Speaking of nickel, that metal is to blame for more skin allergies than any other metal – probably because it’s so widely used. Everything from zips and poppers to coins and costume jewellery contains some nickel.
What’s more, the salt in perspiration dissolves nickel. People who wear costume jewellery with no problem during the winter often find that in summer, the same jewellery will make them itch and feel prickly within just fifteen or twenty minutes. An hour or so later, they break out. Or they break out wherever pressure is great – where tight suspenders rub against thighs, for example. (Incidentally, tight clothing in general tends to be more troublesome – another good reason to keep your weight down.)
Nickel molecules also tend to affix themselves to skin cells, prolonging symptoms even after you’ve removed the article in question.
One in every ten women is allergic to nickel, and most of them, says Dr Schorr, are young women who have had their ears pierced and subsequently developed nickel allergy. The problem begins, obviously enough, on the earlobes, and later resurfaces on the wrist, neck or abdomen due to contact with nickel in watches, bracelets, necklaces, buckles and clips.
Nickel-sensitive people resort to various schemes to put a barrier between their skin and nickel. Earring fasteners can also be coated with clear nail lacquer (if you can wear it safely). You can wear powder underneath your necklace and clasp bracelets. And buy spectacle frames of plastic or with plastic sleeves on the stems.
If you’re going to have your ears pierced, you can avoid nickel allergy by having it done by a doctor, and requesting that he or she use a stainless steel needle. Wear only stainless steel, stud earrings for the first three weeks, until the hole heals over completely. After that, you can wear any earrings safely, says Dr Fisher (Journal of the American Medical Association).
Stainless steel is non-allergenic, even if it contains nickel, because the nickel is bound in so firmly that even sweat cannot free up the metal. Certain other metals – especially copper and silver – corrode readily and can occasionally cause trouble, especially when dampened by perspiration.
Gold is far less apt to cause allergy than other decorative metals. Some people can wear no jewellery unless it’s 24-carat (100 per cent) gold. But even ‘pure’ gold may be contaminated with traces of nickel or other metals. And sulphur and other chemicals in smog can tarnish gold. When a tarnished gold ring is slipped on the finger or a bracelet is placed on the arm, the tarnish may cause a reaction.