What does hypoallergenic mean? Which jewelry mentals are hypoallergenic? Are they safe for everyone to wear? Which metals cause allergies? Is surgical stainless steel any better than other grades? Where can I buy hypoallergenic earring findings?
Let's define hypoallergenic: Typically, it means that the metal you're using is relatively unlikely to cause a reaction in a person's skin. This does not mean that these metals well be safe for everyone.
People can be reactive to several types of metals, but the most common one is nickel. About 15% of people in the world have a nickel allergy. The spectrum if nickel sensitivity is wide and people's reactions will vary depending on how sensitive they are. Some people may have an allergy but can wear metals with low concentrations of nickel. Some people must avoid it all together.
Since the metal allergy that is most commonly referred to is to nickel, that's what I'll be referring to in this article. Please be aware that people can have allergies to cobalt, copper, and chromium. It's always best to include as much information about the metal content in your findings so that your customers can make the right decisions for themselves.
Why do we see the term "hypoallergenic" applied so broadly?
Unfortunately, due to a lack of regulation, the term "hypoallergenic" is applied to many grades of metal these days and it's become more of a sales tactic than a clear representation of what's being sold. For instance, stainless steel is considered "hypoallergenic," though it still contains nickel. If you choose to sell jewelry with stainless steel components, make sure you don’t label them “nickel-free.”
Is stainless steel nickel-free?
No! It is technically hypoallergenic, meaning it's lower in nickel than other alloys, but it still has nickel. All stainless steels used in jewelry findings will have some nickel.
When buying stainless steel, you'll want to look for the SAE steel grade number:
304 and 304L are the most common types of stainless and contain up to 12% nickel. This may already be low enough for people with nickel sensitivities. It will depend on the person.
Surgical stainless steel (316 and 316L) has about 10% nickel in it. The "surgical" descriptor references its resistance to corrosives and has nothing to do with being more hypoallergenic than other grades of stainless steel. If you have customers with very reactive nickel sensitivities, they may still react to surgical stainless. Like "hypoallergenic," "surgical stainless steel" has become a buzz word in advertising. Please do not advertise surgical stainless as nickel free.
430 stainless has around 0.05% nickel. It's the closest you can get to nickel-free in steel, but please note, it's still not actually nickel free.
If the steel grade isn't listed, assume it's 304.
If the stainless steel jewelry finding listing says "nickel free", it's not. Technically there are no US laws or regulations which govern the use of the phrase "nickel free." A lot of the steel components that big crafts stores sell are labeled “nickel free,” but they don't list the metal grade anywhere and they're really low in cost. Any stainless steel that has that written on it will still have trace amounts of nickel, period.
A good way to search for stainless with very low nickel content is to include the words "EU Nickel Directive" in your search. The European Union does actually test and regulate how much nickel is in their stainless products. If something meets the EU nickel directive, you know that the nickel content is as low was it gets and is probably safe for most people.
What about truly nickel-free options?
Niobium is a fantastic option! It also comes in a huge variety of colors.
Titanium is another great option. The color of titanium is more of a silver-grey, so it’s typically what I will use for my nickel-free earring posts as the metal won't be seen when the earring is worn.
Here are a few places that I personally recommend for niobium and titanium findings:
Creating Unkamen on Etsy is where I get all of my colorful niobium jump rings
Rings & Things is a great place to get all kinds of findings
Rio Grande is one of the largest jewelry suppliers in the US
What about other common metals found in jewelry findings?
Copper is technically nickel-free, but I wouldn’t recommend it when attempting to offer a hypoallergenic metal because some people will be allergic to it.
Good quality silver is likely nickel free, though it may have copper, another common metal allergen. Silver also tends to tarnish and needs to be cleaned often.
The bottom line: hypoallergenic does not equal nickel-free. If you'd like my unsolicited advice, don't use the term hypoallergenic if you're selling stainless steel. A lot of people assume this means nickel-free and it can be misleading. If you are planning on using "hypoallergenic" to describe stainless steel, keep your business safe by making sure your buyers are aware that your findings do still contain trace amounts of nickel.