Nickel compounds are not permitted ingredients in cosmetics, which is reassuring if you are one of the one in eight women who have a nickel allergy.
However, nickel contamination is accepted to a degree by regulators, as low levels are inevitable in some cosmetic ingredients — in particular, mineral color pigments used in make-up including eyeshadow, mascara, lipstick and more. Nothing can be guaranteed 100% ‘free’ of nickel.
One of the main sources of this nickel contamination is iron oxides, used in cosmetics to impart yellow, brown, red and even black color, and so widely found in foundations, eyeliners, lip products and more. These iron oxides may be listed in ingredients by their Color International codes — CI 77489, CI 77491, CI 77492, CI 77499.
Unfortunately, there are relatively few make-up options available, especially if you are very sensitive, or have been advised to avoid iron oxides and other minerals, and are looking for products which use alternative pigments.
The subject of cosmetics is covered in more detail in my new book The Metal Allergy Guide (pictured above right), but in the meantime there are three categories of products which are or may be worth exploring, although cautious patch testing is always recommended, as there can never be any guarantees.
Let’s look at each in turn …
1. Products with plant-based pigments
American brand 100% Pure Cosmetics have a range called Fruit Pigmented® Makeup, available worldwide, which is true to its name and goes further, using red wine, flowers, carrot, turmeric, berries, pomegranate and countless other botanicals to impart color.
Ingredients are fully disclosed and explained, so check individual products and choices of color, but the lipsticks, lip glosses, and tints look free of all minerals including iron oxides, and the eyeshadows look to be free of all except mica.
Some foundations, eye liners and the mascaras contain (or may contain) iron oxides and other minerals, so you may wish to check or avoid those, although when queried, 100% Pure told me “We test our ingredients for purity to ensure there are no heavy metals present”.
Nickel is considered a heavy metal, but they were unable to give specifics regarding testing levels or detection limits.
Dr Lipp is a popular UK brand.
You might like to try their mineral-free lanolin superfood lip tints, which come in three coloured varieties — red radish, elderberry and sweet potato — and are coloured with plant anthocyanins only. Lanolin can be an allergen to some, so ensure you don’t react and perhaps patch test at first if necessary.
You can find them here.
2. Nickel-tested / low-nickel products
As it is considered impossible to eliminate every trace of nickel from products or verify ‘free’ status in the laboratory, some brands use highly purified iron oxides and/or lower levels of minerals in their formulations to ensure products fall at or below one part per million of bioavailable nickel — ie 1ppm (0.0001%), which is safe for over 90% of those with nickel allergy.
These are unlikely to be described as ‘nickel free’, but as ‘nickel tested’ (especially), ‘low nickel’ or ‘nickel aware’, for example, and usually means that brands have tested their products to 1ppm maximum or taken measures to ensure that level is not surpassed.
NATorigin is a high-tolerance, very allergy conscious French cosmetic brand, distributed in the UK by Butterflies Healthcare, with a selection of makeup, including mascara, eyeliner, eye shadow, lipstick and foundation.
They say: “The entire range can be considered nickel free. Some products (mascaras, liners) do contain iron oxides which can contain nickel as a contaminant. We use as pure a form of iron oxide as possible (nickel content less than 1ppm) and also the minimum amount necessary. Therefore, if anyone has a nickel allergy, they are unlikely to have a reaction due to this.” Their packaging is also nickel free.
Some of their range is available through Amazon in the US.
A Scandinavian brand, Idun Minerals from Sweden, claim to have ‘completely eliminated’ nickel (and other ingredients) from their products, and use purified forms of iron oxide at levels which have been shown not to cause any reactions. They point out that their mineral powder foundation is also the only cosmetic product on the market recommended by the Swedish Asthma and Allergy Association.
In the US, it is available via Nigel Beauty.
Italian brands, like other mainland European nations, demonstrate strong nickel allergy awareness too, with many claiming to be ‘nickel tested’ (or ‘nichel’ as it’s spelled in Italian).
For instance, many PuroBIO mineral makeup products — these are clearly and individually shown on their website with a green ‘nickel tested’ logo — and include blush, concealers, primers as well as a range of eye and lip products.
To purchase in America, try Amazon US; In the UK, try browsing through Ecco Verde — an online retailer which has a ‘nickel tested’ filter, incidentally, and many products available — or else Amazon UK.
Particularly impressive are Bionike, who go far lower than the usual ‘nickel tested’ threshold and state that their products contain ten times less nickel — 0.1ppm, as they explain here.
If you want an additional and independent ‘guarantee’ for your nickel-tested or low-nickel cosmetics, you might like to look at certified products.
Allergy Certified is a highly respected certification programme, based in Denmark, with a number of strict criteria, among which is a restriction on nickel content in products to no more than 1ppm of releasable nickel is allowed.
You can search the site for certified products. For instance, if you conduct a search on ‘mascara‘, you’ll see a number of options, including several by the Danish brand Nilens Jord. These all contain iron oxide, but the brand has clearly sourced purified low-nickel iron oxide and/or used the compound in a careful and low enough level formulation so as to meet the stringent requirements of 1ppm.
A large selection of Nilens Jord lipsticks and other products are also certified.
You can buy Nilens Jord products from Hogies in the UK.
Another Scandinavian brand with multiple Allergy Certified make-up products is Sandstone.
3. Products with other non-mineral pigments
Some brands avoid iron oxides altogether and instead of botanical extracts use by-product, artificially produced or even animal-sourced colouring agents, which tend to be more stable and reliable, providing deeper, longer lasting colors than natural extracts.
These colors can potentially be contaminated with minerals — through shared production lines or storage facilities, for example — but purity requirement criteria are applied to some, and many products using them seem tolerated by women with nickel allergies, and are sought after by those avoiding iron oxide minerals for other reasons.
The Body Shop has a few which appear to shun iron oxides but use artificial azo colors instead. Azo dyes are chemically organic (carbon-based) rather than inorganic (carbon-free) molecules, which many tolerate.
The Body Shop’s Lip and Cheek Stain (click here for US; click here for UK) contains two azo colors Acid Red 33 (CI 17200) and Acid Yellow 22 (CI 19140) in the Pink Hibiscus and Red Pomegranate colors, and a larger variety of azo and other organic dyes in the Deep Berry version, which also contains titanium dioxide, and may therefore be slightly less safe for those with nickel allergy.
Their Born Lippy in Strawberry (click here for US; click here for UK) contains a red azo color (CI 15850) but is more of a lip balm than color, and may impart very little. There is a Raspberry version, which contains titanium dioxide.
The Benefit Benetint Rose-Tinted Cheek & Lip Stain looks to be coloured only with carmine (CI 75470) which is a natural but non-vegetarian red dye derived from beetles. Click here for US; click here for UK.
e.l.f. cosmetics also have a lip stain — Radiant Gel Lip Stain — which as you’ll see is available in three colors, but seemingly in the US only. These use azo lake colors.
They also have a number of eye makeup options which don’t include iron oxide black (CI 77499) and instead use carbon black (CI 77266) only — which is quite uncommon. CI 77266 is derived from some by-product of carbon-based combustion processes. The data on metal purity levels for carbon black are lacking, and although some health concerns have been raised about it, anecdotally it seems some women can tolerate it quite well, and given the products are often easily affordable, you may like to cautiously experiment.
So, the 3-in-1 Mascara fits the bill (click here for US; click here for UK). So does the Volumizing and Defining Mascara (click here for US; click here for UK). The Lash Extending Mascara has no iron oxides, but does have mica and titanium dioxide (click here for US; click here for UK).
There is a large selection on the e.l.f. site; you may find others, though one or two appear available in the US only.
You may be able to find black eye make-up from other brands which avoids using iron oxide black. For example, this Essence Eye Liner Pen or this By Terry Ligne Blackstar — but, as so often, there are no guarantees with regard to contaminant nickel content.
A final few words
Patch test, patch test, patch test — on your inside elbow pit, for example, applying a small amount, covering it with a band aid, and checking it 24 hours later.
Remember that some cosmetics may contain a complex blend of the coloring agents discussed above — for examples, mixes of various iron oxides and assorted azo dyes, for example, are common, as is a blend of iron oxide black and carbon black. Check all ingredients carefully, not merely the ones you’re looking for.
If you’re uncertain, ask below, and I’ll do my best to answer or source an answer.