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Dear Matthew Alice:

My mother had my ears pierced when I was a baby hoping I would be a life-long earring lover. As a kid I just wore little gold balls. As a teen, I wanted to wear cool dangly ones, but my ears would always bleed. Mom said, "You can only wear gold." I know Mom's always right, but why are my ears such metal elitists? How can one metal be more acceptable over another?

-- Lisa Rakestraw, Ocean Beach

Gradma Alice wore cool dangly earrings during her hippie days, and now she has lobes like a bloodhound. It's always something�. But about your vicious jewelry. Your elitist lobes are almost certainly reacting to nickel, the base metal for many types of, um, thrifty jewelry. Even if it bills itself as "gold" jewelry, it may just be gold washed or plated with a nickel base or with nickel as one of the alloy metals. Nickel in combination with perspiration will corrode, and the nickel salts produced irritate your skin and can eventually create what's called nickel allergy dermatitis. Swollen, icky, bloody ears. Nickel is also a common metal for the backs of wristwatches, which is why some people can't wear them without getting all itchy and scratchy. Dental braces, hip replacements, lots of metal-on-skin objects can cause a problem. For you, Lisa, we recommend wearing earring hooks or studs that are higher rated than 9 karat, which contains the most nickel. Jewelry stores sell plastic sleeves for studs that insulate your ears from the metal. Any metal, including gold and platinum, can react with an individual's body chemistry and create a similar dermatitis. So there's nothing particularly "safe" about gold, except that it's less prone to corrosion and in dermatologic studies seems not to affect as many people. Nickel is one component of coins, so people who handle lots of them can actually become allergic to money! Consider yourself lucky.

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