to think these items were always safe for me or for anyone who suffered from earring sensitivity.
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.
So, what is hypoallergenic jewelry & what makes jewelry hypoallergenic?
Hypoallergenic jewelry is jewelry that was created with little to no nickel present.
It assists those with an allergy to nickel, which, as it turns out -there's quite a lot of us.
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, about 10% to 20% 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.
In short, what makes jewelry hypoallergenic is the absence of nickel or if it has low nickel content.
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 - ability to stretch out
- Alloys readily
- It can be fully recycled
These are just a few reasons why it is used frequently to create jewelry - as well as for many commonly used products.
Many handheld devices, eyeglasses, and watches also contain nickel.
Clearly, nickel is everywhere.
I don't know about you, but I find it a bit shocking given that 10% to 20% of the population - suffer from allergies to nickel.
Why are pure metals mixed to create alloys?
What if I told you that gold and silver have more in common with talc than with diamond?
In terms of hardness, they do.
Both gold and silver fall between 2.5 and 3 on the Mohs Hardness Scale, meaning that for these materials to be used to create fine jewelry, they must 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.
The Mohs Hardness Scale
Soft metals - pure 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?
Each is 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 in a range from 1 (talc) to 10 (diamond).
Those closest 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.
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.
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 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've found 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 as accessible presently. I am not sure.
Platinum ebbs and flows in popularity, as does its cost.
It's 15 times rarer than gold; hence, it's 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 explained that it is an excellent metal for people with sensitive skin.
However, they warn that it is a dense material which isn't ideal 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.
The strong bond minimizes the likelihood of an allergic reaction, making titanium a fine choice when looking for a hypoallergenic metal.
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.
This article by Jewelry Shopping Guide notes that 925 sterling silver is made of 92.5% pure silver, meaning the remaining 7.5% consists of something else.
The options vary between copper, zinc, germanium, silicon, platinum, and sometimes 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 (VIDEO)
In this video, I cover much of what I've covered in this blog post.
- Silver is hypoallergenic when combined with other hypoallergenic metals - which doesn't include 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 and don'ts of Taking Care of Silver Jewelry
Do take your jewelry off when:
- Washing dishes
- Applying lotion
- Doing hard labor - i.e. moving
- Going to bed
- 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 you should avoid using the baking soda and vinegar solution to clean your jewelry - AT ALL COSTS! Please.
If you search for 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 do clean your jewelry, they can also do a great deal of harm to your silver jewelry.
First, as we've already covered, silver is very soft.
Baking soda tends to be gritty.
This method of cleaning your jewelry, if you're not careful or familiar with the process, may result in scratching your jewelry!
Something I think most of us 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.
It may also contain particles of old toothpaste, which could also be damaging to your silver jewelry.
What should you use instead of the baking soda & vinegar solution?
You should try to prevent damage to your jewelry by taking it off:
- Before going to bed
- Before washing dishes or taking a shower
- Before exercising or doing heavy labor
- AND at the end of your day, put it away in a safe container.
Preferably, you should use an airtight container - like a Ziploc bag.
If you do wish to clean it at home, place it in a solution of soft soap and warm 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 and an unwanted chemical reaction.
What is rhodium?
Rhodium - like gold, silver or platinum – is a precious metal except it's more expensive given it's scarcity.
In their article, The Truth About Rhodium Plating, TEEDA explains that it is mainly found as a byproduct of mining for platinum.
So when the demand for platinum drops, so does the availability of rhodium.
This symbiotic relationship is what drives its price.
Sometimes it's readily available, and, therefore affordable.
At other times it's scarce and quite pricy.
In its pure form, rhodium is brittle and hard to work with, however, it is tarnish-resistant.
This property makes it ideal as a hypoallergenic metal.
Nevertheless, as previously mentioned, it is often quite expensive, given the low supply, and therefore, it's 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, the more malleable it'll be, and less effective as a raw jewelry material.
Often, 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 describe methods used throughout metalsmithing.
Filled jewelry is created by pressure bonding a second layer of a 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.
Over time, 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 assist with mild symptoms.
For more severe symptoms, you may need a doctor to prescribe a steroid cream or something more substantial.
Personally, I've found a 3 step process that works really well:
- Cleaning my piercing, as well as the earring, with alcohol
- Adding a dash of Neosporin to the affected area
- Putting away my earrings once the alcohol dries up in an airtight container until the next wear
As someone with severe earring sensitivity, I try to be cautious and clean the earring hooks of my earrings before wearing them as well, and I'd do so with a little bit of alcohol.
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.
Nickel seems to be unavoidable.
I also have concerns about using the term "hypoallergenic", as it seems to imply that it's suitable for people with sensitivity to all metals.
What about those who may have allergies to stainless-steel or silver or gold?
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're readily available, versatile, and thus far have not caused me irritation.
Eventually, I would like to incorporate 24K Gold or rhodium-plated brass as it suits many vintage-inspired designs.
Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry: https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/phs/phs.asp?id=243&tid=44
Nickel Institute: https://nickelinstitute.org/about-nickel/
Hypoallergenic Definition: https://www.google.com/search?q=hypoallergenic+definition&rlz=1C1CHBF_enUS756US756&oq=hypo&aqs=chrome.1.69i57j69i59j0i433i457j0i433l2j69i61j69i60l2.7644j1j4&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8
- Geology.com: https://geology.com/minerals/mohs-hardness-scale.shtml#:~:text=Friedrich%20Mohs%2C%20a%20German%20mineralogist,easy%20or%20inexpensive%20to%20obtain
Keezing Kreations: https://www.keezingkreations.com/education/about-platinum-jewelry
Pearlman’s Fine Jewelers – Platinum 101: https://www.pearlmansjewelers.com/information/platinum-questions-and-answers/
Fire Mountain Gems: https://www.firemountaingems.com/resources/jewelry-making-articles/c152
Jewelry Shopping Guide: https://www.jewelryshoppingguide.com/mood-ring-color-meanings/
The Truth About Rhodium Plating – TEEDA: https://www.teeda.com/blogs/articles/the-truth-about-rhodium-plating
Differences between solid gold, gold-filled, and gold plated: https://www.onecklace.com/tips/difference-between-solid-gold-gold-filled-and-gold-plated/