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Nickel Allergy: understanding the allergy and managing it

Updated on March 11, 2015


First described in 1930 by Dr Stephen Rothman, Nickel induced contact dermatitis has dramatically increased over the last decades. Hypersentization to Nickel is now widely spread around the world, since the estimations for the percentage of population suffering from it vary between 8% to 15% for adults (with a much larger proportion of women compared to men) and 8% of children [ 1, 2, 3]. This allergen has then be qualified as "the allergen of the year" in 2008 by the American Society of Contact Dermatitis [4].

This allergy is induced after exposure to Nickel has reached a threshold value, which is different for each one.

For a long time, the mechanism of Nickel sensitisation has remained uncleared, with various hypothesis to explain some particularities of this allergy. Actually, what made this contact dermatitis quite unexpected is the quickness of the appearance of symptoms. It means other pathways than the one generally described to explain contact dermatitis must be involved, to enable a quick activation of the inflammatory cascade. Recent study published in nature has shown the influence of one specific receptor, called Toll-Like-Receptor 4 (TLR-4) with a structure that enable Nickel to bind this molecule at a specific site and then induce the inflammatory response. It would open the path to the development of new drug to help cope with Nickel allergy [5]

When you are allergic to Nickel, there are some rules and tips that are very useful to know and to follow. Some of them are well-known, while some other much less.

Here are listed some of them that can help to cope with Nickel allergy.

Where do you find Nickel?

Actually, Nickel is being used in lots of manufacturing products, due to its properties (slow rate of oxidation at room temperature, magnetic, hard and ductile). You can then found it in a lot of alloys of stainless steel, for exemple. So it may be present in jewellery and clothing decorations, metal tools or medical device. Recent reports have showed that Nickel is still widely spread in daily items [6,7,8,9]

Oxidised forms of Nickel are in the form of coloured solid. That make this element one of the pigments used in make-up, specially eyelid cosmetics and brown make-up. [10]

Food can also be a consequent source of nickel uptake. Nickel-rich food include chocolate, peanuts, beans, broccoli and canned food. [11]

Smocking can also induce systemic nickel exposure [12]

What to do

1 - Get a medical diagnose

When a nickel allergy is suspected, the first move should be to get diagnosed by a M.D. Only a physician is able to perform a patch test that will enable to diagnose a nickel allergy with a fair accuracy. The principle of the test is easily understood. The skin of people suspected to have nickel allergy will be exposed to a very large amount of Nickel for 48 hours under controlled exposure condition, and the results will be made by colorimetric and clinical assessments just after removal of the patch and generally 2 days after.

2 - Treat the rashes

A moisturiser with eventually also corticosteroidal topical treatment is often enough to get rid of the rashes. Some systemic drug such as antihistaminic and corticoids can also be used under medical guidance.

3 - Avoid Nickel Exposure

This tip may me easier said than done. It may indeed be tricky to determine the source of nickel exposure. A chemical compound called dimethylglyoxime (DMG) is used in tests to quickly determine if an item contains Nickel. While colourless at a natural state, it turns pink when the DMG molecules combined with Nickel. Some solutions of this compound are commercially available [13] and are easy to handle.

Use a barrier to protect skin from metal containing item. It can be clothes, or some gloves (but not rubber gloves, inefficient to block metals). It can be clothes, or some gloves. Rubber gloves should be avoided, since they does not prevent metals to penetrate. Some polyurethane coating can be applied on items, but should be renewed when a degradation of the coating is appearing. A coating can also be put on the item to isolate it from skin. Applying nail polish is a common tip. One drawback of this technique is the development of sensitisation to chemicals found in these products, that can also trigger contact dermatitis [14]. Again, the coating should be applied regularly.

Finally, you can use some skincare product to reduce exposure to Nickel. It can occlusive product, such as petroleum jelly, that will form a liquid glove on your skin, or skincare product specifically designed to reduce skin exposure to Nickel [15]


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      3 years ago

      Great article ! Thanks !

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      A very interesting and informative post.

      I didn't know that some foods contain Nickel! Especially some that I happen to include in my daily diet.

      You gave Good sound advice to seek a medical diagnosis if you suspect you have a Nickel allergy.

      One question :

      Can you specify more skincare products that may help protect my skin from Nickel exposure?

      Petroleum jelly is not practical for me to use with the job I do.

      Many thanks for your help.

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      this is one of most informative and documented article on nickel allergy that I have seen. also, this is really great to know that there are some novel solutions to protect skin like the ones mentioned at the end. I have quite a few friends who should be interested. thanks to the author of this post!


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