Many people are familiar with latex and nickel allergies, but even certain types of plastic have been known to cause contact reactions for people with sensitivities. For these people, even brushing against the material to which they are allergic can cause a reaction, ranging from a painful, discolored rash and swelling to blisters and open sores that are vulnerable to infection. Sometimes even a layer of clothing isn’t enough to prevent a reaction; cases have been triggered by nickel-based keys in a pants pocket, or decorative studs on the outside of clothing. The only sure way to avoid a reaction is to completely avoid contact with the problematic material, but this can be very hard to do–potentially allergenic materials are frequently found in everything from jewelry to eyeglass frames.
Hospitals Set the Standard
For hospitals and other healthcare settings, the stakes are especially high. Not all patients can communicate their medical history, and some people may not be aware of their allergies to begin with. With so many instruments and materials that a patient may encounter, using these allergenic materials would create a serious risk that something might cause a reaction. Given patients’ underlying health conditions, this could be quite dangerous, or at the very least uncomfortable. To minimize the risk for their patients, as well as for their staff members, hospitals have worked to eliminate these potential allergens, opting instead for safer alternative materials.
Finding Alternative Materials
While latex gloves have been largely replaced with nitrile, and titanium and surgical steel instruments minimize the likelihood that a patient will encounter nickel, plastics remain virtually everywhere in modern medicine. From surgical gloves to sutures, it’s hard to imagine a plastic-free hospital visit. Though most plastics are unlikely to cause a reaction, there are a few types that stand out from the crowd when it comes to hypoallergenic characteristics. Polypropylene, nylon, and acrylic are among the most commonly used hypoallergenic plastics in medicine. Polypropylene and nylon are even used to make suture thread; since this material not only remains in contact with the skin for an extended period of time, but actually makes contact with deeper layers of tissue, a hypoallergenic material was especially important.
Applications Beyond Healthcare
Other companies are starting to learn from the example set by hospitals. Blomdahl USA, a company that makes hypoallergenic jewelry, offers earrings, necklaces, and bracelets made from medical grade hypoallergenic materials, including FDA-approved surgical titanium. They also produce hardened versions of the same plastics used in sutures to make earrings that are 100% metal free and safe for people with even severe allergies to nickel and other metals commonly found in alloys. Companies that make eyeglass frames, watches, and other items that have prolonged contact with the skin are beginning to follow suit.
Though contact allergies are not usually life-threatening, they can be very painful and, thanks to the common use of allergenic materials, difficult to manage. As awareness grows about the issue, however, it is becoming more common for alternative, hypoallergenic options to be available. For now, people with sensitivities often must seek out these hypoallergenic alternatives through specialty shops and online catalogs, but perhaps, as in healthcare settings, these options will eventually be more commonplace than their troublesome allergenic counterparts.