Body jewelry is fashion and self-expression. There are a lot of raw materials that can be used to make it: metals, glass, plastics, and organic materials. Some are better for new piercings, while others are only recommended for healed piercings or short-term wear. Before you commit to a piece of body jewelry, here's the lowdown to make sure you're making safe choices.
Metal Body Jewelry
Metals are the most common materials for body jewelry. You should be wary of low-grade pieces ubiquitous at novelty and costume jewelry shops. There's a reason these items are so inexpensive: they're often mass-produced by machines, not inspected for imperfections, and potentially harmful.
The safety or allergen risk of metal jewelry depends largely on the amount of nickel it contains. Nickel is a metallic element that's not biocompatible and can hinder healing and cause hypersensitivity issues.
Many people can’t wear costume jewelry at all because of the high nickel content. Even if it's labeled “nickel-free,” it's not made with high-quality metal, and not recommended for new piercings or long-term wear. Some costume jewelry has even been found to contain lead. Simply put, cheap jewelry is a bad idea for piercings. The general rule of thumb: the lower the metal quality, the higher the risk.
Sterling silver is 92.5 percent silver and contains other metals that can cause irritation. It also oxidizes, or tarnishes, when it comes in contact with air and body fluids. The metal is soft and is therefore prone to tiny nicks and scratches that can harbor bacterial growth. Sterling silver is OK only for fully healed earlobe piercings and short-term wear. Avoid silver-plated jewelry.
Gold is also soft and can have imperfections that could breed bacteria. Higher grades like 24-karat gold may be considered better because they contain less nickel, but since they're even softer, they're still risky for piercings. Solid gold is only recommended for fully healed piercings and for people who don't experience irritation from this metal. Avoid gold-plated jewelry.
Surgical Stainless Steel
The only acceptable grades of stainless steel for body jewelry are 316L or 316LVM. The former is implant-grade and is probably the most common and widely used metal for body piercings. The latter has the added advantage of having been melted in a vacuum—meaning it has a virtually flawless finish and is less irritating.
However, surgical stainless steel can still contain enough nickel to cause problems for very sensitive skin. Many European countries have banned its use for new piercings because of the high rate of allergic reactions. If you’re wearing surgical stainless steel jewelry and are having problems with irritation or a new piercing that just won’t heal, it's possible that you have a very low tolerance to nickel.
Stronger and a little heavier than 316L surgical stainless steel, niobium is the next step up. Body jewelry made from this is usually anodized (dipped in a chemical electrolyte and then exposed to an electrical current, which creates an array of colors depending on voltage and light refraction). Niobium is non-reactive, and most people can wear it in new or healed piercings with no sensitivity issues.
With virtually no nickel (less than .05 percent), titanium is the hardest and highest grade of metal—it's practically impervious to scratches and imperfections. It's the most expensive metal used for body jewelry, but worth the price for someone who's hypersensitive to nickel. Titanium can also be anodized and comes in a wide variety of colors.
Glass Body Jewelry
Glass jewelry is available under popular trademarks such as Pyrex and Kimax; it can also be referred to as borosilicate glass. These tempered, medical-grade, non-porous, and lead-free glasses are the only types suitable for body jewelry.
Although nontoxic and basically biocompatible, glass jewelry should not be used for a fresh piercing or during stretchings. Glass is heavy, so it can cause strain and involuntary stretching on a piercing, complicating the healing process.
Acrylic Body Jewelry
Acrylic is popular for body jewelry because it’s inexpensive, it's versatile, it's lightweight, and it comes in a variety of colors. However, this plastic is not the best option for piercings. The FDA has approved some grades of acrylic, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they're 100-percent safe for long-term use. If acrylic jewelry starts giving you any issues, take it out.
The biggest problem with acrylic is that it's difficult to clean. It can't withstand the pressure of an autoclave, which is the only truly safe way to sterilize body jewelry, and it also degrades if it comes in contact with alcohol.
Lucite, polymer, monofilament polyamide, and resin are all similar to acrylic and carry the same risks. A lot of retainer jewelry is made with these products, and these are generally for short-term wear only.
Glow-in-the-dark acrylic contains a potentially carcinogenic substance that's responsible for the luminescence. This is not deemed safe for any kind of body jewelry.
Nylon and Teflon are favored over acrylic because they're autoclavable and flexible. These plastics are sometimes an option for someone with a severe sensitivity to all metal jewelry. However, not all piercers are experienced in using them since these are more challenging to insert and thread.
Silicone Body Jewelry
While silicone is biocompatible, it comes with its own set of risks. Silicone has the ability to auto-stretch, which can potentially cause tearing or over-stretching in a piercing. Also, because of its pliability, silicone tends to cause a seal against the skin and could allow a buildup of seepage and eventually lead to infection. If you use silicone jewelry, be sure to keep the area clean and dry at all times.
Wood Body Jewelry
Body jewelry made of wood is both beautiful and versatile. It's lightweight, so even a largely stretched piercing stays pretty comfortable. Wood comes in a variety of colors and hardness, from reedy bamboo to rock-solid ebony.
Although most raw woods are relatively safe, there are some that could be considered toxic to the skin. Also, potentially irritating dyes and other chemicals are sometimes added to enhance the wood's natural beauty. The severity of the reaction to these toxins varies from person to person. Make sure that your organic body jewelry supplier is well versed on the subject and guarantees their product to be safe.
Wood isn't recommended for unhealed piercings or long-term wear. It shouldn't be saturated or overheated—remove jewelry before swimming, bathing, or entering a sauna. You can safely clean it with mild soap and a small amount of water, but be sure to dry it immediately. Lightly treat it once a week with jojoba or olive oil to prevent cracking. Tea tree oil can also be used for cleaning and to add sheen.
Other Organic Body Jewelry Materials
Organic materials are becoming more and more popular for plugs, earlets, eyelets, and claws. These jewelry pieces are designed for stretched piercing holes, usually the ear lobes. They're not recommended for new or unhealed piercings, and should only be worn for short periods of time.
Bone and horn are semi-hard and porous, and can be carved into different shapes for body jewelry. Most bone jewelry comes from cows, and most horn jewelry comes from buffalo. Both are fragile and can shard when broken, so they shouldn't be subjected to extreme pressure or worn during swimming, bathing, or sleeping. Wash carefully with mild soap and a small amount of water, and then treat once a month with jojoba or olive oil as well.
Jewelry made from rock or semi-precious stone is very durable but can still break if dropped or treated roughly. Clean it with mild soap and water.
So many options for eye-catching body jewelry; but above all, keep safety top of mind when dealing with piercings.