Q. I'm 28 years old and seem to be allergic to jewelry of almost any kind. I never had this problem as a teen, but now when I put on a new pair of earrings or a bracelet, it's likely that I'm going to start itching and get a rash. What's going on?
A. Almost all jewelry is a combination of several metals. The carat designation (12K, 14K, 24K) indicates the amount of gold in the mixture -- the higher the number, the greater the percentage of gold. Other metals such as nickel or chromium are added to give gold more strength. Less expensive jewelry may be a mixture of metals without any gold at all.
Jewelry allergies are almost always a reaction to one of these other metals rather than to gold. Redness, swelling, or itchiness may be a sign that you are allergic to some component in the jewelry. Allergies can arise at any time, and once you've had one reaction, you are much more likely to have a reaction to the culprit again -- even if the second contact is years later. However, a reaction to one metal doesn't mean you'll develop an allergy to any other substance.
It's hard to say why your allergy developed now. If you have an occupation that exposes you to solvents (such as those used in hairdressing or photography), you may have sensitized your skin to be more reactive. Wearing latex gloves can have a similar effect.
The easiest way to sort out your problem is to perform a "challenge test" on yourself. Stop wearing all jewelry for a few weeks and then slowly reintroduce one or two pieces over a week or two. Items made from stainless steel or high degrees of gold (such as 18K gold) are least likely to have other metals and may be a good place to start. If you see a reaction to a particular piece, toss it or give it away.
If you find you react to all the metals, check out artists who make jewely from other materials, such as glass, clay, and stone. You may not be able to wear earrings, but at least you'll be able to choose from necklaces and bracelets strung on satin cord, strips of hide, and so on.