Materials Used to Make Body Jewelry

Types of Metals, Glass, Plastics and Organics Used in Body Jewelry

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There are a lot of different raw materials that can be used to make body jewelry. They come in a wide variety of substances such as metals, glass, plastics and organics. Some materials are more conducive to healing a new piercing, while others are only recommended for well-established piercings or short-term wear. It’s important that you familiarize yourself with the choices you have before you purchase body jewelry, as they are not all alike.

Metals for Body Jewelry

The safety or allergen risk of metal jewelry is largely determined by the amount of nickel it contains. Nickel is a metallic element that is not bio-compatible and causes a lot of healing difficulty and hyper-sensitivity issues when it is used in piercing jewelry metals. Bottom line when it comes to body jewelry – the lower the metal quality, the higher risk of difficulties.

  • Costume Piercing Jewelry
    Many people can’t wear costume jewelry at all because of the high nickel content. Even “nickel-free” jewelry made for sensitive ears is not 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 not a good idea.
  • Sterling Silver
    Sterling silver is only 92.5 percent silver and contains other metals that can cause irritation. It also oxidizes (tarnishes) when it comes in contact with air and body fluids. The fact that silver is soft increases the risk of small non-visible nicks and scratches in the metal that can become a harbor for bacterial growth. Sterling silver is recommended for well-established earlobe piercings only, and short-term wear. Silver-plated jewelry is not recommended at all.
  • Gold
    Similar to silver, gold is soft and can have imperfections that can breed bacteria. “Higher grades” of gold (such as 24K), which are considered better because they contain less nickel, are actually softer and become a higher risk when worn in piercings. Solid gold is only recommended for well-healed piercings and for those that have a history of being able to wear gold without irritation. Gold plated, however, is not recommended.
  • Surgical Stainless Steel (SSS)
    316L or 316LVM are the only acceptable grades of stainless steel for the use of body jewelry. 316L is implant-grade surgical stainless steel. It is probably the most common and most widely used metal for body piercings. 316LVM is the same as 316L but has the added advantage of having been melted in a vacuum. That means it has a virtually flawless finish and less chance of even minor alloy inclusions, which can irritate the wearer. It should be noted, however, that even SSS contains enough nickel to cause problems for someone very sensitive to it. Many European countries have banned the use of SSS for new piercings because of the high rate of allergic reactions. If you’re wearing SSS jewelry and are having problems with irritation or a new piercing that just won’t heal, it is possible that you have a very low tolerance of nickel and might want to try niobium or titanium.
  • Niobium
    The next step up from 316L SSS. It’s a little heavier than SSS and also stronger. The price tag is also slightly heftier, but a happy medium between SSS and titanium for many. Niobium body jewelry 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.
  • Titanium
    The hardest and highest grade of metal with virtually no presence of nickel (less than .05 percent). The strength of the metal makes it practically impervious to scratches and imperfections. Titanium is also the most expensive metal used for body jewelry but is certainly worth the price for someone who is hyper-sensitive to nickel-containing metals and can’t wear anything else. Titanium can also be anodized and comes in a wide variety of colors.

Avoid Low-Quality Metal Novelty Body Jewelry

Please beware of novelty shops and costume jewelry shops selling so-called “body jewelry”. Even if they have the best intentions, these store owners are not body piercing experts and many times purchase low-grade jewelry because they are popular and a quick-sell. Some of them might even claim to be 316L steel, but these items are often mass-produced by machines, not inspected for imperfections and potentially harmful.

There is a reason these jewelry items are so inexpensive. Hgh-quality body jewelry costs more because better materials and quality workmanship are used to produce them. Don’t be fooled by imitators or lower prices. It’s just not worth it to end up with an infected piercing because of it.

Glass Body Jewelry

Glass jewelry is available under popular trademarks such as Pyrex and Kimax or can also be referred to as borosilicate glass. There are many other types of glass, but these are the only types suitable for body jewelry. They are tempered, medical-grade, non-porous and lead-free. Some suppliers also make jewelry under the names of Millicane or Dichroic glass. These terms refer to the colors inside the glass. These colors are created sometimes with metal alloys and other non-safe materials, so body jewelry made with these materials should be encased in a layer of Pyrex or Kimax glass to prevent exposure to unsafe elements.

Glass jewelry, although non-toxic and basically bio-compatible, should not be used for a fresh piercing or during stretching, but only on well-healed piercings. Also, keep in mind that glass is heavy, so the larger the piece of jewelry, the more strain it will cause on your piercing. Very large plugs or talons can cause involuntary stretching and then create healing problems.

Acrylic Body Jewelry

Acrylic is probably the most well-known plastic, and there is a lot of acrylic body jewelry or accessories available. It’s inexpensive, versatile, lightweight and comes in a variety of colors. The problem with acrylic is that it’s not autoclavable, which is the only truly safe way to sterilize body jewelry of any kind. It also degrades if it comes in contact with alcohol, so keeping a piece of acrylic jewelry clean is a challenge.

Acrylic shatters under pressure, so things like biting down on your acrylic tongue barbell can be a real problem if you’ve got an acrylic ball on the end. Acrylic jewelry can suffocate a piercing that needs to breathe, and the end result can be redness, soreness, seeping, and a bad odor.

Although widely available, acrylic really is not recommended for piercings. If you must wear it, it should only be worn short-term and only in a well-healed piercing.

A couple of things that should be noted:

  • The FDA has approved some grades of acrylic, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are 100 percent safe for long-term use. Use common sense when dealing with any new piece of body jewelry. If it starts giving you problems, take it out.
  • Glow-in-the-dark acrylic is a plastic that has a naturally occurring glow that is caused by carcinogens. This type of acrylic is not deemed safe for any kind of body jewelry. However, UV-reflective and blacklight-reactive acrylic jewelry is considered safe as they do not contain any harmful chemicals.
  • Lucite, Polymer, Monofilament Polyamide and Resin are all similar materials to acrylic and carry the same risks. A lot of retainer jewelry is created with these products, which are generally for short-term wear anyway.

Nylon and Teflon Body Jewelry

Monofilament Nylon and Teflon (PTFE) are favored over acrylic because they are autoclavable and flexible. These plastics are sometimes an option for someone with a severe sensitivity to all metal jewelry and have also been successful for surface piercings and implants with lower rejection rates. However, not all piercers are experienced in using these materials since they are more challenging when it comes to inserting and threading. You would need to discuss the availability and options of using Nylon or PTFE for a new piercing with your piercer, but replacement jewelry and accessories are widely available.

Rubber and Silicone Body Jewelry

Rubber and silicone are very similar products in that they are basically a plastic that is pliable and stretchable. They are acceptable for accessories, but not highly recommended for piercings, especially unhealed ones. There are now flesh tunnels available in silicone and while the material is bio-compatible, it comes with another set of risks. One is that silicone has the ability to auto-stretch, which can potentially cause tearing or over-stretching of the hole. Another is that because of the pliability of the material, it tends to cause a seal against the skin and could allow a build-up of seepage which could eventually lead to severe infection. If you use any of these products, it’s imperative that you keep the area clean and dry at all times.

Organic Body Jewelry Materials

Body jewelry that fits under this term would include wood, bone, horn, and ivory. It also tends to include rock/stone, even though it doesn’t technically qualify as organic. The primary connection is that they all come naturally from the earth. Almost all jewelry made from these materials will come in the form of plugs, earlets, eyelets, or claws – jewelry that is designed for stretched piercing holes, usually the ear lobes.

Wood Body Jewelry

Body jewelry made of wood has great versatility. It is lightweight, so even a largely stretched piercing can be accommodated without discomfort. Wood comes in a variety of colors and hardness, depending on the source, which can be anything from the reedy bamboo to the rock-solid ebony.

Although most raw woods are relatively safe, there are some that could be considered toxic when brought into contact with the skin, especially for a duration. Also, dyes and other chemicals are sometimes added to wood to enhance their natural beauty, but these can cause irritation of the skin known as “contact dermatitis. The severity of the reaction to these toxins vary from person to person, but the best thing you can do is avoid them altogether. Make sure that your organic body jewelry supplier is well versed on the subject and guarantees their product to be safe. For more information on the types of wood considered toxic, see A Guide to Hardwoods for the Piercing Community.

Wood is also not recommended for long-term wear, cannot be autoclave sterilized, and is not recommended for new or unhealed piercings. Don’t allow wood jewelry to get saturated or over-heated (remove jewelry before swimming, bathing, or entering a sauna), but it can be safely cleaned with mild liquid anti-bacterial soap and a small amount of water, providing that it is dried immediately. Then it can be lightly treated once a week with jojoba or olive oil to prevent cracking. Tea tree oil can also be used for cleaning and to add sheen.

Bone and Horn Body Jewelry

Bone and horn are semi-hard, porous, and can be carved into different shapes for a variety of body jewelry uses. Most bone jewelry will come from cow bones, and most horn jewelry comes from buffalo, although there are always exceptions.

Bone and horn are fragile and can shard when broken, so care should be taken not to allow them to be exposed to extreme pressure. They are not autoclavable, but can be carefully washed with mild antibacterial soap and a small amount of water and then treated once a month with jojoba, coconut or olive oil. They are not recommended for new or unhealed piercings, should not be worn long-term or during swimming, bathing or sleeping.

Ivory (Tusk) Body Jewelry

When most of us think of ivory, our minds usually go immediately to elephant tusk, which is illegal. However, there are some forms of ivory that are not illegal and can be used to create body jewelry. Walrus tusk is one such example, as well as mammoth and mastodon. (Learn about the different types of ivory.) Despite its legality, ivory still remains controversial and is a personal decision each person must make regarding its purchase.

Ivory, like bone and horn, cannot be autoclaved sterilized. If it is allowed to get dried out, it can get cracks that can encourage bacterial growth. It should not be saturated or exposed to high heat and humidity. It can, however, be cleaned periodically with mild antibacterial soap and a small amount of water, dried immediately, and then treated with jojoba, coconut or olive oil. These treatments are recommended once a month. Ivory is not recommended for new or unhealed piercings and should only be worn short-term or for special occasions.

Rock or Stone Body Jewelry

Rock or semi-precious stone is also used to create beautiful body jewelry. It’s heavy and usually won’t come in very large sizes. The weight can also cause the jewelry to fall out unexpectedly.

It’s more durable than other organic materials but can still break if dropped or treated roughly. Despite its smooth surface and solid texture, stone still cannot be autoclave sterilized and needs to be cleaned with mild antibacterial soap and water.  Stone jewelry is not recommended for new or unhealed piercings and should only be worn for short periods of time.