Designing Jewelry for People with Metal Allergies


My son is a rocker. Long hair, tall and skinny, a bit on the pale side, and a beast with a guitar. He's only twelve, and as far as we know, he's steered clear of the, eh hem, unsavory things sometimes involved with rock and roll. But the issue of piercings has come up in conversation. "Not that I'd want to do it yet, but where do you think it would look best?" My goodness. Between panic attacks about what he's doing during a jam session and having to listen to Metallica speed-metal riffs blasting throughout the house, it's no wonder I'm going gray.

Anyway, to stomp out the conversation about piercing his eyebrow, I told him he was allergic to so many things that he's probably allergic to metal, too. That his eyebrow would burst open with blisters and he'd look like the Phantom of the Opera. That kind of squashed his enthusiasm–at least for now.

Do you have or know anyone with a metal allergy? I know it can be a real problem. As a jewelry maker and a jewelry wearer it's obviously a big problem, but some people can be so allergic they react to basic things like soil, cement, ocean water, and leather, let alone zippers, buttons, and dental fillings! I'm sure it's a constant pain in the ***.

After making the "your skin will bubble like a pizza" comment to my son, I actually got curious and read up a little on metal allergies. I was surprised to learn that it's right behind poison ivy as a culprit to contact dermatitis, so it's more common than I thought. Nickel and cobalt are among the most common problem makers, and they are found in just about all of the metal beads and findings readily available to beaders.

Where does he get it? 

Take note:

  • Copper and brass beads and findings often contain a very high concentration of cobalt and nickel.
  • Sterling silver is made up of 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% of other alloys, including copper and nickel.
  • Gold is probably the least allergenic of the metals beaders often use, but it also has some trace of copper or silver in it. The higher the karat number, the less the amount of alloys, but if you're really allergic to metal, you might want to be wary of this one, too.

So what to do? I'm not a doctor (nor play one on TV), but here are some tips that might help:

  • Try painting three or more coats of clear nail polish on your metal findings and beads to keep the metal away from your skin. Do a test run before you put too much effort into the project to make sure this will work.
  • If you love to string beads, keep in mind that most flexible stringing wire is made of nylon-coated steel. Steel is made of iron, so you may be okay if you're only allergic to things like nickel and cobalt. The wire's nylon casing should help, too.
  • Consider other materials for stringing. The obvious one is pleather (plastic + leather), especially if you're allergic to the metal in leather. (Metals are sometimes used to tan leather and people with severe allergies can react to the traces left behind.) Macramé is also an option—it's come a long way since the 1970s (check out Joan Babcock's or Sandy Swirnoff's work to see) and can be very delicate. Knitted and crocheted jewelry is all the rage right now, and you could experiment with ribbon and colorful thread, too.
  • Instead of using flexible stringing wire, get out a needle and thread. Most needles are made of steel, so chances are you'll be okay handling it. If a steel needle is still a problem for your fingers, try one of those plastic dental flossers meant for cleaning under dental work. (You can get them at the grocery store next to the regular dental floss.)
  • Learn how to make a button/loop clasp. Use glass, nut, pearl, or other natural materials as the button (you can also use a large bead for this). If you're using beading wire to make it, this type of clasp doesn't require a metal finding other than a crimp tube, and if you use a larger bead on each side of the crimp, the metal might be lifted away from your skin just enough to not bother you. If that method doesn't work, just use needle and thread to make the clasp. If you do this method, be sure to tie several knots between beads and pass through the connection a bunch of times to reinforce the beadwork.
  • Make beaded beads and use them instead of metal ones. If your allergy isn't too strong, you might be able to get away with using silver- or gold-lined seed beads, and you'll still get that metallic look.

Do you have any other tips for metal allergy-suffering Beading Daily readers? Write in! In the meantime, I better go downstairs and yell for the bazillionth time, "TURN IT DOWWWN!" 

Jean Campbell writes about beading and life every Wednesday on Beading Daily. If you have comments or questions for Jean, please post them on the website. Thanks!

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