Surgical Steel and Hypoallergenic Metals

If you’re designing hypoallergenic earrings or other jewelry, what are your options? What metals are safe to wear? Is surgical stainless steel considered hypoallergenic or nickel free? The answers aren’t as simple as you might hope, but there are some great options — and they don’t all cost an arm and a leg!

First, a few definitions:

Hypoallergenic

Hypoallergenic means “below normal” or “slightly” allergenic. The term was coined by the cosmetics industry in the 1950′s, and became a popular marketing term for jewelry soon afterwards.

Many people are allergic to nickel, so “nickel free” and “hypoallergenic” are sometimes considered synonymous. Be aware that hypoallergenic does not mean nickel-free, nor does it have a legal or medical definition for use in jewelry. You’re better off using specific materials rather than the vague term “hypoallergenic.”

Many people believe that stainless steel is nickel free, but most stainless steel alloys (even surgical stainless steel) contain 8-12% nickel. Roughly 6-12% of the population is allergic to nickel, so although it’s legally acceptable to put a “hypoallergenic” label on all stainless steel, it doesn’t seem quite fair to those who are looking for nickel-free jewelry.

Just a few more terms to define, before I get to the list of good metals to try.

Elements and Alloys

Alloys (such as stainless steel, sterling silver and 14kt gold) are mixtures of elements (such as iron, gold, copper and zinc). People create alloys to change the color, melting temperature, and/or strength of lone elements. For example, solid gold is too soft for ear wires — to make it stronger, it is alloyed (mixed) with other elements such as silver and to make 14kt or other alloys of gold. Iron is alloyed (mixed) with other elements primarily to make it stronger and resistant to rust.

Nickel Free or EU Nickel Directive?

Since there isn’t a formal US definition of nickel free, and alloys vary, a good way to find items that are very low nickel, is to search for items that say they meet the EU Nickel Directive. Another method is to avoid alloys entirely, and focus on elemental metals such as niobium and titanium. For more information about the term “nickel free”, see our Nickel-Free Metals Information page.

Good Metals to try:

Because different people are allergic to different metals, there is no “one size fits all” solution. However, some metals are known to cause fewer problems than others.

Niobium

Hypoallergenic Teal Niobium ear wire

Niobium is an excellent choice for people with metal allergies. It is highly resistant to corrosion and other reactions, and is used in medical implants.  Niobium is not plated or painted, so the color will not flake or chip. It is anodized, meaning it is colored by dipping it into an electrically charged “bath.” Because it is an inert element, with no nickel, lead, or other additives, most people with metal allergies can safely wear niobium.  It doesn’t match basic silver and gold colors — but it is available in rich black, copper, blue, bronze, green, pink, purple, teal and yellow.

Do not be confused by the color similarities of anodized niobium and anodized aluminum. Both metals can be anodized to wonderful bright colors, but aluminum is too soft for ear wires.

Rings & Things stocks colorful Niobium head pins, eye pins, and jump rings in addition to Niobium ear wires.

Titanium

Titanium flat pad post for gluing

Titanium is a very strong metal, frequently used in medical implants, and is another excellent choice for people with nickel allergies.

Titanium and Brittania

Our titanium ear wires and earring posts are Grade 1 ASTM F67, which is unalloyed commercially pure titanium, and meets the EU nickel directive. Our titanium earring posts have either a Brittania pewter pad (tin, antimony and copper), or a stainless steel 430 flat pad.

Stainless Steel

There are over 100 alloys of stainless steel, and each is denoted by a unique SAE steel grade number, which may include one or more letters. Stainless steel alloys include steel (iron with carbon), chromium for scratch resistance and corrosion resistance, nickel to reduce brittleness and improve strength at both high and low temperatures, and other trace elements. For stainless steel alloys used in jewelry, these trace elements are approximately 0.75% silicon, 0.045% phosphorous, 0.03% sulfur, 2% manganese, and 0.1% nitrogen.

304 stainless steel is the most popular grade of stainless steel. It is 18-20% chromium, 8-10.5% nickel, 0.08% carbon, plus iron and the trace elements listed above. It is commonly used in the food industry (sinks, coffee urns, dairy storage and hauling, beer/brewing, citrus and fruit juice handling, etc). The same corrosion and stain resistance that make it great for food handling, also make it popular for jewelry.

Beadable Cheese Knife

Rings & Things stocks over 100 items made from 304 stainless steel: wire, ear wires, earring postsstringing cable and cable chokers, jump ringssplit rings, barrette backs / hair findings, lobster clasps, spring loaded clasps, dog tags, glue bails / pendant plates, beadable silverware, and beadable wine bottle stoppers. Some are plated, but most are raw stainless steel.

2-tone gold / stainless ear wire

2-tone stainless steel ear wires allow you to have a plated (gold, copper, etc.) ball and coil, with a raw stainless steel ear wire. They may look funny in the package, but look great on the ear.

304L Stainless Chain

304L stainless steel is almost the same as 304, but has a lower carbon content (0.03%), and may contain a slightly higher amount of nickel (8-12%). This alloy has increased weldability and resistance to corrosion (great for men’s jewelry).

430 Stainless Steel Ear Wire

430 stainless steel contains less than 0.75% nickel, and some forms of 430 stainless steel meet the EU nickel directive (less than .05% nickel ion migration). 430 stainless steel has good corrosion resistance compared to non-stainless steel, but not as good as the 304 and 316 alloys.

Surgical Stainless Steel

Adding the word “surgical” to a stainless steel alloy’s name does not make it is better grade of steel. The SAE grade number (304, 430, 316L, etc.) defines the alloy and its properties, so the word “surgical” simply tells us “non-SAE-tech people” that 316 and 316L stainless steel alloys have properties suitable for temporary medical implants, or for making durable surgical instruments.

316L Stainless Steel Leverback Hoop

316 and 316L surgical stainless steel contain 2-3% molybdenum for even greater resistance to harsh corrosives (both industrial, and in the body). 316L is a low carbon version of 316, with extra corrosion resistance, and is frequently used for stainless steel watches and marine applications. Like most other stainless steel, it contains 8-10.5% nickel, making it unsuitable for people with nickel allergies.

Sterling Silver and Fine Silver

Sterling Silver Marquise Ear Wire

Sterling silver is an alloy containing at least 92.5% silver. The most popular sterling silver alloy is 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper. To prevent tarnish while on display in department stores and high-end jewelry stores, some sterling is plated with rhodium. Most people can safely wear good quality sterling silver, but a few are allergic to silver or copper. Sterling silver from reputable vendors is nickel free, but be aware that some jewelry marked sterling or 925 — especially if the price seems too good to be true — may contain little or no silver at all, or be alloyed with random metals.

Argentium Leverback

Argentium™ sterling silver replaces some of the copper with 1.2% germanium (the remainder is 6.3% copper and 92.5% silver). Argentium sterling silver is tarnish resistant, laser weldable, and has other unique properties.

Other special alloys of sterling are occasionally available, each with its own unique properties. More info about sterling silver, including hallmarks.

Silver Fill

Silver fill (also called silver overlay) is made by using heat and pressure to apply a layer of sterling (.925) silver to a base of less costly metal, usually brass. The minimum layer of silver must equal at least 1/20 of the total weight of the item. Silver fill is 100′s of times thicker than silver plating, so it lasts many years longer before wearing through the layer of silver. If you can wear sterling silver, you can most likely wear silver-fill items for quite a few years before you wear through the top layer to any irritating basemetal layers beneath it.

Vermeil, pronounced “vehr-MAY” [French], is gold plated sterling silver. If you can wear sterling silver, it’s very likely that you can wear vermeil.

Karen hill tribe

Fine silver, sometimes stamped “.999″, is 99.9% pure silver, which means it is softer and more malleable than sterling. It is commonly used for bezels, handmade ball-end head pins, and components made by the Karen Hill tribes.

Just like sterling silver, fine silver can be misrepresented. If you’ve experienced allergies to cheap items marked sterling, 925 or 999, you may want to try again from a reliable, knowledgeable vendor before you rule out silver entirely.

Gold

14kt post with flat pad for gluingKarat (kt) gold: Pure gold is 24kt, meaning 24 out of 24 parts are gold. 24kt is too soft to be functional, so it is alloyed with other metals for durability, cost and color. 14kt is 14 parts gold out of 24, and the remaining 10 parts are other metals. Depending on the color of gold (which can be yellow, rose, green or white), the other parts may be copper, silver, nickel, zinc, tin, palladium and/or manganese. People with nickel allergies should be aware that, until recently, most white gold contained nickel. Today, palladium is used to make a white gold alloy that is less likely to react to the wearer’s skin. All of the karat gold we carry is yellow gold.

14kt GF Bead CapGold fill (also called gold overlay) is made by using heat and pressure to apply a layer of karat gold to a base of less costly metal. This produces a surface with karat gold. The minimum layer of karat gold must equal at least 1/20 of the total weight of the item. Gold fill is 50 to 100,000 times thicker than regular gold plating, so it lasts many years longer before wearing through the layer of gold. If you can wear 14kt gold, you can most likely wear gold-fill items for quite a few years before you wear through the top layer to the brass or other basemetal beneath it. Roughly half our gold-fill items are 12kt gold fill; the other half are 14kt gold fill.

Copper and Brass

copper heart blank

Copper is a lovely reddish metal. It is easy to work with, but oxidizes quickly, and where it comes into contact with skin, can turn skin green. The “green skin” factor makes it unpopular for ear wires or earring posts. You can lacquer (or otherwise coat) it, but high contact points — such as going through an ear — wear off quickly.

Most people can safely wear copper, but aren’t always excited to have their skin turn color where it touches them. For this reason you may want to mount copper bracelet designs onto a sterling backing, or use copper-colored niobium ear wires on copper earrings.

Alternatively, many people believe that copper can prevent arthritis, so solid copper bracelets are popular. For this effect, it needs to touch (and react with) your skin, so skip any protective layers.

raw brass blanksBrass is an alloy of copper and zinc. Depending on the desired properties, the percents of copper and zinc can vary greatly. Because brass is usually 50-90% copper, it has roughly the same “green skin” properties as copper.  Cheap brass earrings may have irritating impurities in their alloy, causing an allergic reaction to people who aren’t allergic to either copper or zinc.

brass ear wirepurple electrocoating brass ear wireBrass is a popular material for plated ear wires, because it is inexpensive, easy to plate or electrocoat, and is relatively allergy-free.

Non-Metal Earring Findings

E'arrs pierced-ear protectorsSome people are allergic to so many metals that it can be frustrating (or impossible) to find any that are wearable. A good solution is E’arrs Ear Protectors, non-metal sleeves that slide over earring posts (and ear wires).  These add a bit of thickness to the earring post (or ear wire) so they can be annoying for the first few days. After that, they are fine as long as you continue to wear them.

 

I hope this article help you pick the perfect metals for the jewelry you make (or modify).  If you have any questions, please leave them as comments below and I will answer as quickly as I can.

~Polly

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16 Responses to “Surgical Steel and Hypoallergenic Metals”

  1. Sereia Recart says:

    Dear Polly,

    Thanks for the helpful info on metal allergies. It seems that I am okay with platinum. Which of the suitable silver toned metals you mentioned come in thin wire? Does platinum also come in thin wire? I’d like to make briollet pendants to hang from a platinum chain.
    Many thanks,

    Sereia

    • Polly says:

      Hi Sereia,

      I recommend fine silver wire for making your own briolette pendants. It is easy to work with, and would work perfectly for making briolette pendants. Platinum is also available in wire form (although not from us), but it is a very hard metal, plus it would be very expensive to practice with. If you want a briolette pendant made of platinum wire, I recommend having the pendant custom-made by a professional jeweler in your town/city.

      ~Polly

  2. Lisa says:

    I love how you have put all this metal information together for easy use!!

    I make and sell jewelry, specializing in metal allergies, and people ARE often very uninformed about what metal ares, metal allergies and which metals they are actually allergic to.

    If it is acceptable to you, I would appreciate it if I could print this off and put a copy in my product sample notebook. I could then refer to it when I am at a craft show or with a customer. That way customers can also read the information themselves to help them make better informed decisions.

    Thank you.

  3. Cheryl says:

    is surgical steel softer than stainless steel ?

    • Polly says:

      Hi Cheryl,
      Not necessarily. Surgical steel is a type of stainless steel that is formulated to react less to the conditions in the body. The conditions in the body, are that the metal is surrounded with the chemicals found in the bloodstream and tissues. This doesn’t mean surgical steel is harder or softer, just that it reacts less with people. Surgical steel is a subcategory of stainless steel, and both can have varying degrees of hardness depending on how they are made, and how they are handled/formed after they are made.

  4. Tammy says:

    I have a friend whose ears turn black when she wears wire hook earrings. But they only turn black at the very bottom of her earlobe where the hook rubs. The hole and immediately below the hole are fine. I have been trying to find a solution for this. I have tried sterling silver and then argentium silver, thinking that the metal used as an alloy for the sterling was causing the issue. The argentium still caused her ear to turn black. Another person suggested trying nickel-free metal, but I thought that the argentium earwires were nickel free. Weirdly enough, she has some cheapy gold-toned earrings that do not cause this problem, so I am flummoxed.

    Do you have a suggestion for another metal to try? She wants me to switch out all of her earrings. I was thinking of trying titanium, but I don’t want to buy a gross of them if they aren’t going to solve the problem.

    • Polly says:

      Hi Tammy,
      It’s most likely the copper and/or the silver itself in sterling silver alloys that are tarnishing on her ears. Sterling is usually nickel-free, so simply going to another nickel-free alloy won’t necessarily solve the problem.

      Stainless steel is specifically designed to avoid tarnish and other surface discoloration — Nickel is actually added to stainless steel to help with this process. So a stainless steel (nickel-free or not) could work well for her. If she is allergic to nickel, of course you’ll want the nickel-free alloys.

      Titanium is a very non-reactive metal, so it is almost guaranteed to work for her, both on the allergy front and the not-tarnishing front.

      On a side note keep in mind that she will probably have the same discoloration problem with silver plate, since a good/genuine silver plate contains silver.

      ~Polly

  5. Janet says:

    Thanks for the helpful article! I am allergic to any kind of earring except .925 sterling silver or gold fill. I have not been that adventurous to try other metals, except I know that surgical stainless steel still irritates my ears a lot. Just some more information, there is also another type of post earring option called ‘plastic post’, they are earrings made with a post entirely made of plastic.

    I have also tried E’arrs Ear Protectors, and I find they do not work well with post earrings but work excellent on hoop earrings only.

    In any case it’s good to find something that works for you, whatever the option is. I found mine!

  6. iris says:

    hi guys, i came across your webpage and found it very informative!
    i make contemporary jewellery out of 316L stainless steel and i would like to blacken it, do you know if the black oxide process is safe for earring application and would the earrings still be hypoallergenic??
    any info would be greatly appreciated!
    iris

    • Polly says:

      That’s a good question. I’m afraid that adding chemicals to change the surface is likely to irritate some people’s ears.

      For a good black color that will be hypoallergenic, you might want to see if you can get some Niobium that has been anodized black.

  7. Leah says:

    I am wondering about iron. I recently purchased a package of ear wires that indicate that they are made out of iron; are there any know health risks associated with wearing iron?

    • Polly says:

      Hi Leah,

      Iron is *the* primary ingredients in steel, so it is likely that your ear wires are some type of steel, just loosely labeled, or perhaps imprecisely alloyed.

      • Leah says:

        Thanks. I just wanted to make sure there was no risk of rust or anything like that. It is labeled to be Nickle free, so I guess that is what I was looking for.

        • Polly says:

          Hi Leah,

          Since they aren’t labeled stainless steel, there actually is a high chance of rust, especially if they are not plated. The elements that are alloyed with iron, to make stainless steel and surgical stainless steel, are added to make the raw iron stronger and resistant to rust and other discolorations.

          If you have a bulk package of ear wires, you may want to conduct a test with 1 or 2: put them in water for a day or two, maybe spray one with some hairspray or perfume first to see if they have a coating that is easily damaged. Then after they soak for a day, allow them to dry naturally and see if they rust.

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