As the piercing industry moves into the future, we are constantly looking for the best, most biocompatible materials to manufacture and use in body jewellery. So, why have we settled on Titanium as the best metal? And what pitfalls are there when looking for safe titanium jewellery?
The History of Titanium
Titanium, known by the chemical symbol Ti, was first discovered in Cornwall in 1791 by minerologist William Gregor. Named for the Titans of Greek mythos, the element is found in almost all living things. Titanium has wide-reaching uses, from aerospace engineering right down to the Titanium Dioxide compounds found in sunscreen and makeup products. The element is known for it’s high level of corrosion resistance, and its incredibly high strength to weight ratio which is the highest of all the metallic elements. This lightweight, strong metal is therefore a prime candidate for biomedical implantation.
It was not until the 1950s that Titanium implants were first manufactured into medical or surgical implants however. First introduced into dental implants in the 40s, it would take another decade to reach internal implantation. It is now by far and away the most common material used in all kinds of prosthetics, bone conduction hearing aids, spinal fusion cages and joint replacement implants.
The terms ‘Biocompatible’ and ‘Body Safe’ are commonly bandied around within piercing. Just look on low-grade jewellery websites and you will see everything from Silver to Gold to ‘Surgical Steel’ sold with as a “biocompatible” material. Biocompatibility is an intentionally ambiguous term – It has no defined meaning. We will be using the term biocompatible to specifically designate certain materials as safe to implant following years of rigorous chemical, animal, and clinical testing following strict ISO 10993 regulations. Unless there is evidence to prove that the material meets these standards, then ‘biocompatible,’ or ‘body safe’ is a completely meaningless term.
The properties of Titanium that allow it to be a ‘biocompatible’ material are its corrosion resistance, surface texture, steric hindrance, and hydrophobicity that allow the metal to result in an ideal, low-grade cellular response. The main reason that Titanium-based alloys are commonly used in body jewellery is that Titanium is highly corrosion resistant and non-toxic. The most commonly used Titanium alloy is ASTM F-136 Titanium, which is made in using a very stringent safety protocol and is alloyed with 6% Aluminium, and 4% Vanadium. This is why you might see some jewellery brands talking about TiAl6V4 – That is a specific alloy!
So, where does the term ‘implant-grade’ come into things? Implant-grade is, again, a very specialised term that has been co-opted. These days it is more often used as a sales buzzword by disreputable brands as they know it is something that more educated customers will be looking for. As much as we wish it was as easy as googling ‘implant-grade Titaniun’ and being able to trust that what you buy is going to be safe, the vast majority of Titanium body jewellery on the market is unverifiable and does not meet any grade of safety. We need to look at what ‘implant-grade’ actually means, and how a material can get to that point!
‘Implant Grade’ is a coverall term for any materials that meet certain ASTM designations. There are multiple implant-grade ASTM designations, including (from most to least common): ASTM F-136, ASTM F-1295, and F-67. There is also an implant grade designation for Steel, which is ASTM F-138.
The ASTM (American Society for the Testing and Materials) is an international standards organisation that (as only a part of its work) ensures that any materials that are to be used in surgical implants meet specific standards of safety. The ASTM scope covers the chemical, mechanical and metallurgical requirements of the material and ensures that it is safe to be put inside the human body. This standard is almost like a recipe – How the Titanium is alloyed, heated and cooled, how it is stored and how it can be further processed into useable items. This standard (which is many pages long!) is what the Titanium manufacturers must meet in order to sell their metals as ASTM F-136 or otherwise compliant. As you can imagine, this can be quite an expensive process. This means that any ASTM F-136 Titanium brought to market will be considerably more expensive that non-ASTM F-136. For some jewellery manufacturers, it is simply cheaper and more profitable to purchase unverified Titanium and manufacture jewellery from it than it is to purchase safe materials. When your customers are only looking for the word Titanium, and aren’t checking the ASTM or ISO standards of it, then why would you bother? In some cases, jewellery manufacturers or Titanium manufacturers will even go as far as to falsify this documentation – This has happened before! This means that the jewellery market is awash with ‘Titanium’ that may be marketed to clients as safe to wear, when it is anything but.
Some jewellery manufacturers will choose not to use ASTM F-136, and instead use other grades of Titanium. A commonly seen grade is G23 – This alloy is (confusingly) also TiAl6V4! G23 Titanium, otherwise known as ASTM B-348 GR23, is not an implant-grade metal, and is not a safe substitute for ASTM F-136. G23 Titanium has only been designated for use in commercial, industrial and engineering purposes. In other words, this Titanium grade belongs in aeroplanes and space ships – Not the human body! G23 is actually an overarching category that does include ASTM F-136 Titanium, which is a much refined and more heavily tested sub-version. As you can see, the world of safety testing is very confusing and this is part of the reason why certain jewellery companies can get away with misleading their customers.
What Is Not Safe?
There are many different metals used to manufacture body jewellery. In fact, many disreputable brands may even use Titanium and market themselves as biocompatible or implant grade. Some jewellery brands will use buzzwords such as ‘Surgical,’ ‘Stainless,’ or ‘Hypoallergenic’ to market unsafe metals such as low-grade steel, Silver, or other materials such as plastic.
- Unverified Titanium – Unless your jewellery manufacturer can provide adequate paperwork to prove the grade and safety of their jewellery, you must assume that the jewellery is not safe to wear. The easiest way to find safe jewellery is to purchase reputable brands through high quality piercing studios. Why take the risk with the only body you’ll ever have?
- Surgical or Stainless Steel – Surgical steel simply refers to any steel grades that can be used in a medical context. Often these are basic items such as tools, haemostatic forceps or scalpel handles. As you can imagine, this covers hundreds of grades and alloys of steel. Some steel alloys are safe to implant, such as ASTM F-138 compliant stainless steel, however you should assume that if there is no safety designation then the metal is not safe to wear. Most cheap, low-grade body jewellery is marketed as surgical steel.
- Silver – Silver, despite it’s historical reputation as being good for ‘sensitive skin,’ Silver is a very reactive metal that is easily corroded by moisture and the pH level of the skin. It can also turn black over time, and tattoo the skin around the jewellery black in a process called Argyrosis. Silver is also a common cause of contact dermatitis and other Type 1 Allergies.
- ‘Bioplast’ or ‘Bioflex’ – These are the most common plastics sold for piercing use. Again, this is marketed using that lovely ‘biocompatible’ buzzword, without any of the strict medical testing or paperwork to back it up. Yes, there are implant-grade plastics available, however as of 2023, there are no safe plastics widely accessible and available for use in body jewellery. Any brand or studio stocking plastic or acrylic jewellery can be immediately discounted as disreputable and unsafe.
If you would like to take a further look into what to look out for in terms of safe jewellery, you can read this blog!
The takeaway is not the most optimistic, I’m sorry to admit! For every good jewellery company that puts the time, effort and investment into manufacturing top-quality jewellery, there are ten times as many low-quality companies willing to risk your health to make a quick buck. It’s important to take your time, and do your research. The best way to purchase safe jewellery is through your local trusted high-quality piercing studio. This way, not only are you guaranteed a high-quality item, but you can also rely on their skills and expertise to ensure you are getting the right size, style and fit for you. There is no such thing as one-size fits-all jewellery!
The most important thing to note is that good quality jewellery is not cheap, and cheap jewellery is not safe! If something looks too good to be true, it often is. In the current economy, you can expect to pay a minimum of £25-£40 per item for safe, high-quality jewellery from a verified company. Investing in yourself and your body is very much a worthwhile endeavour. You only get one body at the end of the day. Why take risks with the only home you’ll ever have?
If you would like help upgrading your existing piercings, you can always book in for a piercing consultation with a member of our expert team. We can guide you through the whole process, making it quick and easy to get yourself to a comfortable, safe jewellery collection in no time! Choosing new jewellery might feel overwhelming if you try and do it alone. Working with a high quality piercing studio makes it so much easier to get exactly what you’re looking for.
Browse the gallery to get some inspiration on what you can do with beautiful, verified safe Titanium jewellery!
Safe Body Jewellery Brands
As previously stated, the best way to guarantee a safe piece of jewellery is to purchase from safe, reputable brands. The below list is not an exhaustive list, but an excellent place to get started if you’re looking to get to a base level with your jewellery collection.
- Industrial Strength
- Inari Organics
- Infinite Body Jewelry
- Body Circle
- Divinity Metals
- Canasteel Body Jewelry