Jewelry Materials

On the subject of shopping for jewelry, what kinds of options for materials are out there? Which ones are safe for new piercings and new stretched piercings? What do the names mean? How do you take care of and clean these materials?

First off, let’s break down jewelry into two main categories: organics, and non-organics. Organic materials are porous and are usually natural materials and cannot be autoclaved, while non-organics are man-made, non-porous and can be autoclaved.

Non-organic materials include metals, plastics and glass. We’ll go over each.

STEEL: Steel is usually the most common metal available for body jewelry. It typically comes in two forms, 316 and 316L, or sometimes 316LVM. The letters just denote the type of steel, L stands for “low carbon”. And LVM is ” low carbon, vacuum melting”, which means the vacuum melting process reduces the chances of contamination on the surface of the batch of molten steel from the air, usually meaning it makes it a more pure form of steel, with less contaminants and mixed metals. All forms of 316 steel are good, but 316L is better than just 316, and 316LVM is better than the former two, that kinda thing. This is also a good metal choice if you have metal allergies, since its nickel content is near zero. This material can also be autoclaved to be fully sterile, and can also be washed with anti-bacterial soap and warm water. Do not use any sort of alcohols or cleansers, just soap and water at most. It is not porous, is safe for new piercings as initial jewelry, and is safe to wear in newly stretched piercings.

TITANIUM: Titanium is even better than the steel forms. It contains nearly no nickel whatsoever. It can be autoclaved, is non-porous, is very safe for new piercings and new stretched piercings, and is very safe for those with metal allergies. If it gets dirty, just use soap and warm water, no chemicals or alcohol. It tends to be expensive, but is worth the money. Titanium can also be colored through as process called anodization. Basically it creates a layer of colored metal over the natural silver color of titanium. This coating is very safe for metal allergy sufferers. This coating has been known to dull or fade overtime, but I personally haven’t had any problems with that at all. And even if it does wear away, it only exposes more titanium, so it’s okay if it does.

NIOBIUM: Niobium is another great metal. Again, fully able to be autoclaved, is non-porous, and is very safe for anyone with metal allergies. As with the last two metals, just use soap and water to clean, no chemicals or alcohol. It’s one of the more expensive metals available, even more than titanium, usually, but it’s nearly pure, meaning it’s not mixed with other metals that can aggravate metal allergies. It is also pure in the sense that it’s not a man-made material, like steel is and titanium can be. Niobium can also be colored through anodization. It is the heaviest of the three main metals, which can be annoying to some people. Titanium is the lightest.

Other common metals include silver and gold. These metals aren’t as good as the others listed, since they are commonly mixed with other, potentially irritating metals like nickel.

GOLD: Only 14K and 18K gold are appropriate for body jewelry, anything more is too soft. It cannot be autoclaved, so to clean it, simply wash with anti-bacterial soap and warm water. It’s not recommended for wear in new piercings or new stretched piercings, even though some have had no problems, best to not risk it. Get gold colored titanium instead. Avoid gold plating or coating since it can wear off or flake off and irritate piercings. Gold can get dull overtime, so just buff it with a soft buffing cloth to make it shiny again. Do not use chemicals or other products to shine it.

SILVER: Silver, most commonly listed as sterling silver, is another metal that’s safe for body jewelry, but is one to look out for. Silver can contain nickel, which is the reacting metal in metal allergies, meaning when you say you’re allergic to metal you’re actually allergic to the nickel content in the metal. Silver should never be worn in new piercings or new stretched piercings. You can wear it in healed piercings, but it’s not recommended for everyday, long term wear. Save it for special days out or special events. Silver can tarnish and when worn in a new piercing, and that tarnish can be deposited into the skin causing it to stain or darken. If you’ve ever had a gun piercing, you’ve probably suffered from this dark staining. Silver is soft and is easily scratched, so again, if you want silver jewelry, save it for special occasions. If you have a nickel allergy, do not wear sterling silver since it is very commonly mixed with nickel.

PLASTICS: Plastics, usually most commonly called acrylic, are also very commonly used in body jewelry. Plastics come under many names, including acrylic, Bioflex and Bioplast, PTFE, dental acrylic, Lucite, and a new one I’d never heard of until recently, Delrin. Plastics, almost all of them, are not safe to be worn in new piercings or newly stretched piercings, though it is safe for short periods in fully healed piercings. When worn for a long time, over a long period of time, it can release toxins into the body. Dental acrylic is safe for longer term wear, especially in tongue and other oral piercings, but that’s about it. They are porous, and cannot be autoclaved, except for dental acrylic. If they get dirty, soap and water is all you need, no alcohol or chemicals. Any threading on plastic beads can be stripped if threaded too far, so be careful there. If left in heat or sunlight, the plastics can warp out of shape. Do not boil it, as many people do to clean new jewelry, because that will ruin it. Acrylic is also fragile and can break under pressure.

BIOFLEX, AND BIOPLAST: The only exception to the plastics is Bioflex or Bioplast, which is technically a brand name. It is special among the plastics, so it has special rules. It can be cut to fit most any length and threaded with any compatible metal bead. You can be pierced with it, it is safe for new piercings and new stretched piercings. It can be sterilized in an autoclave. It has also been said that those pierced with Bioplast have faster and easier healing experiences. This is not a standard, though, so be aware if you’d like to get pierced with it. I still very much recommend metals or glass to pierced with initially, but Bioplast or Bioflex are probably the best plastics out there.

PTFE: Another exception to the plastics rule is PTFE, or Polytetrafluoroethylene. It is also listed as Teflon and Monofilament nylon. It is a very safe, flexible plastic that is commonly used in surface piercings or for piercings that need extra flexibility, like pregnancy jewelry or as retainers when metal cannot be worn, like for surgeries or X-rays. It can be used for initial piercings, can be autoclaved, and only needs to be washed with soap and water.

SILICONE: Another great alternative to metal is implant grade silicone. It is safe to wear in new piercings, but NOT to stretch it. It has been done successfully, but is not worth the risk, your body could react very badly to it, as some people have been known to be allergic to silicone. It should be washed with soap and water before wearing. It can be autoclaved as well. Using a lubricant of some kind during insertion of silicone plugs or tunnels is recommend, mostly to reduce the risk of tearing the silicone. I’ve torn silicone before, it makes me very sad indeed.

GLASS: One of my favorite non-organic materials is glass. Other names for glass include Pyrex, tempered glass, and quartz glass. It is a great alternative for those who’d like to not wear metal at all. It contains no nickel at all, so it is 100% safe for those with metal allergies. It is a very sturdy material, though not as much as metals. Smaller gauges and sizes will be more fragile than larger ones, and tunnels are more fragile than solid plugs. It is tough, but is still glass, so be careful! Pyrex is also a brand name, the same brand used to make common kitchen glassware. It’s very strong, and if it does break, it tends to break in chunks rather than explode and shatter into tiny pieces. It is not porous, can be autoclaved, can be worn in new piercings or new stretched piercings, and only needs to be cleaned with, you guessed it, soap and water. The great thing about glass is it can be formed into many beautiful and intricate shapes, and comes in many beautiful colors. It’s light, smooth, and very comfortable to wear. I swear by it!

Now, on to my favorite type of jewelry, ORGANICS! There are many types of organic materials.

HORN AND BONE: These are some of my favorites among the organic family. Bone and horn are usually considered similar, if not the same material, meaning they are to be treated the same way. Most of the time it comes from water buffalos, but sometimes other animals. The website itself, or the specific jewelry listing, should say what it’s made of.

Many animal welfare organizations and followers are against animal products being used for body jewelry. I, personally, am not, so long as the entire animal has been used as best as possible. Body Art Forms, for example, only uses horn and bone from buffalo that have already been harvested, meaning they are not killed solely for their horns and bones to be turned into jewelry. If you are ever concerned about where or how a seller is acquiring their animal products, read through their website to find information, or send them a message asking directly. If they don’t answer you, to your satisfaction or at all, or you don’t like where they acquire their horn and bone, shop elsewhere.

Horn and bone are very fragile materials. They CANNOT be autoclaved or fully sterilized in any way. To clean them, I personally recommend a soft damp cloth, with maybe the smallest bit of a mild soap, and then dry the piece immediately and thoroughly. You can also just use damp or wet fingers to wash them. Do not hold under running water. After washing, rub down with a light coat of coconut or jojoba oil, do not use any wood treatment oils or protectors. They are very porous as well, so they cannot be worn in new piercings or newly stretched piercings. Do not shower, swim or participate in any water activities in horn and bone, because it can ruin them very quickly. Do not ever soak horn or bone in any liquid ever, even water. Horn and bone should be rubbed lightly with coconut or jojoba oil about once a week to keep them from cracking, as well as before insertion into a piercing. Do not sore horn and bone in direct sunlight, near extreme heat or cold, or anywhere that’s wet, like the bathroom. I use a small wooden box lined with velvet to store all of my organic jewelry. They tend to get dull overtime, so take a clean, soft polishing cloth and a drop or two of oil and that will help shine them up.

WOOD: Wood is another organic material that takes some special care. Many woods are used for jewelry, including coconut, blood wood, ebony, sabo, Arang, olivewood, verawood, among many many more. The care of wood is very similar to that of horn and bone. Wood cannot be autoclaved or fully sterilized. It is porous and cannot be worn in new piercings or newly stretched piercings. It needs to be oiled before each wear, and at least once a week as regular maintenance. Do not get wood jewelry wet, do not go swimming or showering in them. If they get dirty, use the same cleaning method for horn and bone, just a damp cloth and dry immediately, do not leave under running water, do not soak, do not use any chemicals or polishes, no alcohol, and only the smallest amount of a mild soap. Dry very thoroughly and rub down with a light coat of oil immediately afterward. Do not leave wood jewelry in direct sunlight, near extreme heat or cold, or in wet places like the bathroom. Wood can sometimes “raise up” or almost sort of warp out of shape, so if this happens you should VERY carefully sand any burs down with 800 grit sandpaper, then buff with 1200 grit sandpaper.

STONE: Another very common organic material is stone. Stone comes in many forms, including quartz, amethyst, jade, opalite, agate, obsidian, malachite, turquoise, hematite, and countless others. Stone isn’t as fragile as horn and bone or wood, but isn’t as strong as metals. I would compare them to the strength of glass jewelry, on average. Strength also depends on size, gauge and style of the jewelry, as well as the type of stone, some are just stronger or denser than others. Because there are so many types of stone, some are heavier than others as well. Most stone cannot be autoclaved or fully sterilized. Some can, but to be on the safe side, don’t have any stone jewelry autoclaved. Though not really considered porous in the way horn or bone or wood is, stone should still not be worn in new piercings or newly stretched piercings. Use soap and water to clean, and dry right away. No oil needed.

An interesting “stone” available for body jewelry is amber. Though an incredibly beautiful material, it is very rare and very expensive. Most body jewelry labeled as amber is actually synthetic, not true amber stone. Most synthetic amber is actually a type of plastic or polymer. If it looks too perfect or unblemished, it’s probably fake. Real amber is fossilized tree resin and is, in actuality, very rare and can run into the thousands of dollars depending on quality and size. Ultimately, real amber is no better or worse than fake amber, it’s more a choice based on personal preference and your budget.

Care of amber, real or fake, is pretty straight forward: no chemicals or alcohol, just soap and water to clean. It cannot be autoclaved or fully sterilized. Do not expose to extreme temperatures, do not apply excessive pressure as this can warp the material. Because of its stone-like material, do not drop amber jewelry because it can chip, crack or break altogether. Treat it as you would treat other stone jewelry.

Because this has been brought up to me several times, I’ve decided to add this part as well:


Hate to break it to you, but polymer clay, or any other type of clay is NOT safe to be worn in the ears. It’s porous, which I’ve already explained why that’s bad. They’re also nearly impossible to form into the right sizes, so all those polymer clay spirals and shapes and such you see on Etsy and Deviant Art are actually very harmful. There are chemicals in the clay, air dry and bake alike, that are toxic when worn inside the body, and wearing them in your ears IS considered inside the body. One of it’s main ingredients is PVC, also known as the most toxic form of plastic out there. A chemical called phthalates is added to polymer clay to make it pliable and soft, and this chemical has been linked to birth defects, liver and thyroid damage, and can even cause cancer. Many professionals recommend working with polymer clay only while wearing gloves, in a ventilated room, on a surface that’s cleaned frequently and properly. With something THAT potentially toxic and harmful, do you really want it leaking those awful chemicals into your body through your ears? There is never EVER a safe way to wear polymer clay in the ears. EVER.

There are also many rare, exotic or special materials. Those include petrified wood, fossilized mammoth tusk or bone, shell, rare or expensive metals, bamboo, ivory, all sorts of lovely things. If you’re unsure how to take care of these materials, either read any information the website may provide or message the website directly and ask for any specific care instructions.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Hae Kandel
    Nov 02, 2011 @ 16:19:12

    I have been surfing online more than three hours today, yet I never found any interesting article like yours. It is pretty worth enough for me. In my view, if all webmasters and bloggers made good content as you did, the net will be much more useful than ever before.


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