What is “Nickel Free”?
The term “nickel free” is sometimes misunderstood since jewellery marked nickel free is still allowed to contain a very small amount of nickel however it is such a microscopic amount that it takes extremely sensitive instruments to measure it says Rings Things.
The European Union’s (EU) Nickel Directive limits the amount of nickel that may be released onto the skin from jewellery and other products. This type of measurement is separate from measuring the percentage of nickel that exists in an alloy’s composition. The Nickel Directive’s migration limits are as follows:
- 2 micrograms per cm per week for post assemblies inserted into pierced ears and other pierced parts of the human body
- 5 micrograms per cm per week for other products intended to come into direct and prolonged contact with the skin.
The United Kingdom (UK) has also embraced the EU Nickel Directive as its standard. If you would like to start marketing your jewellery in the UK or EU or you have customers there already, you’ll need to comply with the EU Nickel Directive.
Currently there is no United States (US) standard for acceptable amounts of nickel in jewellery, however if and when there is one, it will likely be similar to the EU standard.
According to the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER) Nickel allergy is a “common cause of allergic contact dermatitis — an itchy rash that appears where your skin touches a usually harmless substance”.
Nickel allergy can often be associated with earrings and other jewellery. Once you develop a nickel allergy, MFMER say “you’ll always be sensitive to the metal and need to avoid contact”.
What does “Hypoallergenic” mean?
The term hypoallergenic means “below the normal level” of allergenic, so technically, anything that less than 50% of the population is allergic to, could be called hypoallergenic. The term was created by the cosmetics industry in the 1950’s, and became a prevalent marketing word for jewellery soon afterwards. Sometimes people use the terms “nickel free” and “hypoallergenic” interchangeably, however they are not synonymous. Hypoallergenic does not have a legal or medical definition for use in jewellery.
Is Surgical Stainless Steel “Nickel Free”?
Surgical stainless steel is not Nickel free and most surgical stainless steel contains 8 – 10% nickel. This does not meet the EU Nickel Directive. Nickel is added to stainless steel, to harden the steel and to prevent discoloration and corrosion. Surgical stainless steel is corrosion-resistant, so it is frequently used for surgical instruments, but it is not a great material for people with metal allergies to wear as jewellery.
Jewellery Components that Meet the EU Nickel Directive
Since there is no US nickel standard, and since alloys vary, a good way to find items that are very low in nickel is to search for components that meet the EU Nickel Directive.
Nickel-Free Metals & Components
You can also avoid base-metal alloys entirely, and instead use elemental and precious metals in your custom jewellery. The following options are all nickel free (by definition, they meet the EU Nickel Directive).
Sterling silver is an alloy, but does not contain any nickel, so is wearable by the majority of people. Sterling is sometimes stamped .925, because it’s made of at least 92.5% pure silver. Typically the remaining 7.5% consists of copper. Tarnish-resistant Argentium sterling silver is “1.2% germanium, 6.3% copper and 92.5% silver”.
Niobium is an element and thus is not mixed with any other metals. It is naturally nickel free and very resistant to corrosion says Rings Things. Niobium comes in a wide variety of intense anodized (non-plated) colours.
Titanium is also an element and thus naturally nickel free. Similar to niobium, Rings Things says titanium is “highly resistant to corrosion”. It’s also a very robust metal. Because of this, titanium is “frequently used in medical implants and is a good choice for earring findings” says Rings Things. The natural colour of titanium is a silver-grey colour, similar to stainless steel, but sometimes a bit greyer. It mixes well with the colour of sterling silver, but definitely is not a colour match.
14kt yellow gold is commonly made of the following materials: “58% elemental (pure) gold, 25% elemental silver, and 17% elemental copper”. Rings Things says Gold can be alloyed with other metals, as well, to achieve different colours (such as rose gold) or different karats (10kt, 18kt, etc.). White gold commonly contains nickel (added for both colour and strength).