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How to Choose Earrings for Sensitive Pierced Ears

Scientist and author, Beth enjoys the beauty and craftsmanship of real gold jewelry.

Choose earring posts that don't cause skin irritation or redness.

Choose earring posts that don't cause skin irritation or redness.

What Are Hypoallergenic Earrings?

According to the Mayo Clinic, most allergic reactions to jewelry are caused by nickel, a cheap metal that's used to strengthen soft and malleable metals such as gold and silver. The exact cause of a nickel allergy isn't known. However, coming into repeated contact with nickel can cause contact dermatitis, which can look like a rash, itchiness, or redness. If you've experienced this, you'll want to switch to hypoallergenic metals.

The term hypoallergenic means the material used is less likely to cause such a skin reaction than one not labelled hypoallergenic. However, there is no standard a manufacturer has to meet to use this label. So don't assume a product labelled hypoallergenic is allergy-free. Instead, look for specific materials such as 14k gold or surgical steel as these are less likely to have skin-irritating metals in them.

Hypoallergenic usually means there is no nickel on the outer surface of the earring’s post, but it may be made of coated nickel. Over time, the outer surface of the post will wear, and the exposed nickel will come into contact with the wearer’s earlobe and cartilage. If you wear earrings frequently you need a better, longer term solution to the problem. Some suggestions to resolve this issue are given below

What Are the Best Hypoallergenic Materials for Sensitive Ears?

The following metals are low-allergy, but a few people are still allergic to them. You may have to try out several before you find the one that's right for you.

1. Pure Gold, Sterling Silver, Platinum, and Titanium

Having an allergic reaction to your pierced earrings is usually only a problem with costume jewelry. Noble metals such as gold and silver rarely cause sensitivity reactions. If you can afford it, choose earrings with solid gold or solid silver posts. Platinum posts are also unlikely to cause any skin reaction, but these tend to be more expensive than gold ones.

  • 14 Karat Gold: There are different levels of gold. Aim for something around 14 karats. Twenty-four karat gold is sometimes too soft for jewelry. "Gold plated" is not the same thing as solid gold. A gold-plated item's gold will wear or rub away after frequent use, revealing a lower-quality material below that you may be allergic to.
  • Sterling Silver: Sterling silver is an alloy made from at least 92.5% silver mixed with another metal such as nickel or copper. It is much cheaper than gold, but easily tarnishes and so needs to be polished regularly to prevent surface oxidization.
  • Platinum and Titanium: Platinum and titanium are hard-wearing and few people have an allergic reaction to them.

2. Surgical Steel, Plastic, Silicone, or Acrylic

Fashion or costume jewelry may only be worn a few times before the wearer changes their look. So asking you to pay a lot of money for fashion jewelry is not realistic. Many earrings are now made with either surgical steel or plastic posts (rather than gold). The advantage of this is that it lowers the price of the earrings. I often wear these surgical steel stud earrings to sleep because they are so comfortable.

The disadvantage of cheaper steel posts is they tend to be slightly thicker than a gold one. Plastic earring posts tend to be flimsy and break more easily than traditional metal ones.

Piercings should not cause pain or irritation.

Piercings should not cause pain or irritation.

What Materials Are NOT Good for Sensitive Ears?

Nickel

Most metal allergies are caused by nickel. So avoid this whenever you can if your ears are sensitive. It is often used to strengthen expensive and malleable metals, like silver and gold. Even if you're buying expensive jewelry, make sure the post (the part that goes in your ear) is also made of the material you're looking for. You might find a nice set of seemingly gold earrings, but they may be either gold-plated on nickel, or the post itself is made of nickel. This means the earrings might not be good for your sensitive ears because nickel will be in contact with your pierced skin.

Do Gold Plated Earrings Contain Nickel?

"Gold plated" means an earring has a thin layer of gold coating an inferior, cheaper metal. It is not solid gold, and the thin gold coating will wear away over time. Often the metal revealed is nickel and this is a common allergen. The label "hypoallergenic" usually means there is no nickel on the outer surface of an earring’s post. However, many posts are made of coated nickel. As the outer surface of the post rubs, it wears away and the exposed nickel will come into contact with your earlobe and cartilage causing an allergic reaction.

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How to Test For Nickel at Home

An allergic reaction to nickel in jewelry, belt buckles, and zips, is surprisingly common. More than 15% of the population suffer skin sensitivity if this metal touches their skin. There is no known cure so the only solution is avoidance.

Earrings, bracelets, necklaces, cell-phone cases, zip and snap fastenings, as well as belt buckles may all contain hidden nickel. If you have this allergy you will react to nickel by developing an itchy rash or blister-like lesions. I use the Nickel Alert Test Kit to test all metal objects that I wear or are likely to come into contact with my skin.

How to Use the Nickel Alert Test Kit

The kit consists of a bottle of liquid and a Q-Tip or cotton swab. You simply squeeze a couple of drops of the chemical onto the swab. Rub the swab firmly onto the object being tested for 15 to 20 seconds. If the Q-Tip turns pink or purple, then there is nickel present in the metal. The test claims to be able to detect even very low concentrations of nickel, as low as 10 parts per million. If you want to see what a positive result looks like, test the liquid on a US nickel, dime, or quarter coin. All of these will turn the swab pink.

What Chemical is Used in this Kit?

The Nickel Alert Test Kit uses dimethylglyoxime (dmg) to conduct a spot test. It is the only retail kit at the time of writing that uses this chemical. There are other less effective testing solutions out there, but this one does the job quickly and effectively, and, in my opinion, is worth the slightly higher price.

What Causes Sensitive Pierced Ears?

Chronic or long-term sensitivity when wearing earrings is a type of contact dermatitis. It can cause itching, localized skin irritation, redness, and swelling. The most common metal to cause this allergic reaction is nickel, hence a common nickname for this condition is “nickel itch.” Nickel posts are often found on cheaper earrings and jewelry. One way to prevent the itch is to wear earrings that have posts made of a non-nickel material.

Acute Pain and Inflammation Due to Infection

Acute or short-term sensitivity at your piercing site is often the result of a bacterial infection. You may experience swelling, redness, and throbbing of the affected area. If you clean it regularly with antiseptic, the infection should clear up within a few days. However, if it persists, seek medical advice as you may need to take antibiotics. To prevent bacterial infection wipe or spray your new piercing with a saline solution like H2Ocean Piercing Aftercare Spray at least once a day. This keeps the skin area clean and healthy.

How to Prevent an Ear Piercing Infection

Are Rubber Backs Good To Use For Sensitive Ears?

Rubber and plastic earring backs are cheap to buy and are often used for DIY jewelry. However, if you are using them to replace a lost earring back, be careful as they may not fit as well as the original, and you could lose your earring because of this. It is always better to replace a gold or silver back with a similar one if you can afford to do so. Plastic and rubber backs may not suit everyone as some people are hyper-sensitive to these materials. Test your sensitivity by wearing them for an hour or two first before selecting them for day-long wearing. Having sensitive pierced ears is very common. However, there's no need to let it limit your choice of earrings if you follow the tips given in this article.

Try the Clear Nail Polish Trick

Another way to protect your skin from skin dermatitis is to put a protective barrier between your skin and the metal post. For a cheap DIY method of doing this you can use nail enamel. This easy solution to "nickel itch" enables you to wear cheap earrings. I call it the nail varnish or nail enamel trick. Before you insert your new earrings into your piercing, paint the posts with a couple of coats of clear nail polish or enamel. Make sure the varnish is fully dry before you wear the earrings. The nail polish makes a barrier between the nickel post and your sensitive skin. You will need to re-coat the earrings regularly to maintain an effective barrier.

What's the Difference Between Surgical Steel and Stainless Steel?

Surgical steel is a type of stainless steel. It is manufactured to a higher quality than normal stainless steel and is designed for surgical implants, and other biomedical uses. Ordinary stainless steel is the type of steel used for earrings.

What Should I Know Before Getting My Ears Pierced?

Make any decision about getting a piercing when you are sober. Don't try to pierce yourself—even if it's "just" your ears. Go to a licensed piercing professional. Don't get a piercing, including your ears, at any place that uses a piercing gun. Go to a professional tattoo shop or a piercing parlor. Look for a piercer who is part of the APP (Association of Professional Piercers).

Always keep the wound clean. You will usually be given some saline spray to keep it clean. If you experience excessive bleeding, pain, or swelling to the pierced area, you should have the wound checked by a medical doctor or nurse. Sleeper earrings are temporary jewelry pieces that hold the piercing open until the skin heals. If you know you have an allergy to a certain type of metal or plastic, tell your piercer ahead of time so that they can help match you with the best jewelry. As the wound heals, it is important that regular cleaning and appropriate after-care is maintained.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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