Thursday, March 31, 2016

Nickel in Surgical Stainless Steel, and What is "Hypoallergenic" Anyway?

Last month, someone sent me an email and said, "Do you have surgical steel clasps for the cord necklaces? I have a nickel allergy..."

I already know that "surgical steel" and other kinds of stainless steel for jewelry contains quite a bit of nickel (up to 12% nickel) .  So I explained that, but offered to get her a surgical steel clasp anyway, plus I gave her a lot of good information about other metals that might be a better option.  But I never heard back.

I think this is another case of, what I call the "Asimov Question":  do they want the answer that is true, or the answer that satisfies?  Most people want the one that satisfies.  I prefer the truth!


This is a "creative marketing" term that originated in the 1950s within the cosmetics industry, and was soon adopted by the jewelry industry.  "Hypo-" means "below normal" (such as hypoglycemia, or low blood glucose) so it roughly means "below normal substance that can cause an allergy".   This term really has only a vague meaning and isn't a specific medical term.  People can have allergic reactions to almost anything, so there is no "one term fits all".   Since many people have allergic reactions to nickel, people seem to think that this term means that it contains no nickel.  This is NOT true.


Stainless Steel is often described as "hypoallergenic".  Many people believe that stainless steel is nickel free, but most stainless steel alloys (even surgical stainless steel) contain 8-12% nickel. Although it’s legally acceptable to put a “hypoallergenic” label on all stainless steel, it's misleading and confusing.

There are over 100 alloys of stainless steel, and each is denoted by a unique SAE steel grade number.  Stainless steel alloys include steel (Iron with carbon), chromium for scratch resistance and corrosion resistance, nickel to improve strength, and other trace elements.

304 Stainless Steel* is the most popular alloy, found in a lot of jewelry.  It contains about 10.5% nickel plus carbon and other alloys.  It is highly corrosion resistant and is used in the food industry as well as jewelry---clasps, wires, findings, etc.

304L Stainless Steel has a lower carbon content, but contains more nickel (up to 12%).  It is known for its durability.

430 Stainless Steel contains less than 0.75% nickel and if it contains less than 0.5% nickel, it meets the EU compliance regulation.  Rio Grande Jewelry has Stainless Steel clasps that meet the EU regulation, but they state that they DO contain some nickel. 

Surgical Stainless Steel is a general term that just means the stainless steel has properties that make it suitable for making surgical instruments, or temporary surgical implants.  It does not indicate that it's a "better" grade of stainless steel.  The SAE grade number (316, 316L, 430, etc.) defines the alloy and properties.

316 and 316L Surgical Stainless Steel contain 2-3% molybdenum for greater resistance to harsh corrosives. 316L is a low carbon version of 316, and is frequently used for stainless steel watches and marine applications. BUT, just like most other stainless steel, it contains 8-10.5% nickel, making it unsuitable for people with nickel allergies.


There is a difference between something that is made with nickel, such as stainless steel, and something that allows that nickel to be 'released' or absorbed by the wearer.  The Euopean Union has very strict guidelines and testing for nickel release (see below).
Jewelers and jewelry makers buy their supplies from wholesale manufacturers.  Reputable wholesalers will provide information regarding the nickel content of their items and hopefully jewelers and jewelry makers will include this information in their jewelry.  One well-known and respected wholesaler is Rio Grande Jewelry.  If you click on that link, it will take you to their listings (over 400 items) of stainless steel ear wires, cuffs, clasps, etc.  Each individual item has information regarding the EU's regulations regarding nickel release.  For most of their surgical stainless steel, such as earwires, it says this:
please note: • Customers within the European Union: Please be aware that this item contains nickel and may not be in compliance with EU regulation EN1811:2011.
For some items, such as a stainless cuff, it says this:
please note: • Customers within the European Union: Please be aware that, though it contains nickel, this item is in compliance with EU regulation EN1811:2011.

More information about EU regulation EN1811:2011 can be found HERE.  A broader overview regarding this regulation can be found on Wiki HERE.

* UPDATE:   I received some information from a jeweler in the UK regarding the difference between nickel content and nickel release.  It's an interesting read and compelling argument for the wearability of stainless steel:

Thank you to J. Arthur Loose!  Much appreciated!


Sterling Silver is an alloy of pure silver (92.5%) plus 7.5% copper.  Most people can wear Sterling Silver without any problems, but some people can be sensitive to either metal.  Copper is reactive and causes tarnish, and can even cause skin to turn green.   Fine silver, 99.9% pure silver, contains no alloys and although it's slightly softer (more easily scratched) than Sterling, it will not tarnish as quickly or as much, if at all.

Argentium Sterling Silver is a fairly new alloy, which uses Germanium in place of most of the copper.  This results in a beautiful, bright and harder Sterling Silver, and is more resistant to tarnish.  I use Argentium Sterling whenever possible---it's so much better than "regular" sterling.


Pure gold is 24k (karat), or 24 out of 24 parts pure gold.
14k gold is 14 out of 24 parts pure gold---which means 10 parts are other metals.  These metals can be copper, silver, zinc, or nickel (used to make white gold).  Palladium is often used to replace nickel in white gold nowadays.


There are a couple of good choices if you have a lot of allergies to metals:

Nobium - this is used in medical implants.  It is highly resistant to corrosion.  It's not plated or painted, but is anodized which is an electrochemical permanent colorizing process.  It can be found in lots of bright colors and can be safely worn in piercings for most people.

Titanium - a very strong metal used often in medical implants. 


Copper - but is highly reactive and turns colors in the air ("verdigris") and on the skin.
Brass contains copper and zinc.
Bronze contains copper and tin.

CONCLUSION:  Any form of Stainless Steel contains nickel, and most do not comply with the Euopean Union's standards and should be avoided by anyone with a nickel sensitivity.  Some forms of stainless do comply, and therefore the nickel content does not migrate enough to cause wearer problems.   Exposure to nickel over time will increase sensitivity, so it's wise to avoid anything with nickel.  So "surgical stainless steel" is NOT necessarily the best option. 

Good quality Sterling Silver or Fine Silver are great options for anyone with nickel allergies.  So are the various karats of yellow gold. Sterling and karat gold contain copper, and these metals will tarnish or oxidize (or "tone") over time.  Sometimes they can react with skin and leave dark marks, which are easily removable but weird looking.

Argentium Sterling Silver is a great option for anyone with nickel sensitivities, and is highly tarnish-resistant.