What makes body jewelry “good” body jewelry? What types of materials should I look for? What materials and styles should I avoid?
In the past, manufacturers treated most aspects of body jewelry as a “trade secret” and did not disclose things like specific chemistry. At that time a common method used to determine if a material was “safe” for body jewelry was to try it on. If there was no rash or other obvious bad reaction, it was assumed that it was safe – sort of like a patch test a dermatologist would suggest. We have gone far beyond that to ensure the safety of our jewelry.
Body jewelry should meet the same standards intended for human implant which are sensible, applicable and achievable. These standards were developed to ensure safety for insertion of objects into the human body in contact with broken or intact skin, soft tissue and bone, both in the long and short term. Most common body jewelry does not even come close to the most applicable specific standards for chemistry and surface finish. Many of the jewelry-making traditions and materials that apply to a necklace or wedding band that are attractive on the outside of your body are not adequate or appropriate for items that are put inside your body, whether in a healed or fresh piercing.
The jewelry that we sell and use for long-term wear (greater than 24 hours) and for new piercings is certified for compliance with human implant standards by independent laboratory tests. The material chemistry (specific type of material), mechanical properties (strength, etc), crystalline microstructure and surface finish (polish) have been scrutinized, tested and certified for human implant applications, to ensure our jewelry is suitable to heal and wear in a new piercing. We most commonly use ASTM F136 or F67 compliant titanium with an ASTM F86 anodized surface preparation.
If we sell jewelry for these purposes that do not meet current standards, we become directly responsible for the burden of proof to avoid any harm people may come to from the material. We also do not sell jewelry made from materials that are known allergens or have a history of adverse reactions.
To make sure our jewelry meets these standards:
All materials must be documented for each lot and size of each type.
Random samples from each lot should be tested for compliance to appropriate standards.
Metallic jewelry should meet standards for surface finish and passivation (ASTM F86)
Safe body jewelry
is made of materials that aren’t toxic and don’t cause damage to soft tissue and bone,
won’t physically harm with sharp edges or poor polish, and
can be sterilized
To summarize as best we can, we adhere to the following three principles to assure your piercing experience will be safe and result in the beautiful body adornment you envision:
Make sure the body jewelry is chemically safe.
Make sure the body jewelry is polished and properly cleaned.
Make sure the body jewelry can be, and has been, safely sterilized.
First, make sure the body jewelry is chemically safe.
Currently we have access to the following materials for body jewelry that meet current standards for human implant:
Titanium (ASTM F136 and F67)
Uncolored quartz glass, soda-lime glass and borosilicate glass such as Pyrex (ASTM F1538)
Platinum (90% Pl: 10% Ir or 95% Pl: 5% Ru)
While refined 24K gold is considered biologically inert, it is soft and easily scratched enough that it’s impractical for body jewelry. There exists a body of evidence indicating that Niobium (Nb) seems inert and well accepted by the human body, along with titanium, tantalum, zirconium, pure refined gold, and platinum as the six most biocompatible elements. Although used in numerous surgical implant alloys Nb has not been used widely by itself for surgical implants, as it is soft enough to be scratched easily. Tantalum, its closest elemental neighbor is a common surgical implant material in use today and makes jewelry that is beautiful to begin with, but the surface finish is easily marred by fingerprints, dirt and grime and is also too soft.
Consider anything else a novelty item and wear at your own risk. It may be wearable for less than 24 hours without noticeable irritation if people treat it as a novelty and give their body a break from it regularly. Even the fanciest platinum and gold can cause allergic reactions. Wearing material not certified for implant for more than 24 hours means risk of allergic reaction and infection, since it has not been proven harmless to your body. Most such materials will keep a piercing in an unhealthy state, making the skin in contact with the jewelry thinner and more permeable, increasing your risk of damage and infection. Abscess, yeast and fungal infections are commonly reported at the site of piercings in clinical literature, and this may be related to excessive moisture in the opening.
Why not “surgical” or “implant” steel?
Steel should only be considered for short term wear (less than 24hrs) and only in fully healed piercings. Nickel (about 15% by volume) is dissolved in 316 steel alloy (ASTM F138) to make it non-magnetic and resistant to corrosion. This alloy is supposed to trap nickel and other irritants under a layer of chrome (chromium oxide) where it releases allergens and toxins very slowly. The protective layer is susceptible to damage by corrosive agents like chlorine and the salt in perspiration or the saline soaks many piercers recommend. As nickel and other irritants diffuse into skin, the tissue reacts to protect itself and creates thick scar tissue around the offending item to wall it off, like a splinter. Known undesirable reactions to nickel bearing alloys like steel include:
Soft tissue damage
Excess scar tissue
Allergic reactions, as common as 1 in 10 individuals.
This is believed to be from nickel leaching into the contacted area and into deeper tissue. Thickened scar tissue, which contributes to loss of sensation in the area, and direct damage to local nerve endings occur in body jewelry applications. Nickel is considered such a problem in Europe that there are several laws restricting the use of nickel, which you can read about on the nickel directive site.
Current uses of the steel commonly advertised as “implant grade” for body jewelry in medical devices in contact with broken skin is primarily limited to temporary devices such as surgical staples, wires and other fixation hardware and can not be used for any implant or initial piercing purpose in Europe.
Misdirection exists in regard to steel alloys, considering that they are numerous, e.g., Cobalt chrome alloy steel has been used in permanent surgical implants, and may be tolerated by the body with below 0.05% detectable nickel but has other irritant properties and toxicity.
Why not Acrylic?
Acrylic is rated as slightly toxic on the required Material Safety Data Sheet
Acrylic contains chemicals that are known to cause cancer
Acrylic cracks and crazes (forms a network of tiny fissures) and becomes porous
Acrylic has not been proven safe to wear for any extended period of time, especially in the mouth, mucous membrane, or genitals. The main problem with acrylic is that body temperature causes it to degrade and release monomer vapors, which are as toxic as carbon monoxide. Ethyl acetate in particular is a carcinogen. The ethyl acetate and methylmethacrylate monomers are the biggest problem with clear and or colored (Plexiglass or Lucite methylmethacrylate) acrylic resin jewelry. Even somewhat below body temperature (80ºF or warmer), they are constantly released into the body. These chemicals are slightly toxic and known to cause damage to living tissue, as well as increasing the risk of skin cancer in that area.
This risk is easily avoided, and worthwhile for healthy piercings. Most plastic melts in an autoclave, so you cannot safely sterilize it for wear in the first place. If chemical germicide [Wavicide, Madacide, and others] is used to attempt to clean the plastic, it can bond to the material and poison you. Hydrogen peroxide/peracetic acid solutions have come along to accomplish low temperature sterilization in as quickly as three hours to a new pre-cleaned piece [Compliance, Sporox].
Alternative plastics from which the toxic chemicals and irritants can be effectively removed could be used and cause little to no harm. If you manufacture or are familiar with a product that meets that description, let us know.
Implantable plastics may be used in a piercing instead of acrylic. Polymers of polycarbonate, PTFE (Teflon), and elastomers such as silicone, are among many plastics used in human implants covered by ASTM. To our knowledge no well-made implant quality, safe plastic products are currently sold commercially as body jewelry. We are currently testing Kaos Softwear silicone products with encouraging results. We seek safe new materials for jewelry.
What about wood?
You can read about wood use in body jewelry: www.organicjewelry.com/woodhazards.
Second, make sure the body jewelry is polished and properly cleaned.
Metallic surfaces should meet ASTM F86 to remove particulate matter for appropriate preparation and passivation.
The standards for surface finish (ASTM F86) is meant to ensure the smoothest cleanest surface in contact with the body. Jewelry must first be mechanically polished mirror smooth and then electro-polished to remove contaminants like tumbling media, polishing compound, dust, and fingerprints. Our experience has been that these steps are critical for easy healing and healthy piercings, as any imperfections or contaminants contribute to callused scar tissue and inflammation.
About anodization and titanium colors:
Anodization is an important part of polishing titanium to a clean, smooth, passive surface finish as per ASTM standard F86. Without anodization, you do not receive the full benefit of titanium jewelry.
The color is not a dye, paint or coating. The surface of the metal becomes prismatic and iridescent when electropolished, and will wear with you over time without affecting your piercing. It does not chip, flake or shed in any way, and we can re-anodize at any time in the future for a different color, or to improve the surface finish because of wear and tear. Friction and some chemicals will change the color down towards bronze. Chlorine bleach, peroxide and other oxidizers will change it too quickly to control without etching the surface in most cases (DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME!) and may make the surface unwearable on any metal jewelry.
All of this makes titanium the superior metal of choice for permanent surgical implant applications, and aesthetically more versatile without as many risks.
Third, make sure the body jewelry can be, and has been, safely sterilized.
If you do not bother to sterilize jewelry before you wear it, you could easily pick up an infection, and the possibility exists for something as morbid as Hepatitis C virus from careless handling.
Just like you may be able to pick up a “brand new” chicken breast from the grocery store and eat it without cooking to no ill effect, you may be able to wear body jewelry that hasn’t been properly sterilized without a noticeable bad reaction. However, we all know that if you cook that chicken breast to the right temperature for the right amount of time and don’t serve it on the plate you put the raw chicken on, you significantly reduce the risk of getting sick. The same thing applies to body jewelry.
It’s important for jewelry, especially for new and/or irritated piercings, to be sterilized under the right conditions. Given the sterilization methods currently available, steam sterilization is the best option, as it doesn’t leave a harmful residue behind. The other two readily available methods are another story – gamma sterilization can leave radiation, ethylene oxide (EO) has a toxic chemical residue. With steam sterilization, the right temperatures and pressures must be reached for the proper amount of time to ensure that everything is evenly heated and exposed to saturated steam to kill any contaminants.