Does Your Jewelry Have Toxic Substances in It?

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on September 14, 2021
4 min read

Adding a necklace or earrings can give your outfit that final bit of polish. But what if the accessories you’re wearing are making you sick? After all, some jewelry contains substances with known health risks.

To avoid this scenario, make sure you don’t buy jewelry that contains the harmful materials listed below. Instead, look for jewelry that’s labeled non-toxic.

In the modern era, regulators have tried to make manufactured products as safe as possible for consumers. Governments worldwide have limited the use of some substances because science shows they are harmful to humans. However, this doesn't mean every product is perfectly in line with regulations. Products sometimes make it to store shelves despite having excess levels of certain substances.

Jewelry is one of the products that has been recalled the most for excessive levels of substances like lead or cadmium. This is most common in jewelry manufactured outside of the U.S. Jewelry can also contain nickel, a metal that gives it a shiny silver finish. Nickel is known to cause skin irritation.

Older jewelry that was made before current regulations is also a risk. There may be substances in older pieces that are no longer considered safe.

Cadmium. Cadmium is a naturally occurring substance that has many uses. Manufacturers use it in metal plating, batteries, plastics, and phosphate fertilizers. Long-term exposure ​​to cadmium from the air, food, or water can lead to kidney problems.

If you ingest large quantities of cadmium, you could develop symptoms including:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Muscle ache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

In rare cases, you can die of cadmium poisoning. In addition, breathing large quantities of cadmium dust causes severe lung damage.

Lead. Lead is a naturally occurring metal that is a well-known toxin. The U.S. banned or limited lead use in many products in 1978. Items made before this year may contain lead. Old homes may have lead paint residue. Vintage dishes, toys, or cookware may also contain lead.

The amount of lead allowed in products has changed over the years as scientists have learned that any exposure to lead is dangerous for children. There are strict limits on how much lead is allowed in children's products. Imported items must be tested for lead levels before U.S. retailers are allowed to sell them.

Lead exposure can cause developmental delays in children. Ingesting lead can lead to acute lead poisoning, which may cause:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Constipation
  • Muscle weakness
  • Vomiting
  • Death

Nickel. Nickel is a naturally occurring metal with a silver finish. It's used in many items, including costume jewelry, zippers, eyeglass frames, and consumer electronics. It isn't toxic, but it’s known to cause skin irritation.

A nickel allergy usually shows up as a rash or irritation in the area that is in contact with the metal. The rash doesn't usually spread beyond where the nickel touches the skin. The symptoms can last up to four weeks after exposure.

There’s no real way to know what’s in your jewelry. If you’re buying mass-produced items, there’s a chance they contain cadmium or lead. Products made outside the U.S. are more likely to have unsafe amounts of those substances in them.

Some research shows that jewelry with cadmium doesn't pose a long-term health risk from daily use. Cadmium doesn't react to sweat or penetrate the skin in large amounts. In addition, lead in jewelry is considered safe for adults because it doesn’t penetrate the skin.

There is a greater risk to children than to adults, particularly with items containing lead. Children are more likely to put jewelry in their mouths. They may also put their hands in their mouths after touching the items. That puts them at risk of ingesting harmful substances.

If you want to make sure your jewelry is safe, look for materials that are known to be non-toxic, including:

  • 100% gold
  • 100% silver
  • Surgical-implant grade stainless steel
  • Vermeil (a type of plating that uses pure gold or silver)
  • Non-metal substances such as leather, fabric, or glass beads‌

If you let children wear jewelry, discourage them from putting it in their mouths. Have them wash their hands frequently, especially after touching the jewelry. Jewelry can also be a choking hazard to children three years of age or younger. If your child swallows a piece of jewelry, call your doctor immediately or get emergency medical care for your child:

You can also look at the packaging to get more information about the safety of the jewelry. Look for items that have been manufactured in the U.S. In addition, California has strict laws pertaining to the use of lead and cadmium in jewelry products. Items labeled safe for sale in California must adhere to those standards.