The safety or allergen risk of metal jewelry is largely determined by the amount of nickel it contains. Nickel is a metallic element that is not bio-compatible and causes a lot of healing difficulty and hyper-sensitivity issues when it is used in piercing jewelry metals. Bottom line when it comes to body jewelry – the lower the metal quality, the higher risk of difficulties.
Costume Piercing Jewelry
Many people can’t wear costume jewelry at all because of the high nickel content. Even “nickel-free” jewelry made for sensitive ears is not high quality metal and not recommended for new piercings or long-term wear. Some costume jewelry has even been found to contain lead. Simply put, cheap jewelry is not a good idea.
- Sterling Silver
Sterling silver is only .925% silver and contains other metals that can cause irritation. It also oxidizes (tarnishes) when it comes in contact with air and body fluids. The fact that silver is soft increases the risk of small non-visible nicks and scratches in the metal that can become a harbor for bacterial growth. Sterling silver is recommended for well-established earlobe piercings only, and short-term wear. Silver-plated jewelry is not recommended at all.
Similar to silver, gold is soft and can have imperfections that can breed bacteria. “Higher grades” of gold (such as 24K), which are considered better because they contain less nickel, are actually softer and become a higher risk when worn in piercings. Solid gold is only recommended for well-healed piercings and for those that have a history of being able to wear gold without irritation. Gold plated, however, is not recommended.
- Surgical Stainless Steel (SSS)
316L or 316LVM are the only acceptable grades of stainless steel for the use of body jewelry. 316L is implant-grade surgical stainless steel – it is probably the most common and most widely used metal for body piercings. 316LVM is the same as 316L, but has the added advantage of having been melted in a vacuum. That means it has a virtually flawless finish and less chance of even minor alloy inclusions, which can irritate the wearer. It should be noted, however, that even SSS does contain enough nickel to cause problems for someone very sensitive to it. Many European countries have banned the use of SSS for new piercings because of the high rate of allergic reactions. If you’re wearing SSS jewelry and are having problems with irritation or a new piercing that just won’t heal, it is possible that you have a very low tolerance of nickel and might want to try niobium or titanium.
The next step up from 316L SSS. It’s a little heavier than SSS and also stronger. The price tag is also slightly heftier, but a happy medium between SSS and titanium for many. Niobium body jewelry is usually anodized (dipped in a chemical electrolyte and then exposed to an electrical current, which creates an array of colors depending on voltage and light refraction) Niobium is non-reactive and most people can wear it in new or healed piercings with no sensitivity issues.
The hardest and highest grade of metal with virtually no presence of nickel (less than .05%). The strength of the metal makes it practically impervious to scratches and imperfections. Titanium is also the most expensive metal used for body jewelry, but is certainly worth the price for someone who is hyper-sensitive to nickel-containing metals and can’t wear anything else. Titanium can also be anodized and comes in a wide variety of colors.
Please beware of novelty shops and costume jewelry shops selling so-called “body jewelry”. Even if they have the best intentions, these store owners are not body piercing experts and many times purchase low-grade jewelry because they are popular and a quick-sell. Some of them might even claim to be 316L steel, but these items are often mass-produced by machines, not inspected for imperfections and potentially harmful. There is a reason these jewelry items are so inexpensive – high quality body jewelry costs more because better materials and quality workmanship are used to produce them. Don’t be fooled by imitators or lower prices – it’s just not worth it to end up with an infected piercing because of it.