Itchy Ears? It Could Be Your Artisan Earrings

Study shows local artists’ earrings are more likely to contain nickel, a common cause of allergic contact dermatitis.

So Steady as She Goes

A woman came to see me recently with red, itchy, scaly earlobes. She thought she had psoriasis. She didn’t. She had hand-crafted earrings.

Many earrings contain nickel, one of the most common causes of allergic contact dermatitis. Developing an allergy to something requires that you are exposed to it, often repeatedly, which is why nickel allergy is more common in women. Though still used extensively here in the US, there are restrictions on nickel in jewelry in Europe.

A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that locally crafted earrings were more likely to contain excessive levels of nickel as compared to store-bought earrings. They did not, however, find that there was a relationship between the price of the earrings and whether or not they contained nickel. The study found that   69% of earrings purchased from local artists contained nickel while only 24% of earrings in chain stores contained the metal.

The authors recommended that all jewelry be labelled as containing nickel or being nickel- free to increase public awareness and to help those who are known to have a nickel allergy. Until then, there is a test that you can buy to determine if a metal contains nickel. It’s called dimethylglyoxime (DMG), and can be purchased over the counter or online. When DMG is applied to nickel, it turns the DMG red or pink.

So, should you toss your favorite earrings if they contain nickel? If you have a true nickel allergy, probably so. Unless you don’t mind developing an itchy, red crusty rash. But before you toss (or re-gift) them, you can try to seal the nickel in the jewelry so it doesn’t contact your skin: One way is to paint the metal part with 3-4 coats of clear nail polish. Or you can purchase a nickel protectant, which might work better.

Photo credit: FCC, Evil Erin

Allergic to Your Cell Phone?


I have heard of people addicted to their Blackberry® (not me of course), but allergic to your Blackberry? Turns out, it is possible.

An 18-year-old patient from Rhode Island was found to be allergic to his cellphone. The case was reported in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. He presented with an itchy rash on his face as well as on his abdomen.

Rashes on the abdomen sometimes indicate a nickel allergy. The snaps in jeans and belt buckles are often made of nickel and contact the skin on the lower abdomen. Suspicious that the rash on the patient’s face could also be to nickel, the dermatologist tested the cellphone — it was strongly positive for free nickel.

The patient changed to a nickel free cellphone and his dermatitis cleared. When he went back to using his old cellphone the rash returned.

The dermatologists published a list of cellphones that contained nickel here. You can also order your own nickel test kit to use at home here.

Bercovitch L, Luo J. Cellphone contact dermatitis with nickel allergy. CMAJ. 2008 Jan 1;178(1):23-4. Copyright 1995-2008, Canadian Medical Association.

Photo: Derek Olson (flickr)