Cheaper Earrings More Likely to Contain Nickel

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SATURDAY, May 17 (HealthDay News) -- Those inexpensive earrings you bought from a hip young street artist may be good for your wallet but bad for your ears and skin.

A new report finds that many pairs of earrings sold for less than $50 by local San Francisco stores and artists contain nickel, which can cause dermatitis on the earlobes and repeated exposure can make treatment difficult.

The report, published online in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, found no particular price point or country of origin that assured earrings did or did not contain nickel.

"Sensitization to nickel is quite common in the United States, with studies estimating that 5.8 percent of American adults tested positive to nickel allergy through a routine skin test," author Howard I. Maibach, a professor of dermatology at the University of California, San Francisco, said in a prepared statement. "In the early 1990s, the European Union Nickel Directive was passed in an effort to decrease the prevalence of nickel sensitization in consumer and occupational products in Europe, with results indicating the directive is working. However, no such regulations exist in the United States to limit nickel exposure, leaving millions of people at risk for dermatitis from common goods, such as earrings."

Maibach and a colleague bought 277 earrings from 34 different stores and artists in San Francisco in October 2007. Of these, 85 (or 30.7 percent) tested positive for nickel. Earrings purchased at a downtown market with licensed local artists producing custom-made jewelry had the highest proportion of positive tests at 69 percent, while nearly 43 percent of earrings bought from tourist-type stores in China Town also positive for nickel.

When testing earrings bought at accessory and clothing stores targeting women, 24.1 percent of the earrings purchased at places targeting women under age 40 tested positive for nickel, but less than 2 percent of earrings from stores aimed at women over 40 tested positive.

"We also found no correlation between the country where the earrings were manufactured and the frequency of reactions or whether the price of the inexpensive earrings correlated with testing positive for nickel exposure," Maibach said.

For example, none of the 44 earrings priced between $5 and $8 in one accessory store tested positive for nickel, but numerous earrings priced between $15 and $25 in another accessory shop did.

"From our findings, we could not establish a safe-limit price as a guide for consumers who want to avoid excessive nickel exposure when purchasing inexpensive earrings," Maibach said. "But it's safe to say that young customers purchasing earrings at a considerable price range in U.S. chain stores are potentially at risk of nickel exposure and sensitization."

The best way to avoid nickel sensitization is to prevent nickel exposure, but that can be difficult. Maibach offered these tips:

  • Look for jewelry and clothing labeled nickel-free or hypoallergenic.
  • Wear only stainless steel, platinum or gold jewelry if you know you are allergic to nickel.
  • Discontinue wearing jewelry that causes any noticeable skin irritation, such as redness or itching.
  • Use 1% hydrocortisone cream or ointment, which can be purchased over-the-counter, to treat nickel-induced dermatitis.
  • See your dermatologist if symptoms worsen or do not improve within three to five days of not wearing jewelry.

More information

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America has more about dermatitis.