Tricky Nickel: How I Finally Found My Most Elusive Trigger

My Journey

By Christy Cushing

Published On: Jan 3, 2022

Last Updated On: May 13, 2024

On a hot summer Friday back in July 2009, I waited patiently in my dermatologist’s office for the results of my skin patch test. I needed to know what was causing the severe atopic dermatitis on my face and neck.

Trying to find the new cause of the flares

Having lived with eczema my entire life, I was no stranger to flareups. Growing up and living in the mountainous desert of Salt Lake City, Utah, the extreme winter and summer climate constantly dried out my skin. As a 10-year-old child, I remember lathering my hands with an absurd amount of Vaseline before placing them in blue cotton gloves every night. That’s when I also started clipping and filing my nails short every week to limit the impact of my scratching.

In my early twenties, I conformed to conventional healthy standards of diet and exercise by becoming a vegetarian and running half marathons. For nearly 10 years, my diet primarily included oats, beans, leafy greens, nuts and whole grains. I thought I was setting myself up for success by putting my health first.

But in 2008, the stock market crashed to one of its lowest points in U.S. history. I had just started a new stressful job and within a few weeks after the stock market crash, my company informed us they would be laying off a member of our team. As the newest member of the team, I worked harder than normal to try to prove myself. My sleep suffered and the toxic pressure caused my eczema to rage out of control.

Stress-induced flaring and severe eczema

My dermatologist suggested that I eliminate all fragrances, including those in my shampoo, lotions and laundry detergent. That change improved my eczema symptoms by about 50% within a couple weeks. However, I continued to experience severe eczema all over my face, including my eyelids, around my lips and along my neck.

Next up, we tried skin patch testing. The test started on a Monday when a nurse applied over 127 potential allergens within little squares all over my back. She told me not to cleanse or scratch my back, as both actions could compromise the results.

At my follow-up appointment, the nurse noted a couple red spots appearing in the boxes on my back. After reviewing the results, my dermatologist identified that I was allergic to neomycin, thimerosal and nickel. While acknowledging that I don’t wear jewelry or makeup, my dermatologist suggested I try an elimination diet called the Low Nickel Diet for four to six weeks.

Working to eliminate all the potential allergens

Foods containing higher amounts of nickel include: soy, leafy greens, sprouts, peas, leeks, beans, soy, pineapple, raspberry, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, marzipan, nuts, chocolate, bran, oats, millet, whole grains, whole wheat, unpolished brown rice, lentils, shellfish and more. When I received the list of high-nickel foods, I felt so overwhelmed: it was all the food that I regularly ate.

My amazing and supportive spouse, Stevie, took the list and began creating a new list that included all the foods I could still eat that were also lower in nickel. Since soy is found in practically all processed foods, Stevie began cooking all of our meals from scratch and reading the ingredient labels for all processed foods. After a month of strictly avoiding higher nickel foods my eczema symptoms nearly disappeared.

A naturally-occurring heavy metal, nickel is found everywhere. Nickel is in our air, soil and water. Some foods absorb and retain more or less nickel depending on how and where the foods are grown. Also, the majority of all stainless steel contains nickel. We stopped eating canned goods. After learning that nickel from stainless steel cookware can leach into our food when heated, we slowly replaced all of our cookware with cast iron, glass and ceramic options.

The eczema around my lips improved immediately when I stopped using cheap utensils and metal coffee mugs. Our silverware is stainless steel 18/0, which means 18% chromium, 0% nickel, whereas the most common stainless steel silverware is 18/10 and the 10 is 10% nickel. Over the years, caring for myself has been one of the greatest things I’ve done for my eczema.

Previously I had ignored my eczema, hid behind my glasses or covered up my flare-ups with clothing. Now my skincare routine involves regularly moisturizing and paying attention to my skin. I try to get seven to eight hours of sleep and stay hydrated throughout the day. I am also so grateful for my spouse Stevie’s love and support. His kindness reminds me to not judge my skin when I experience an active flare-up. I accept that I live with chronic eczema and that I need to take the time to care for my skin and my needs.

Visibility is powerful. My father and grandmother both lived with eczema. I watched them struggle with itch, inflamed skin, dandruff and hay fever just like me. We often gathered together to play cards and board games. But I don’t ever recall us talking about our eczema. I wish I could have learned from them about the skincare practices they recommended or avoided.

At the encouragement of Stevie, in 2013, I started sharing my experience on my own website. I love connecting and learning from others who also live with eczema and nickel allergies.

Christy Cushing is a NEA Ambassador who shares tips on how to live low nickel with stories, reviews and recipes on her website Learn more and join NEA Ambassadors.

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