Health: Can Metal Earrings Irritate Your Skin?

Everyone loves a bargain; but, when it comes to buying earrings, you may want to dig a little deeper into your wallet. In a study published online this month in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, researchers tested several types of inexpensive earrings and found that nearly one third contained nickel, which can trigger an allergic reaction in some wearers.

For the study, Howard I. Maibach, a professor of dermatology at the University of California, San Francisco, and his collaborator, Jacob Pontoppidan Thyssen, M.D., purchased inexpensive (all under $50) earrings from 34 different locations in San Francisco in October 2007. The earrings were then examined with a routine spot test using solutions in order to discover the presence of nickel. Of those earrings, 30.7 percent tested positive for nickel.

The presence of the metal may cause allergic contact dermatitis, which can leave you with swollen, reddened and itchy skin. Research has indicated that exposure may also increase the risk of developing hand eczema in those who are nickel sensitive. This condition starts with dryness and some redness on the skin, but it can progress to painful scaling that leads to fissuring and crusting.

If you notice any of these symptoms, you can treat the affected area with a 1 percent hydrocortisone cream or ointment, which is available over the counter, says Maibach. And make sure to remove the earrings immediately. If the symptoms get worse within three to five days of not wearing the jewelry, you should see a dermatologist.

How can you avoid buying jewelry with nickel? Maibach and Thyssen weren't able to establish a "safe-limit price," but Maibach recommends looking for jewelry that is labeled "nickel free" or "hypoallergenic" or buying only stainless steel, platinum or gold jewelry. You don't need to pay a fortune for your earrings. Just remember that those bargain bangles might not be such a good deal after all if you end up spending money on medication and doctor's visits to treat the reaction they caused.