Although like most things nickel is a bit more expensive than it used to be, it’s still inexpensive enough that it’s a very common element in jewelry. And it is quite common (and easy) to be sensitized to it, especially when it’s in jewelry that goes into the skin. I got sensitized to nickel by wearing inexpensive earrings after my first ear piercings. I’ve since had earrings from Tiffany’s in New York that had enough nickel in them to make my ears itch. Just because it’s high end doesn’t mean it’s nickel free.
What does this mean for tattooed people? Well, as I mentioned before, nickel can be a component of tattoo ink, especially the blue and green shades. If you’re already sensitive to nickel, you could end up with serious problems if that’s the kind of ink you get. And if you’re not already sensitive to nickel, the exposure to those inks could rile up your system to the point where any further exposure to nickel-containing ink or jewelry would be a problem.
It is not easy to tell which inks contain nickel. It might or might not be listed on the label and even the best tattoo artists might not have any indication that the ink has nickel in it till it’s too late. That is not their fault; the manufacturers should be upfront about potential allergens in their products.
So, what to do?
Cosmetics manufacturers always advise people to do a patch test before applying any new product to vast expanses of skin. Granted, this is not quite as easy to do with permanent tattoo ink, but the procedure can be modified to suit the purpose. If you know already that you are sensitive to nickel, it is vital that your artist know about that in advance. Save yourself a lot of misery and pay your artist to do a small trial patch of each color of ink somewhere inconspicuous. Wait a week to see what happens. If you have no reaction, then it’s likely you will be OK with that ink and you can go ahead with your design. Better to delay the gratification of getting new ink, than to have a weeping, ugly mess on your skin for ages afterwards.
If you aren’t already sensitive to nickel, your first tattoo will probably be safe, but you don’t know if it will sensitize you. About the only way you’ll know for sure is if your earrings and watch start itching you like crazy afterwards. If you want to be absolutely sure the ink is safe, talk to your artist about doing a patch test first.
For allergies to nickel jewelry, if the item is something you for whatever reason don’t want to throw or give away, you can coat the part that touches your skin with clear nail polish if the item is small. For larger items, a small can of spray lacquer or fixative from an art supply store can be used to seal the surface and keep it away from your skin. You will have to reapply the protective coating from time to time.
Here is an informative article from the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology about nickel allergies, if you’re interested in further reading.