Nickel Allergy: A Rash on the Digital Age

in Indoor Allergies, Skin Allergy
Published: January 29, 2016
Nickel Allergy - LaptopThinkstock

Our embrace of wireless gadgets and modern medical implants is exposing us to nickel, the highly sensitizing metal, as never before. And the result? As this investigation for Allergic Living magazine found: a surge in nickel allergies. This feature article was first published in Allergic Living’s Winter 2015 magazine.

We eye our neighbor’s latest electronic gadget with envy, and our love affair with modern technology and wireless connection seems to know no bounds.

But amid the flood of consumer items new and digital, an unforeseen health effect has begun to surface. Many of these shiny devices contain nickel, and the increasing number of hours during which hands sweep over laptops or faces brush against phones is leading to nickel sensitization – and the development of mild or even severe cases of allergic contact dermatitis or ACD.

This condition, more commonly called eczema, manifests as a red, bumpy, itchy and uncomfortable rash, which becomes blistered, widespread and even raw in more severe cases. Allergic contact dermatitis’s relationship to nickel has long been familiar to dermatologists, since this allergy is one of the most common – estimated to affect more an 30 million and perhaps as many as 60 million Americans. (In Canada, it affects 3 to 7 million people.) Nickel is also everywhere – it’s used in countless ordinary items, including eyeglasses, belt buckles, coins, keys and even underwire bras.

But the emerging scourge ties directly to 21st century technology. The first alarm bell sounded with cellphones, and dermatologist case reports of telltale rashes on faces where mobile phones rubbed against skin. By 2009, reports began surfacing in Europe of ACD resulting from lengthy exposures to laptops. In March 2014, Fitbit, the maker of popular activity-training wristbands, issued a recall of one million devices as consumers complained of skin reactions – attributed largely to nickel and also adhesives in the device’s band. The company would later release a newer model, with reduced nickel content.

Then in the summer of 2014, a clinical case report was published about a California boy who developed a rash that experts linked to his first-generation iPad tablet. Or more specifically, its nickel-containing case. “The rash began on his wrists when the family got a metallic laptop for Christmas,” explains dermatologist Dr. Sharon Jacob, an associate professor in Loma Linda University’s Dermatology Department, who counseled the 11-year-old and his family. Over a period of six months, “he started using the iPad more and the laptop less, and the rash progressed,” she told Allergic Living.

Once testing confirmed the boy’s nickel allergy, he was instructed to avoid the metal. In their report for the medical journal Pediatrics, Jacob and her co-author note that they did not have to separate the pre-teen from his favorite gadget. A plastic case that covers the whole back of iPad was able to prevent continued exposure, and the boy’s irritating rash swiftly receded.

In North America, nickel ACD now afflicts up to 17 percent of women (thanks in part to jewellery like pierced earrings) and at least 3 percent of men. However, the highest rate of nickel dermatitis in North America today is among young people; studies put the prevalence in children and teens in a range between 17 and 33 percent.

Nickel Allergy - Cellphone

So given the massive popularity of youth-oriented electronic devices, you might think that strict regulatory oversight would be in place. But that’s not the case. In contrast to the European Union, which specifies how much nickel a consumer item can release, North America has no rules. Some of the giant electronics manufacturers still deem nickel content a “proprietary” matter and won’t reveal it.

But others are changing with the sensitizing times. “We do not use nickel for the exterior of our mobile phones, tablets or laptops at all,” Samsung’s spokesperson said in an email. Likewise, Sony has stopped using the metal on phone and tablet surfaces.

Apple’s spokesperson Chris Gaither, meantime, said that Apple has moved to “meet the same strict standards set for jewellery by both the U.S. Consumer Safety Product Commission and their counterparts in Europe.” He called incidents of iPad dermatitis “extremely rare”.

But Dr. Jacob Thyssen, a leading dermatology researcher who has closely studied ACD from mobile phones, isn’t assured. “The problem definitely requires our full attention, especially regarding children and adolescents,” he told Allergic Living from his office in Copenhagen’s National Allergy Research Center. While research including his own has led to regulation in Europe, he still sees too much nickel exposure in the digital marketplace, and suggests it can be difficult to quantify precise “safe” levels.

“Industry may follow the regulations, but still market items that put consumers at risk,” Thyssen says. “They have the choice to avoid nickel use in their products, as there are many good alternatives.”

The researcher is also concerned about adults since they “widely use computers and mobile phones at work, and typically have prolonged contact with these devices.”

The term “prolonged contact” is key, because sweat accelerates nickel’s release by corroding the metal, allowing it to be absorbed into the skin. In some products, nickel (or another allergenic metal like cobalt and chromium) is wrapped in an alloy, such as stainless steel, to inhibit corrosion and seepage.

Next: Medical Implants & Nickel Allergy Testing