Nickel Allergy and Sterling Silver

Did you know that over 600,000,000 people suffer from nickel allergy? Did you know that nickel allergy is on the rise?

As allergy to nickel becomes more and more common people are often left looking for an alternative metal to wear. One metal that is often proclaimed to be nickel free is sterling silver. But is it really safe?

In general, Sterling Silver is 92.5% silver, and 7.5% of “something else”. The vast majority of the time that “something else” is copper. Copper is nickel free and has the right balance of color, durability and cost to make it the number one choice by raw sterling manufacturers. However… tin, boron, lithium, germanium, zinc, platinum, indium and (to a much lesser extent) nickel can all be found in that 7.5%, too!

Another problem is that the formula for sterling silver is not static; it is always being refined to give it better properties. Want your sterling silver to tarnish a little slower? Add germanium. In fact, here is an example (from a sterling silver formula patent application) of what these exotic sterling alloys might consist of:

92.5% silver, about 0.5% copper, about 4.25% zinc, about 0.02% indium, about 0.48% tin, about 1.25% of a boron-copper alloy containing about 2% boron and about 98% copper, and about 1% of a silicon-copper alloy containing about 10% silicon and about 90% copper.

When you look at the example above you may have noticed the absence of nickel. The good news is that it is very unusual for sterling silver to contain nickel anymore.

In fact, we contacted Kevin Whitmore of Rio Grande Jewelry Supply, one of the largest and most respected suppliers of raw materials for the jewelry industry. We asked Mr. Whitmore if it was a common practice to see nickel used in sterling silver production and he said “It would be very unusual these days. There has been a flight away from having nickel in sterling silver for a few years now.” He went on to add “In fact, there is really no economical benefit to using nickel as there are better, and less expensive, materials that can be alloyed in.” Another reason he gave was the ban on nickel in Europe. “Who wants to make jewelry that they can’t sell in certain places?”

As Mr. Whitmore mentioned, Europe has a strict ban on nickel. In 1991 Denmark introduced regulation to severely restrict the use of nickel in jewelry and accessories. It was only a short time before a dramatic drop in nickel allergy was noticed in the population. Due to the success of Denmark’s ban, all of Europe followed suit with similar regulation in 2000. For this reason it makes sense for the manufacturers of sterling silver pellets and sheets (which are bought as raw material by jewelers) to keep nickel out of the manufacturing process of raw sterling silver.

What could be the problem (besides the remote chance the silver actually contains nickel) is that the jewelry piece could be plated with nickel. Sterling silver tends to wear and tarnish over time. There was a time when it was not uncommon for manufacturers to plate their pieces with nickel to give it a long lasting shine.

Also, rhodium is sometimes used (a member of the platinum group) to plate sterling silver to give it the look of white gold. Unfortunately, rhodium does not stick easily to silver so another metal is often used to coat the silver and the rhodium is plated over that “glue” metal. What is a very popular metal for that “glue” process? You guessed it, nickel. The problem is that rhodium is fairly brittle and can form microscopic cracks. Now the underlying nickel can get moist from your skin and leech out nickel salts. All of a sudden you have an allergic reaction to sterling silver, which is really the underlying nickel causing the rash.

So what does it all mean?

Since there seems to be no economic benefit to using nickel, and since regulation limiting the use of nickel is spreading, you really should put sterling silver on your list of safe to wear items. We recommend shopping online at jewelry stores that advertise “nickel free” since they should be extra sensitive to the subject when sourcing their products. Their rhodium should use a “glue” metal other than nickel; their sterling silver should be sourced nickel free. To confuse things even more there are a few different names used for sterling silver like:

  • Argentium Silver: This silver contains germanium to resist tarnish and should be nickel free.
  • Alpaca Silver, German Silver, Paktong and New Silver: These are actually different names for Nickel Silver, a silver type that, as the name suggests, will likely contain nickel. These types of silver should be avoided!

In addition, when shopping, try to avoid older pieces that may have been produced when nickel plating was a more common practice and always shop where your “satisfaction is guaranteed or your money back”!

All metals have the potential to trigger an allergic reaction, even titanium, silver and, on very rare occasions, 24k gold. While nickel is the main culprit in metal allergy, and accounts for as much allergy as all other metals combined, be aware that people can be allergic to more than one metal at a time! Patient experimentation is the only solution if you suffer from a metal allergy. Follow the tips in this article and you will soon be living a fashionable, nickel free life!

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