Relief for nickel allergy on the nano level
April 12th, 2011
11:20 AM ET

Relief for nickel allergy on the nano level

Have you ever gotten an itchy rash after touching something that's normally harmless? That's a key sign of contact dermatitis, a skin condition involving inflammation as a result of coming into contact with a particular substance. One of the most common irritants is nickel.

Now there may be a solution, and it involves particles smaller than the width of human hairs. In a study published recently in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, Harvard researchers demonstrate that a cream containing nanoparticles of calcium carbonate may be able to protect a nickel-allergic person from having reactions to the metal.

About 10 to 15% of people in the United States have a nickel allergy, but many don't know it. Available creams don't work very well, and the ones that do penetrate the skin and cause toxicity. Doctors can prescribe corticosteroids to treat the reaction, but not prevent it altogether.

The condition is becoming a bigger problem, since nickel is everywhere - watches, cell phones and many other technologies, not to mention coins and tools, says Jeffrey Karp, co-author and nanotechnology expert at Harvard's Brigham and Women's Hospital. Contact dermatitis can be a hazard if your profession, such as a metal industry worker or a hairdresser, involves touching those objects.

Karp and colleagues have developed a cream that acts as a barrier to nickel particles. They did experiments in the presence of artificial sweat - yes, you can buy artificial sweat! - on pig skin, and then in mice. Sweat can accelerate the allergic reaction in humans, so this made the simulation more real. Their work also showed that you could also coat pure nickel with this nanoparticle substance to capture the nickel ions before they hit the skin.

Calcium carbonate isn't new; it's in toothpaste, antacids, and a variety of other products, but the particles are larger in those cases. Particles with a diameter of under 20 nanometers can penetrate the skin, but the calcium carbonate particles in this experimental cream are between 70 to 500 nanometers, still smaller than a human hair. In this range, they can bind to nickel ions but not penetrate skin.

The researchers tested the cream on pig skin, which is similar to human skin, and on live mice. They found that calcium carbonate nanoparticles effectively chelate nickel, meaning the tiny particles bind with nickel ions and create a barrier. Otherwise, the nickel can get through the top layer of skin, which would cause a reaction in an allergic person.

"Once could make a pretty good assumption that this could have significant benefit as a barrier cream, the idea being that you could just rinse off with water the particles that the nickel bound," Karp said.

It's not yet known whether the nickel that binds the particles on the surface of the skin can induce a response, but it appeared that the nanoparticles prevented inflammatory response in mice who were sensitized.

Don't rush out and look for it yet - this treatment needs to be shown to work in people, not just mice. The next step is a small trial in humans, Karp said.

Because the ingredients are already recognized as "safe agents," Karp is confident that this cream will be safe. This might also allow it to be over-the-counter right away. It could be considered the same way as any hand cream available at your local drug store, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate. But if this treatment does prevent allergic reactions from nickel, it may need FDA approval to say so on a label.

Karp's group isn't at that stage yet, though - right now they're speaking with companies that might want to license and develop it.

"Everything points to this being an effective solution, and we're anxious to get this out there," he said.

soundoff (32 Responses)
  1. Leah

    I need this sooooo very bad!

    April 12, 2011 at 13:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Kat

    I have used clear fingernail polish for years on jewerly and watches. It does wear off. Worked for me!

    April 12, 2011 at 16:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. r

    Forget about wearing sterling silver if you have a nickel allergy.

    April 12, 2011 at 18:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • lovelokest

      There is nickel-free sterling silver, I know because both my Mother and I have nickel sensitivity and wear sterling silver jewelry.

      April 13, 2011 at 13:31 | Report abuse |
  4. Sylvia

    I have a nickel allergy that also includes foods that contain nickel, such as broccoli, spinach,shrimp, etc. Many foods have nickel in them. It is necessary for me to eat broccoli or spinach every day, to keep AMD for progressing. Can I get any help for this?

    April 12, 2011 at 18:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Michelle

      WOW you were the only one that talked about food being the culprit,which i am very allergic too ,like spinach,romaine,the skin around my eyes itch so bad i rub them raw,been to so many doctors,they cant do nothing,im so miseriable,what do you do,i cant even eat canned foods is yours this bad?

      August 8, 2012 at 09:55 | Report abuse |
  5. jessica

    I have a big time nickel allergy – this looks very promising – I can't wait for it to come out so I can try it.

    April 12, 2011 at 21:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Barb

    I am looking forward to having this cream on hand. BTW, in case it helps anyon else - I have learned that if I wear my watches loose, the nickel does not seem to bother me. Tight watches - Watch out! My nickel allergy was horrible as a child - rippled fingernails, and severe itching, lesions, and cuts on my hands and feet. I had to wear gloves whenever I touched metal, and I used silverwear with ceramic handles. My dermatologist at the time said I would only be able to wear platinum jewelry. Luckily, the platinum prediction did not turn out to be the case. However, I was terrified last year that the allergy had returned (with my watch) - but it went away when I went back to loose watches.

    April 12, 2011 at 22:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. allie

    I learned about my nickel allergy the hard way – as a kid I got my ears pierced in the mall and my earlobes swelled over the earrings. Painful! I'd break out in a rash every time I wore a watch. As an adult I happily wear only platinum – but I am still afraid of earrings. Good excuse to get nice jewlery from the hubby every now and then.

    April 12, 2011 at 23:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Younan MarketingAnd Management Associates Inc, Int'l Intst'r

    I have come to conclusion that the cross that is of British origin definitely isn't Sarah Pal,pal (can't use pen pal because she doesn't know how to write), buto is Mark Bradbury the masseuse parlor owner grandiose of Circus Maximus. Irish cross saviour. It falls into the same vein of philosophical beleif structure and history as the jewish, maybe from italian/greek roots also Jesus of Nazareth, though he wasn't from nazareth. His magdelena would be Suzie Whitehead, his other one would be the jewish (i'm not sure of her name) but i think it is the one that became councillor of city politics last name Postma, blonde nazi type. now the other issue who would be the wap who would dare to cast the first stone and that would be related to Thelma but her name is italian but i don't know what it is, and i'm pretty sure it is a surgically masqueraded man. That fits her in also as the Sanctuary tattoo person which she was fully convinced she is. All in all it comprises the british nazi italian conspiracy again to adopt my true holy grail to their side. Just think out all the ins and outs of the events and i'm sure you'll agree. so Mark Bradbury is declared official optional saviour jesus christ of modern times. because you obviously didn't want to accept the real person me and group. I don't know if he is still alive though. He may still be crucifiable on the other hand.

    April 13, 2011 at 02:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Younan MarketingAnd Management Associates Inc, Int'l Intst'r

    There isn't hardly anyone allergic to nickel liars. IT is maybe nickel related or something similar which has been used in the tainted process of sugar refining. Stop lying about nano – nano refers in fact to exceedingly small amounts like one billionth of a some unit that isn't specified in dictionary definition.
    theresa noelle younan ymma-iii i-pic interpole galactica younan research management

    April 13, 2011 at 02:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Harvey

    I am sensitive to nickel. The only place I get it is on my stomach were my belt buckle sometimes comes in contact with my skin. I have found coating the buckle with clear finger nail polish helps for a while. I have also found using a small piece of duct tape attached to the rear of the buckle to be quite effective. It is quite invisible to the causal observer.

    April 13, 2011 at 04:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. finally

    I am sooo tired of getting rashes from metal! I want this cream!

    April 13, 2011 at 06:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. about that...

    This article made me giggle because they kept using the chemical name "calcium carbonate" as though it were something special. CaCO3 is commonly found in rock particles of the world, most notably the cliffs of Dover which are made of -yes, you guessed it, chalk. I have pretty severe eczema, it does make sense that very small particles could form a barrier between skin and nickel.

    April 13, 2011 at 13:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Pamela

    I am extremely sensitive to nickel. I cannot wear watches, costume jewelry, gamble with coins, wear headbands with metal, jeans with metal buttons, eyeglasses with metal, etc. My skin will breakout within minutes and travel across my body. This cream would be a miracle for me. I want to be part of the test for this product!!!!!!

    April 13, 2011 at 19:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Bob in LG

    But cant you consolde yourself by thinking about how much money you saved by purchasing the cheap Chinese Nickel jewelry instead of nice silver or gold? Get what you pay for – who ever heard of buying nickel jewelry because it's cheap filler.

    Here's what's much worse: cadmium is always present as a trace impurity in nickel and it's really toxic. So toxic that they removed the tiny amount present in silver solder because it was poisoning people. You might want to think aboyt the tradeoffs between baubles and health issues.

    April 18, 2011 at 22:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. divya sree

    Even ive got sensitive skin..n i cnt wear the other jewellery made by other metals..xcept gold..this would be amazin...:)babai...:)even ive tried applyin nailpolish 2 the metal jewlerry...vch dint work though...:(

    April 19, 2011 at 08:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Meredith

    Interesting post. I wonder if this will help with earrings too. I suffer from nickel allergies in earrings. After years of frustration due to the lack of styles available that I could wear without experiencing a painful reaction at the end of the day, I decided to start my own online earring company called Merah (shopmerah.com). The site specializes in stylish nickel free earrings for women.

    May 8, 2011 at 17:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Lisa Enright

    All my children have nickel allergy. It sounds promising but I hope it is practical. If it is expensive or greasy I doubt we can use it regularly. I think it is more practical to buy nickel free products. We found a lot of everyday items (like utensils, watches, jewelry, etc) at http://www.nickelfreelife.com. Also, belt buckles are a problem (mostly for my boys as they wear their shirts un-tucked) at http://www.nickelfreebelts.com. Good luck everyone!

    November 21, 2011 at 12:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Allergy versus cold

    Your people that exhibit kitten allergic reactions may well not even be familiar with the root issues. It really is tragic to see your young ones that they are not able to keep their own ...allergies

    January 23, 2012 at 15:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Jeff Karp

    I have some exiting news!!!

    We have translated the nickel prophylaxis technology we developed in my laboratory (described in the above CNN article) into products that are now on the market (Pre-Launch)! These products have been crafted to reduce skin exposure to metal ions or other irritants.

    Please visit http://www.skintifique.com to learn more

    We also have a wonderful moisturizer that has been designed for dry or fragile skin.

    September 25, 2014 at 23:24 | Report abuse | Reply
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