In today’s gadget-obsessed society, flip phones are often derided as being clunky and old-fashioned.
People with older phones who can do without the latest features may now have a better reason to consider upgrading: According to new research, flip phones are more likely than newer touch-screen models to contain nickel, a metal that can trigger an eczema-like rash in some people.
Allergists and dermatologists first noticed phone-related skin problems about 10 years ago, when patients began trickling into their offices with patches of dry, itchy, red, or swollen skin along their cheekbones, jawlines, and ears. These rashes, the doctors soon figured out, tended to clear up on their own if the patients stopped using a cell phone.
Numerous case reports have since linked cell phones to nickel allergy, which affects an estimated 17% of women and 3% of men. Skin problems associated with the allergy are usually triggered by earrings and other jewelry (which likely explains the higher rate in women), as well as by watchbands, belt buckles, dental fillings, and makeup.
To determine whether some phones might be more aggravating than others, researchers at the Winthrop-University Hospital, in Mineola, N.Y., tested a total of 72 phones spanning five brands and 16 different models. The researchers swabbed the exterior of each phone with a special nickel-detecting solution in at least five places, such as the keypad and speakers.
Not one of the iPhone or Droid models tested positive for nickel, whereas the metal was found on roughly 90% of flip phones. Cobalt, another metal that can trigger allergies, also was more common on flip phones, though it was less prevalent than nickel overall.
Nickel isn’t always to blame for skin issues, Graf adds. In some cases, she says, long hours on the phone can cause rash-like symptoms stemming from skin irritation or clogged pores.
Cell phone users who suspect they might be experiencing a nickel allergy should see their doctor – and if necessary an allergist — for proper testing and diagnosis, Fonacier says. Simple remedies such as choosing a different phone, using a wireless earpiece, or buying a plastic case for an existing phone may be enough to prevent nickel-related rashes, she says.