How to Pick Jewelry When You Have Sensitive Skin

by Rika Nurrohmah

As someone who has a metal allergy, I often overlook the jewelry section when I make my shopping rounds. If it's not 100 percent sterling silver or minimum 14-karat gold, it's probably going to guarantee a round of scabs, aggressive itching, and a green mark that will flaunt my allergy to the world. Why bother?

Approximately five to 10 percent of the population in industrialize areas have a nickel allergy, the most common metal allergy. It directly results in skin irritation and itching. According to Dr. Audrey Kunin, board-certified dermatologist and president of DERMAdoctor, Inc., a skincare brand specializing in non-irritant treatments, habitual nickel exposure increases the risk of developing the allergy, which can start at any age. Under the Freedom to Accessorize Yourself With Glamorous Baubles Act (which doesn't really exist, or not on paper, at least), the best way to overcome the allergy is to arm yourself with data before your next jewelry-shopping excursion. Here's what you need to know:

Avoid Nickel

Have you ever discovered crusty residue on your skin when you take off a piece of jewelry? You may have a nickel allergy.This metal is popular among lower-priced jewelry because it's durable, has a high polish, and is cheap to produce. According to Dr. Matthew Zirwas, a dermatologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, it also accounts for most metal allergies. When nickel dissolves in water it creates salt, a sign that the metal is eroding. In areas that collect a lot of sweat and moisture, this eroding process spreads the metal out, rubbing and irritating the concentrated area. This is bad news for sensitive skin, especially if you wear binding jewelry like rings, which can easily trap moisture from washing your hands or your own sweat. It's also bad if you wear body jewelry that comes in direct contact with your interior flesh (not just your skin) because salt will quickly form, irritating and giving a rash to that area.

Opt for Palladium Alloys

"Nine times out of 10, if you have sensitive skin, any alloy that involves nickel or brass will immediately, if not sooner, turn your skin a nasty green," says Francesca Grosso, New York-based jewelry designer behind Sorelle. "Gross!"

She's right. It is common for alloys, metals which contain a mix of two or more metallic elements, to contain nickel or brass. Copper, another common allergen, is also used in alloys for jewelry. The oxidation process of these metals, in which exposure to oxygen forms particles that surface, is what turns the skin green. Consider looking for alloys that contain palladium instead of copper or nickel. Palladium is a white metal related to platinum: it's as lustrous, hypo-allergenic, and almost as pure as platinum, but because it's less dense, it's more affordable.

When in Doubt, Use Metal-Testing Kits

Metal testing kits come with a set of solutions that rub onto jewelry to figure out the metals and purity of any jewelry. Simply drop the solution onto a cotton ball and rub it against any area of your jewelry. A reaction will change the color of the solution, alerting you to the presence of certain metals. A complete kit will cost you around $50 on sites like Amazon. This is helpful if you're buying jewelry and you're unsure of its alloys, or if you've inherited vintage and antique jewelry.

Professional Gold/Silver Estate Precious Metals Kit, $53, Amazon

Invest in Hypoallergenic Fine Jewelry

To have and to hold for all eternity is the main reason why people tend to invest when it comes to fine jewelry. Instead of buying quantity just to save a few bucks, think about the long-term benefits of investing in quality. Higher levels of purity means fewer metal elements are added to alloys, and that's why metals like platinum, sterling, and gold are less likely to cause contact dermatitis. When it comes to hypoallergenic jewelry, Grosso recommends sterling silver for "the most bang for your buck." Make sure to check for a "sterling" or "925" (meaning it's 92.5 percent pure) stamp and avoid anything that's silver-plated. It could have a metal base with brass or copper alloys, which you don't want. "Jewelry designers will generally plate a piece in silver over brass or copper to keep prices low."

Be cautious with leather jewelry

Jemal Countess/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Leather armbands are getting some love from today's celebrities, but you may want to do some investigation before purchasing your own. People whose skin is sensitive to most jewelry usually don't think of leather jewelry as a cause of irritation because it's not metal. But metal is involved in the leather tanning process — mineral tanning produces stretchable leather at a faster rate than vegetable tanning — which means there may still be metal residue on the hide when it hits your skin. Leather handbags and garments, including leather jewelry, probably all carry traces of metals that, when they come in direct contact with your skin, will cause it to itch and form a rash. When in doubt, go pleather.

Be Especially Careful About Body Jewelry

Image: Olly/Fotolia

Body jewelry comes in direct contact with your body for long periods of time, so if the jewelry you're wearing contains nickel, you could be putting yourself at risk for severe infection. When buying body jewelry, it's best to look for items labeled with the words "surgical" or "nickel-free." And you should routinely clean anything that comes in direct contact with your flesh... but you already knew that, right?

Buy Gold that's 14k or Higher

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Karat is a measure of the purity of gold. The higher the karat, the higher the ratio of gold to alloys. 24k gold is considered 99.5 percent pure, and anything below 14k means that at least half of the jewelry consists of other alloys, which could be copper or brass. As with silver-plated pieces, step away from jewelry labeled "gold-plated" because it may contain a nickel base or nickel alloys. If you're buying fine jewelry, Grosso insists on investing in either 14k, 18k, or 24k yellow gold or rose gold. White gold of a high karat level is also great if you prefer a more silver color. Your skin will thank you, and if you buy a classic design, it will endure. "Get ready to have your piece for a lifetime!" she says.