Nickel compounds are not permitted in cosmetics, which is reassuring if you are one of the one in eight women who have a nickel allergy.
However, trace nickel contamination is accepted to some extent 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 nickel contamination is iron oxides, used in cosmetics to impart yellow, brown, red and even black color, and 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 brief, 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.
Type 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, which is reassuring, although they were unable to give specifics regarding testing levels.
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 is non-vegan, and 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.
Type 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’, 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, boast 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.
Type 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.
There are also eyeliners. The H2O Proof Eyeliner Pen looks iron oxide free (click here for US; click here for UK). As does the Precision Liquid Eyeliner (click here for US; click here for UK).
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 (US only) or By Terry‘s Ligne Blackstar (for US, click here; for UK, click here) — but, as so often, there are no guarantees with regard to contaminant nickel content.
A few final 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.
Looking for hair dye or color? My article on Nickel Tested Hair Dye might help.
If you’re uncertain about anything here, ask below, and I’ll do my best to answer or source one for you.
I have been diagnosed with Nickle, lanolin,sodium metabisulphite and sesquiterone lactone allergy- what sunscreen and makeup products can i use ?
I can’t recommend specific products confirmed safe for that particular set of ingredients, but my view is there shouldn’t be too many problems finding make up products avoiding them. Any vegan products are lanolin-free. Sulphites will be declared in the ingredients: they’re generally used as preservatives, I think, but aren’t that common in cosmetics, in my experience. SL allergy I think means avoiding chamomile, and a few other plants? (Sorry, I don’t know much about it.) I expect most of the products mentioned in this article might be OK, but you have to check. As for sunscreen, I’m sorry but I just haven’t looked at this subject, and it would involve a lot of research. Are there products you have tried and reacted to?
I have tried soy free and carmine free eyebrow powder and my eyebrow still swelled up over my eyelid..? Could this be a nickel or mineral allergy? I tried the Anastasia brow powder duo in ebony… o haven’t worn makeup in months…
Hi Randal. It could be. Do you have the list of ingredients of the products?
Hi! My daughter has a nickel allergy but desperately wants to paint her finger nails and toe nails. They all seem to contain iron oxides. Any suggestions? Thank you!
Great question – and very challenging. Any which exist may be non-vegan as they may well use carmine. I will ask around and look into it a bit. Which country are you in, Amy? Is she choosy re: colour? Red may be be difficult, but others perhaps not.
So Rimmel London Super Gel nail Polish may be a potential option. The ingredients on their website suggest they are iron oxide-free, but on Amazon the ingredients differ, and ‘may contain’ iron oxides. But here’s the link: https://www.rimmellondon.com/en-gb/nails/nail-polishes/super-gel
Try ZOYA brand!
Thanks Ivonne. Do you know of an online site which lists all their ingredients? I’ve not been able to verify that this brand is safe. I’ve looked on the Zoya website, but the colouring agents do not appear to be declared on the list of ingredients.
Do you know to look for the Green nickel test seal? Just learned about it yesterday. Good Luck!
Never heard of that! Can you tell me more, or is there a link? Thanks.
Hello! I have an allergy to nickel. The reaction I get is swollen eyelids from makeup. I don’t get any reaction on my skin though. How do I test the makeup if my skin/body doesn’t react to the patch test under my elbow with the bandaid? Thank you in advance for your help.
Sorry, for delay. I’ve been on holiday. I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to this. Have you tried an eczema charity in the country you’re based in? I suspect they will have a recommendation. Have you tried behind the ear, perhaps?
I have the same issue! Do you have any recommendations? Thanks 🙂
I want nickel free lipstick and nickel free beauty products … Pls hlp me out.
Where are you based, Sakshi?
Could you please recommend makeup brands here in the US that do not have nickel?
There are several mentioned in the article. If you’re looking for something specific, let me know, and I’ll do my best.
I have nickel allergi, Can anybody answer me about which foundation should i use for?
Which country are you in, Hina?
Hi, My sister having black patches on her eyebrows and lips, could this be a nickel allergy. Which lipstick and hair colour should her use. (From India)
I doubt this is a nickel allergy, Neha.
Is there any mascara’s you can suggest that are available in Australia? I’ve tried countless and always seem to react, but we can’t get options like NATOrigin or IDUN here. I’ve had my nickel allergy for over 10 years and was always fine with makeup, but the last 4 years I have start reacting to every mascara or eyeshadow I wear. Is this my nickel allergy getting worse or another possible allergen? I’ve just tried so many mascaras that makes me think it is the nickel. I’ve been patch tested since and the only additional allergy is methylisothiazolinone, but all the products ive tried do not contain this and I still react 🙁 We can get 100% pure here but I did find that quite irritating too, I think from all the botanicals in it. Any suggestions welcome. Thank you!
Hi El. Sorry you’ve struggled. When I researched the piece I did consider options worldwide but there was nothing specifically Australian (or NZ) that I came across. I’ll try again, and share the request on social media to see whether anybody has suggestions. For info, I also run the http://www.mi-free.com website about methylisothiazolinone allergy, but you shouldn’t find this in ‘leave on’ products in Australia any longer, I don’t think, so make-up should be fine there. It is possible that you’ve developed new sensitivities but it’s also possible that you just have eyes sensitive to the application of anything so close to this delicate area. Might be an idea to have a long ‘break’ from trying anything before tentatively trying anything new you might find. I’ll see if I can find any possibles in the meantime. Best wishes, Alex.
Thank you! Oh yes, I know that website too 🙂 Unfortunately MI is still allowed in leave-in products in Australia,Lust Minerals is a big brand that uses it in their foundations. It also doesn’t need to be on the label under 1% which further complicates things! I did find this mascara in my search, looks like it just uses Black two so might be worth a try? It’s called Eye of Horus Goddess Black Mascara.
Oh sorry – you’re right. I was mis-remembering re: Australia. I didn’t know about the 1% rule which is shocking. Are you sure that’s not non-cosmetics such as detergents / paints? I need to look into this.
Anyway, I just looked up Eye of Horus Goddess Black Mascara on a UK site and it looks good – you’re right, it just has Black 2. And given it’s for sale in the UK, where MI in mascara is not permitted, it should be fine, and looks to be preserved with phenoxyethanol, anyway. (NB: Their “Lash Lift Mascara” does have iron oxide black.)
Let me know how you get on with it if you try it, and I’ll add it to the lists.
I’m trying to use the allergy certified website but i dont seem to be having any luck ‘searching’ for products(i cant find a search bar ).
Also, Idun, Nilens Jord & Sanstone brands… i cant seem to see anywhere on there website that states they’re absent or low in nickel. Do you know if they are still safe to use? and if so, is it all products on their website? I have a new nickel allergy so im finding life very hard!
Thanks in advance 🙂
Hi Jessica. They seem to have removed that feature as I can’t find it either. I’ll have to send them a message to see what is happening. Best wishes, alex.
Thank you for the info. One question I have is, even after going to the websites listed above, such as NatOrigin who say they can be considered ‘nickel free’, still have iron oxides listed in their ingredients list. Is this safe to use? is there some clause where they have to state ‘may contain…iron oxides’? all of these products do not have any iron oxides in their ingredients list, only in the ‘may contain’ section. My thought is they legally have to state it ‘may contain’ these products due to ‘down the line contamination’ but do not actively use them in the product.
Hi Kirsten. The ‘may contain’ situation in cosmetics is different to that in food (in case you’re thinking in food terms). With cosmetics, as in the case of make-up, ‘may contain’ (or the +/- symbol) means that the product will contain some (but perhaps not all) of the ingredients. This is done to make it easier to label when there are dozens and dozens of colours with slightly different ingredients (eg various shades of lipstick or whatever). Rather than change the ingredients each time, they just list all the colouring pigments that are used across the whole range as ‘possible’ ingredients. In practice, they are ‘probable’ ingredients ….
Iron oxides will definitely be in, for example, NATorigin mascara, but as they say they’re nickel tested, what they probably have done is source purified iron oxide which is free or almost free of nickel. Not all make up brands do this, as it’s more expensive.
But there are never any guarantees with this, as it depends on your sensitivity. Drop them a line, perhaps. They’re a nice team. Ultimately you may just have to give them a go to find out whether you tolerate them.
Good luck, Alex.