I have a LOT of earrings, some of them decades old. In the 27 years I’ve had pierced ears, I’ve collected more than I’ve thrown away. For a while, in my 20s, earrings were the only jewelry I wore. In the last year, however, I haven’t worn any of them.
It all started a few years ago with the cheapest earrings; the ones I bought from crafters and street vendors. I’d put them in and by the end of the day my ears would be a hot, itchy mess. So I’d wait a few days, swab them with alcohol or peroxide and put them in again. Things would be fine for a few hours before the burning started. So those got thrown in a drawer.
Slowly, other earrings followed them into the drawer. When I had my son a few years ago, I stopped wearing earrings altogether for a while because babies and earrings don’t mix. By the time he was old enough not to be grabby, I’d given up. Why bother even trying to put on a pair of earrings if my ears are going to feel awful within the hour?
Turns out, sensitive ears are a common problem, and in many cases are caused by base metals in the jewelry. A lot of people are allergic to nickel, brass, and copper. I don’t exactly what my specific problem is, and I will probably never know exactly unless I get tested by a doctor. (I choose to believe this is just part of the slow, inevitable process of my body rejecting the world as I grow old and die, but that’s just me.)
I miss my earrings. I want to wear the cute geeky jewelry I see on Her Universe. (It’s killing me to miss out on the Guardians of the Galaxy cassette studs.) So I read a bunch of message boards, watched a lot of beauty Youtubers, and went on a quest to try every trick I could in order to wear my earrings again.
Here’s what I tried, and here’s what worked (for me. Your mileage may vary):
• Only wear the good stuff: My mother also has sensitive ears, and she can only wear gold and silver. So I dug out my fine jewelry and tried them on, one a day. Well. It turns out some of my jewelry isn’t quite as fine as I thought it was. My sterling silver bothered me immediately. My old pearls (which I thought had gold posts) are a recipe for instant deep hurting. My gold (full disclosure: I don’t know how many karats I’m working with here – these earrings are old) worked better. I had one pair in for about an hour, but then the burning started. Another pair, however, stayed in all day with no problem, and that was kind of cool. But there is one more issue: I don’t like gold jewelry, and my fine jewelry bores me. I like the cheap stuff. It’s more my aesthetic. And geeky cheap stuff is easier to find than geeky fine jewelry. And, well. It’s cheap, which is a bonus.
The verdict: 14K and higher gold is a winner if you like gold and don’t mind spending money on it.
• Wear ear cuffs instead: Last year I started wearing ear cuffs to get my dangly ear jewelry fix while avoiding pain. (Clip-ons and screw-backs bother me, too.) I love my ear cuffs, but they’re not earrings. For one thing, they fall off easily; I wore an ear cuff to a show recently and eventually had to just take it off. For another, I wear glasses and it’s hard to wear an ear cuff with glasses. So I do like them, but they are their own thing, and they aren’t really a replacement for earrings.
The verdict: Ear cuffs are ear cuffs, not earrings.
• Use vaseline on problem earrings: Here’s the trick: you peroxide your earrings then coat them with Vaseline, put them in and wait. Seemed like an easy solution that would let me wear my existing earrings without replacing the hooks on everything. So I pulled out a pair of pterodactyl earrings my husband’s aunt gave me and liberally smeared the hooks with Vaseline. (Easier said than done, by the way.)
The verdict: I happily wore my dinosaur earrings for five minutes before my ears started hurting. So much for that trick.
• Use Neosporin: This is exactly like the Vaseline trick, but without the peroxide step and using Neosporin instead of Vaseline. Okay. This seemed sensible to me. I use Neosporin for everything. So I slathered the hooks of my favorite cheap earrings with Neosporin and popped those suckers in. I slathered my earlobes too, just to be safe.
The verdict: OW. It didn’t work. The burning began almost immediately.
• Clear nail polish: “Put clear nail polish on it” is one of the most oft-given earring advice on the internet. A lot of beauty Youtubers swear by coating problem earrings in clear nail polish, I’ve even seen some piercers recommend it. I didn’t want to do this one. Putting nail polish (a product which, depending on the manufacturer, contains toxic ingredients) on something that’s going through a sensitive, prone-to-allergic-reaction part of my body seemed like a bad idea. But here’s the thing. While there are products on the market that look like clear nail polish and are designed specifically to coat jewelry, most people who wear earrings probably are more likely to have access to clear nail polish than a container of Jewelry Shield. Especially people with limited funds or access to stores. And look, I get it. As a teenager I did plenty of stupid, unhygienic things in the name of beauty. I shared mascaras, used a No. 2 pencil to fix my braces, used someone else’s lipstick as an eyeshadow, and used a Bic pen as makeup. (DON’T DO THESE THINGS.) So because this is such a popular trick, I painted a pair of earrings I don’t love with clear polish and let them sit overnight.
The verdict: This caused me instant pain. I thought that maybe it was because I put the earrings in right after the Vaseline trick, so I waited and tried again later in the day and it hurt. Also, more alarmingly, some of the polish seemed to have rubbed off as soon as I put the earrings in. I even tried different clear polish with the same result. So, speaking as both a geek and a mom, please, kids, don’t do this. Or at least go get some nontoxic nail polish.
• Jewelry Shield or other jewelry coatings: This product, which looks just like clear nail polish (different ingredients, though) is under $10 and available online. I put mine on a pair of silver studs and wore them for hours. Then one ear really began to bother me. The other wasn’t terribly happy, but it was bearable. Finally, I could not take it anymore with the left ear.
The verdict: You have to order it, it’s a pain to put on, and you’ll need a couple coats, but it’s better than the nail polish.
• Hypoallergenic (steel) earrings: Time to solve this problem with steel. But not in the high fantasy way. I’m talking about surgical, or stainless, steel. If it works for surgery, it should work in my earlobes, right? In order to do this, I went to a craft store, bought a bunch of surgical steel hooks, and replaced the hooks on my pterodactyl earrings. I wore them all day, and one ear still bugged me. By now, I’m thinking I’m dealing with two issues: a metal sensitivity and an ear that healed up wrong at some point.
The verdict: Cheap and effective, but you will have to learn some jewelry repair skills, and you may also want to pick up jewelry repair pliers. In my case, the up-front investment of about $16 (hooks and jewelry repair kit) has been worth it.
• When all else fails, consult an expert: My ears were pierced as a coming-of-age present when I turned 13, and they were done with a piercing gun. It may be time to call in the calvary, and make an appointment with a local body piercer — someone who works with needles — to ask a little advice and possibly get my ears redone. I’m having another milestone birthday this year, turning 40. It seems fitting that I should get my ears re-pierced now.