October 19, 2021

Allergic to Metals? 6 Surprising Places They May Lurk

Find out what to watch for and what to avoid

Hands showing many metal rings on the fingers.

If you have metal allergies, you might know that touching coins, jewelry and even doorknobs can trigger a reaction, known as allergic dermatitis. But it might surprise you to find out that metals may hide in other items you come in contact with every day. Which metals are most likely to trigger allergies, and where else do they lurk?

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Dermatologist John Anthony, MD, answers this burning question and shares his best advice for keeping metal allergies at bay.

How do you know if you’re allergic to metal?

It helps to understand what happens when your body comes in contact with a metal to which you’re allergic. “Metal allergies are similar to any other type of allergic reaction,” says Dr. Anthony.

Your skin cells pick up small molecules of metal, which travel to your lymph nodes. Your body treats the offending substance like a foreign invader and quickly mounts an immune response. The result: redness, itching, swelling or a rash, with skin blistering or scaling at the site.

The symptoms of a metal allergy range from mild to severe. Each time you’re re-exposed to the offending metal, your skin reacts in the same way.

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The metals that are most likely to cause problems

“You can develop an allergy to any metal,” Dr. Anthony says. But nickel, cobalt and chromates are the usual suspects. Manufacturers often use nickel and cobalt to alloy with other metals. You’ll find these metals in lower-quality jewelry such as costume jewelry, he says.

If you’re allergic to nickel, cobalt or chromates, Dr. Anthony suggests swapping costume jewelry for jewelry made from higher-quality metals. Metals less likely to cause a reaction include:

  • Copper.
  • Yellow gold.
  • Platinum.
  • Stainless steel.
  • Sterling silver.

If gold is your thing, be sure to choose yellow gold that is 14-karat gold or higher, he says. Avoid white gold and plated jewelry, as these are sometimes alloyed with nickel or cobalt.

(Could what looks like an infected piercing be an allergic reaction? Possibly. A family physician offers tips on how to tell the difference.)

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Other places you will find metal

You’ll need to look beyond jewelry for potential sources of metal. Metal can hide out in products and devices where you’d least expect it. Here are six surprising sources:

  1. Tattoo inks. “If you’re considering a tattoo and have sensitive skin, you might want to hold off,” Dr. Anthony says. Pigments in tattoo inks can contain cobalt and other heavy metals.
  2. Cell phones. If you’re allergic to nickel or cobalt, your phone is a possible source of exposure.
  3. Eyeglass frames. Like jewelry, glasses frames are sometimes alloyed with nickel or cobalt. If you suspect your frames are to blame, opt for those made from stainless steel or plastic instead.
  4. Clothing hardware. If you’re like most people, you probably don’t give the button on your jeans a second thought. But buttons, as well as rivets and zippers, are possible sources of metal exposure.
  5. Cosmetics and soaps. Before you put your face on or take it off, check the label on the products you’re using. Cosmetics such as eyeliner and eye shadow and some soaps may contain chromates.
  6. Artificial joints. “Implantable devices such as artificial joints, plates, rods and pins are often made from titanium. If you suspect that you have a titanium allergy, talk with your dermatologist about skin-patch testing before implant surgery,” Dr. Anthony says.

How to pinpoint and manage metal allergies

Skin-patch testing can help you find out if you are allergic to metal. If you are, it’s important to work with your dermatologist to find ways to limit your exposure.

“Whether it’s wearing gloves, adjusting your diet or painting the back of the button on the inside of your pants with clear nail polish, you have many ways to reduce or eliminate your exposure to metal allergens,” Dr. Anthony says.

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