Nickel Allergy: Cell Phones and Facial Acute Contact Dermatitis (ACD)


In 2008, the Canadian Medical Association Journal reported an incidence of a young man who developed acute contact dermatitis rash (ACD) on the right side of his face. He suspected the rash was caused from contact with the handset of his cell phone. The young man tested negative to sensitivity with other metals but did have a strongly positive patch test reaction to nickel. The cell phone tested positive for nickel on the headset which had come in contact with his face. He switched to a cell phone that did not test positive for nickel and the ACD cleared up. He returned to using his old phone and the rash reappeared.

Nickel allergies can occur if a person has had a single or repeated exposure to items containing nickel. According to a 2004 study, nickel sulfate is the number one most common allergen people are allergic to. An ACD rash can appear within 12-24 hours after exposure to the offending nickel contained item and can last up to 2-4 weeks. Women are typically more susceptible to nickel allergies because it is commonly used in jewelry, especially pierced earrings. It is estimated that 10-30% of the population are susceptible to nickel allergies depending upon which source is quoted.

Nickel is used in a surprisingly high number of day to day products such as belt buckles, watches, coins, door knobs and even paperclips. Often people can have a reaction to nickel this is so mild, that the nickel allergy is not suspected or easy to discern. However, continued exposure can create larger and longer reactions leading one to have the rash evaluated by a doctor.

Nickel content can be tested in any suspected metal by using a test kit that contains solutions of dimethylglyoxime and ammonium hydroxide. AllerTest Ni Nickel Detection Kit is one type of kit that can be purchased inexpensively from Amazon or dermadoctor.com. If an object contains nickel, then the solutions, when mixed together, will turn pink when rubbed onto the nickel metal in the object.

In a follow up study, to the report of the young man with the facial ACD, 22 cell phones were tested to see how prevalent nickel was on currently available cell phones. Approximately half of them tested positive for free nickel either on the keys, decorative logos or the frame around the LCD display. Phones that were more decorative versus the more rugged types were the ones that tested positive more frequently for nickel.

In October 2008, the British Association of Dermatologists sent out an alert to warn people and physicians of potential nickel allergy outbreaks after a number of cases of facial rashes appeared in Britain and were also reported in other countries connected to frequent cell phone use. Curious about the cell phone nickel content in Denmark, Danish researchers tested 41 cell phones and found that 8 or almost 20% of the phones tested positive for nickel.

Cell phone use has grown considerably in many countries and manufacturers need to be made aware of the potential allergic susceptibility that users may have to the cell phone components. Until then, anyone who already has had a nickel allergic response to jewelry or other products should be careful with their cell phone purchases and consider testing the metal prior to purchasing the phone.

By susan