Do you know what your bra fastener is made of? How about your jewelry or the fly on your jeans? Given the ever-increasing number of people developing allergies to nickel (including many yogis now opting for body piercings), it might be worth finding out. The incidence of nickel allergy, the most common skin allergy in North America, has increased 40 percent in the past five years. The American Academy of Dermatology attributes this growth largely to a rise in body piercing.
"Nickel allergy is interesting because with every person its expression will be different," says Dr. Vincent DeLeo, chairman of dermatology at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City. For some, it takes a whole lot of nickel at prolonged, close contact to cause a reaction. Others react to fingering a pen or car keys in a coat pocket. The allergy may cause redness, watery blisters, hives, or eczema only at the site of contact, or it might cover the entire body.
Most metals contain nickel—the purer the metal, the less nickel. But even 24-karat gold may contain some nickel. Stainless steel contains nickel, but it is tightly bound and, in higher quality steel, will not leach out.
As with any allergen, you must be exposed to nickel before you will react to it. Avoiding nickel is both the best means of preventing an allergy and the only known cure for avoiding reactions.
Contact with nickel is more harmful if the site is sweaty (such as under a watchband) or open, such as a piercing. Most body piercing professionals recommend implant-grade surgical steel for initial piercings—the kind of steel used to place pins or plates in the body. Once your piercing has healed, you can opt for other types of jewelry. But to play it safe, you should stick with surgical steel, titanium, or at least 14 karat gold even for healed piercings.
If it's too late for prevention, and you think your itchy skin or rash might be due to a nickel allergy, don't ignore it. Approximately 15 percent of patients who are tested for skin allergies are allergic to nickel, according to the North American Contact Dermatitis Group. A patch test will verify that dermatitis is caused by contact with nickel and not some other allergen. You can buy a test at your local pharmacy or have one performed by your health care provider. Your provider can also recommend some methods for symptom relief, such as using topical ointments and creams, essential oils, or homeopathic medicines.