A few years ago, I noticed that wearing earrings annoyed me. I’d start to get grumpy and annoyed, fiddling with them and pulling on them. Soon, I’d take them off and stash them in my purse. I stopped wearing earrings at home. For the longest time, I just thought it was me. Then one day someone suggested that I was allergic to the metal. Me? I don’t have allergies! I don’t even have sensitive skin! Hmm. But after some experimentation, I realized that metal allergy or sensitivity was precisely the problem. I switched with my earring findings to different metals and the problem was solved. I love wearing earrings now! Here’s what I’ve learned about using various metals for polymer clay earrings.
- Because metal allergies are so pervasive, you should always use “safe” metals when making earrings for other people.
- Hypoallergenic is a marketing term that means nothing. There is no standard for this.
- Surgical stainless steel contains nickel. This metal will cause reactions in sensitive earlobes!
- For those who are very sensitive, sterling silver and many gold alloys still cause reactions.
- To be wearable by nearly everyone, opt for titanium, niobium, or gold-filled metals for earring posts and wires.
What is a Metal Allergy?
Okay, let’s get this out of the way. It’s not technically an allergy. You can only have an allergy to proteins, not metals. But you CAN have a sensitivity. Anyone can be sensitive to anything. And in the case of metals, lots and lots of people become sensitive to the contact of metals to their skin. But most people refer to this metal sensitivity as “metal allergy”. For the most part, metals don’t bother most people most of the time. But when you wear metals close to your skin for long periods of time, sensitivities can be a real problem. Earrings, glasses, and watches are common sources of skin aggravation. (And people with sensitive ears can usually wear rings just fine. Somehow the contact is different.)
It usually starts small. You might notice that the skin under your watch becomes itchy and hot, or you might notice a rash where your eyeglasses rub your cheeks. In the case of earrings, you’ll likely first notice that some earrings feel prickly or pokey. Eventually, the reaction can be quite strong and quite immediate. Nowadays, if I put on the wrong earrings before I go out for an event, they will already be starting to itch and my earlobes will be hot and swollen by the time I back the car out of the driveway. (And I’ve shown up at events wearing only one earring many times because I absent-mindedly pulled one of them off.)
If this sounds familiar, you might try using different metals and see if the problem disappears. If it does, you’ve found your culprit!
What Metals Cause Sensitivities?
It’s pretty well-known that earring findings that contain nickel can cause hot, itchy, swollen earlobes. But most people don’t realize that this can also happen with surgical stainless steel, stainless steel, 14K gold, sterling silver, and even copper. This is because stainless steel contains nickel! In fact, surgical stainless contains a LOT of nickel. (Surgical stainless is a metal intended for surgical instruments, not for long-term body contact.) And some gold alloys contain nickel as well, especially in inexpensive jewelry.
Many people with mild sensitivities can wear earrings with low amounts of nickel for short periods of time. But once your lobes are irritated, even “safe” metals such as sterling silver and copper can aggravate your earlobes.
While the EU has rules that prevent jewelry from releasing nickel, most countries do not. In most countries, most “normal” findings contain nickel, even ones labeled as hypo-allergenic or allergy-free. For more information about the nickel-free metals used in jewelry, consult this excellent article. The surgical stainless commonly available in the US will trigger a reaction quite readily. While they can be worn by most people with sensitivities, please know that even the specialized grades 304 Stainless Steel and 316 Stainless Steel contain up to 10% nickel and can still cause reactions in very sensitive people.
What is Hypoallergenic?
You’ve undoubtedly been instructed that it’s safe to use “hypoallergenic” findings in your jewelry. You’ve probably seen that word on listings for earring posts and earwires online, or on earring finding packages in craft stores. What does it mean? The word, itself, just means “lower allergy causing” and it’s a made-up word that has no legal significance. There is no standard. It’s just a marketing term. Hypo-allergenic findings very often contain nickel and, unfortunately, cause reactions in many people.
In fact, this is one reason why people are often unaware that they have metal sensitivity. They’ve tried wearing “hypoallergenic” earrings and still had irritation. So they just think they “can’t wear earrings”. (They assume the soreness is due to the weight of the earrings, the type of post/hook, or even just fussiness rather than the type of metal itself.)
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What Metals are Safe for Polymer Clay Earrings?
So, we’ve established that you need to carefully choose the metals to use when making polymer clay earrings (as well as other earrings). But what metals should you use? Luckily, there are three metals that work beautifully for many, if not most people: titanium, niobium, and gold-filled. Yes, some people can become sensitive to even these metals. But perhaps more likely is that there’s a case of mistaken identity. Be aware that unscrupulous sellers can label anything incorrectly. Buy your findings from reliable sources! (See below.)
This lightweight, naturally gray metal is often used for surgical implants. If you have metal pins, joints, or other hardware, it’s likely titanium. It makes fantastic earring posts and earwires. It’s usually available in its natural gray color that goes well with everything. If you like a bright silver or gold effect with your earrings, titanium hooks won’t be a good choice. But they make great posts. You won’t see them! You can then use whatever color jump rings and findings that match your earrings. They also match the stainless steel jump rings that are very popular right now. Just like stainless steel, titanium does not tarnish or change color.
Titanium posts are often sold without the accompanying earnuts. Make sure to order them. You don’t necessarily need the earnuts to be made from titanium. I’ve found that personally, the aluminum bullet clutch backs are secure, comfortable, and itch-free (more on this below).
You can make your own earwires with titanium, but it’s a hard metal and can be challenging for beginners to work. If you want to make your own earwires or “fish” hooks, use niobium, below.
Also lightweight and naturally gray-colored, niobium is more commonly available with colorful anodized coatings. You can find niobium earwires and jump rings in all colors of the rainbow as well as black and “antique bronze”. The anodized coating is translucent and shiny metallic, not a solid or opaque color. Because the anodizing is a coating that would not cover cut ends, findings must be anodized after they are made or the raw color will show on the end. And you should always be gentle or use coated tools to keep from scratching through the coating. If you buy colored niobium wire to make your own earwires and jump rings, the cut ends will be uncolored. This might not show, depending on your earring style. But you CAN buy plain grey niobium wire to make earwires or hooks.
Neither niobium nor titanium findings will give a true gold color. If you need visible gold earring findings, you have to find another solution. Right now the price of gold is way too high for most of us to consider solid gold findings. But you can find good prices on gold-filled earwires. I have had no trouble wearing gold-filled earring hooks. In the US, 14K gold-filled is common and these are very unlikely to cause a reaction. But make sure to ask about the amount of gold. If the gold used is lower karat, you might get reactions and see tarnishing.
“Gold-filled” is a strange-sounding name to my ear. What it really means is that a fine layer of gold is applied to the surface of a finding that was made from cheaper base metal. Because the surface really is gold, it looks just like gold. For normal wear, the gold coating should never wear off, making this an attractive and much more economical alternative to solid gold findings. Gold-filled findings do not generally tarnish when there’s a high enough gold level in the coating.
304 and 316 Stainless Steel
While these categories of stainless steel DO contain nickel, the nickel is not released except in very low amounts. A small number of people will still be sensitive to these metals, but they will be safe for most sensitive people. However, stainless and surgical stainless steel is not generally labelled in the US and therefore should be avoided unless you’re sure of the specific grade of steel. High grade stainless steel jewelry findings are more common outside the US and wherever the EU’s laws are heeded. If something is labelled as just “surgical stainless steel” in the US, don’t assume that it will be safe for those with metal allergies.
Allergy-Free Earring Backs
There’s a bit of imprecise language going on with the term “earring backs”. Some people are referring to the posts, others to the little holder that goes onto the post. The actual name for the little stopper doohickey is called an “earnut” or “earring nut”, which somehow doesn’t sound very nice. You can buy titanium earnuts, but I’ve not found them to be necessary. Personally, I like large the large bullet-type earnuts with a mechanical clutch. What this means is that there’s a metal piece inside that grabs onto the post, making them quite secure. Other types of bullet earring backs with a rubber clutch have a bit of rubber inside of them to grab the post. Well, rubber tends to either harden or loosen with age, making this type of earring back have a limited lifespan.
You can also use silicone rubber, nylon, or clear vinyl plastic earnuts. They also tend to be quite secure at first but will loosen due to the limited lifespan of the material. This type does tend to be most comfortable. (But again…if your earrings are uncomfortable, that’s a sign that a metal sensitivity is involved.)
From the perspective of metal allergies, it doesn’t seem to matter as much which metal is used for earnuts. It seems the part of the earring that goes through your earlobe is the most important part for causing a reaction.
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Sourcing Titanium, Niobium, and Gold-Filled Earring Findings
I’d love to be able to give you one good source for earwires, posts, and hooks for earrings. But each country and region will have local sources. Generally, there are four types of places where you can buy allergy-free metal earring findings to use for your polymer clay earrings.
Mass-Market Craft Retailers
Whether online or brick-and-mortar, I recommend that you avoid craft stores and mass-market websites as a source of allergy-free metal earring findings. They generally have quite low-quality findings that are imported from mass sellers in China. If they do have titanium, niobium, or gold-filled findings they’re typically quite expensive. Styles of the findings are often quite out of date, too. Because awareness of allergy-friendly metals is largely poor among the general public, mass-market jewelry crafts websites such as Fire Mountain Gems generally have poor selections of these metals.
There are many great individual sellers who provide good metals on Etsy, but it is hit-or-miss and down to the efforts of the individual seller. Some shops, such as Creating Unkamen, sell both the mass-market “regular” earring findings as well as niobium and titanium.
Jeweler’s Supply Online Shops
This category of supplier generally sells the materials, findings, and tools that professional or fine jewelers use in their trade. You will usually find the best selection of gold-filled findings in shops of this type, but many are beginning to understand the need for allergy-free metal earring findings. Sometimes posts from this type of business come without the pad attached as they’re intended to be attached to fine jewelry with a torch.
Metal and Maille Suppliers
If you make chain maille or similar crafts, you’re already familiar with this category of seller who provides metal wire and rings in a variety of “non-fine” materials such as aluminum, titanium, and niobium. Reactive Metals is known for their excellent customer service and they’ll work with you to create a specific color or type of finding. The Ring Lord has a great selection and is a Canadian seller, which is a nice change of pace for Canadians who always seem to be left out of these lists. Creating Unkamen is also in this category as they do make many of their own findings and can also custom-make findings to your needs.
If you’re buying titanium or niobium wire to make your own earwires, choose 20 gauge. You’ll need tough cutter (not your regular jewelry cutters) to cut titanium wire. But niobium is easy to work. There are many tutorials online that show how to make your own earwires. You can even buy specially made jigs that make it easy to make each earring hook exactly the same size and with the same curvature.
Polymer Clay-Centric Suppliers
There are many excellent suppliers of polymer clay and supplies in our community and I always prefer to support them when possible. Most do not carry titanium or niobium earring findings at this time. In the UK, EJR Beads is a polymer clay and bead supplier that carries niobium and titanium earwires.
Do you know of a good supplier of titanium, niobium, or gold-filled earwires and earring posts in your country? Please list the details (including the URL) in the comments. Let’s help each other!
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If You Sell Earrings
Most people don’t have any trouble wearing whatever type of earring findings they try. It’s especially true for younger people who have not yet developed an allergy. But there are enough people out there who DO have these sensitivities that it’s a wise business option to consider offering allergy-free findings to those customers.
Be aware, however, that you might have to convince them. I’ve noticed that when this topic comes up, people often just dismiss that they “can’t wear earrings at all”. They’re not willing to take a risk on buying earrings, perhaps because they’ve been dismayed by poorly labeled “hypoallergenic” earrings in the past. In fact, you might need to undertake some customer education if you start carrying titanium or niobium findings. In addition, potential customers who believe they can’t wear earrings won’t even shop for them in the same way that you don’t shop in stores that don’t carry your size. If you can address this issue for allergic customers, you have an interesting marketing angle!