"I'm allergic to my iPhone"

My friend Jake is allergic to his iPhone. When he came to visit from Tokyo last week, I wondered why he was wearing biker gloves and why his iPhone and laptop were fully encased in rubber. When I asked him about it, this is what he said:
jakshand.jpgIt started one weekend in the middle of January. I had been writing on my 17-inch Macbook Pro for about three hours straight when I noticed my palms started to sting. They were bright red, and and a rash had developed from my palms down to parts of my wrist; the webs between my fingers were also swelling up. It didn't itch — it just felt strange, sort of numb, stung a little, and I actually thought I'd gotten a third-degree, low-heat burn from the laptop. 

A few days later, I noticed that whenever I held my iPhone, my fingers would sting and get red. I started to get red spots on my wrist. By the end of January, the bottom of my feet were constantly inflamed and red as well. It took me a while to realize that it was actually my metal alloy bath tub* that was causing that. Now I have to wear socks to soak in it.

At first I got diagnosed with shingles. When they saw that it was also on my hands and feet, they thought I had syphilis. Metal allergies are developed. Once your body decides it's allergic, it stays allergic. Some brands of canned coffee in Japan will make my lips puff up as well. If I really have too much metal exposure in a day, my whole body breaks out in a red rash. I can't wear a watch. I carry wooden chopsticks. 

It seems like Mac products and whatever alloys are in them is the worst. My "naked" iPhone feels like it is burning my hand when I hold it. As a writer, it's slightly ironic that the tools of my trade — my MacBook Pro and iPhone — are actually poison.

I feel like a low-rent werewolf. You don't need an expensive silver bullet to wound me. An iPhone will do the trick. Or a nickel alloy spoon. I'm like Superman in a kryptonite world, except I don't get any bonus super powers.

*metal bathtubs are quite common in Japan, where Jake lives.

It's likely that Jake has mobile phone dermatitis or metal contact dermatitis, allergic reactions supposedly developed after long contact to the nickel in modern gadgets. A report published this month in the Dermatology Online Journal concludes that "cell phone allergic contact dermatitis is an emerging problem and should be considered in the differential diagnosis for unilateral ear and/or face dermatitis."


  1. My family has a genetic predisposition for this condition — both my sisters and my mother react to metal (stainless steel mostly, the offender is supposedly nickel)

    I can wear a metal-backed watch or similar for a day or two, but by the end of the week I have a rash. I once worked in fast food, but had to quit because of the stainless-steel work surfaces.

    It is quite common. If Jake minimises his exposure on a daily basis, he should (after a while) be able to tolerate a fleeting contact with no ill-effect.

  2. Not to worry, sometimes this happens as the borg becomes fully integrated with your body. You will be assimilated soon, and the problem will not reoccur.

  3. I actually have had a similar sort of issue with ipods… my fingers would break out in some sort of itchy little boils… They went away over time, but it was directly connected to a new iPod or iPhone as they only reappeared only after the new purchase… maybe it was money burning in my hands syndrome, or perhaps it’s some kind of bacteria or reaction to a cleaning chemical or perhaps little microscopic pieces of something are getting in my skin… I don’t know!

    1. Oh and I also should add, I had suspected it had something to do with the pieces of metal, especially near the seams, because the places where I had these little boils were places where my skin was touching the phone- which happened to be at the seams where the metal meets the plastic…

  4. Jake – what you seem to be experiencing is a systemic reaction, and the rash you have on the hands and feet is classic hives. The actual cause of the hives is one of the most difficult medical conditions to figure out, as the body’s reactions are incredibly complex. It is best not to try to figure out a cause, but simply treat the condition. I suffered many years of hives just like yours on the hands and feet, sometimes my chest and face too. What eventually cured me was very high doses (doctor prescribed) of fexofenadine, a powerful antihistamine (non-drowsy). Other than slightly raising my blood pressure and heart rate, there were no other side effects. I also carry with me a full course of prednisone in case I get a severe allergic reaction that doesn’t respond quickly enough with the fexofenadine. Prednisone does have side effects and cannot be taken continuously. But when I do need it, it completely turns off any allergic reactions. Good luck!

  5. MacBook Pros are notorious for ‘hot’ cases. That is to say cases which shock you when you touch them. When I was repairing macs we had a lot of people bring in Macbook Pros complaining of unpleasant buzzing sensations in their hands and wrists. Some described the sensation as burning, others as sharp pinpricks. The solution was to stick a piece of paper between the top case and the top of the logic board. This seemed to do the trick of insulating the metal of the top case from whatever charged contact on the logic board it was touching. Not exactly related to metal allergies, but related to Apple products that hurt you.

  6. I know someone with a nickel allergy, and it is sometimes a royal pain for her. She has to be careful what jewelry she buys, and has to coat the insides of metal snaps, rivets, etc. in her clothes with clear nail polish to avoid them contacting her skin.

    The worst though is that the reaction isn’t always immediate. Sometimes she’ll be in contact with something with nickel in it with no issue. Then a day or two later some other allergen (pollen, dust, etc.) will trigger a histamine reaction and the spot that was in contact with nickel will get inflamed and itchy as well.

    1. My nickel allergy works like your friend’s. My parents noticed it when I was very young when the snaps on my footie pajamas gave me tiny round rashes. The rash takes a while to develop, so it doesn’t bother me in the course of my daily life. It just means I have to wear a watch with a leather or strap that goes across the back and I have to be very particular in my choice of jewelery. The clear nail polish is always handy in case I need it.

      All that said, everyone I’ve ever met with this allergy has had it function the same way. The rapid, extreme reactions in this article are crazy! The only violent reaction I’ve ever had was when I got a stainless steel splinter in my hand about 10 years ago. The allergic reaction inside my skin triggered a bout of superinfected eczema that took years to totally clear up.

  7. I may have a solution for your phone. On cars, there is a clear urethane film they use behind wheels and other places to prevent stone chips. It comes in pre-form shapes and sheets and has an adhesive back. It is crystal clear and can barely be spotted. I use it on my watch crystals to prevent scratches. Even my jeweler didn’t spot it when he worked on the watch. You can cut a narrow piece with scissors to cover the metal, it should not affect the phone or antenna. You may need to razor out spots for switches, etc.. but it will keep the metal from your hand. Check with an autobody supplier for this material.

  8. I had the same problem with my Macbook Pro, which got worse over the four years I used it in grad school. I also got a strange black pitting all over the main surface of the computer, despite being very careful to never wear a watch or jewelry or anything that might scratch the case. Somewhere I read some speculation that these two issues were frequently related, but I solved both problems by buying a plastic surface protector.

  9. The only metal I’ve heard of causing an allergic reaction is nickle. Nickle is used as an alloy in stainless steel

  10. To add a random, allergy-related anecdote: I discovered that I’m allergic to the SAT (specifically the newsprint upon which it was printed) in high school. Shortly into the test, my arms were covered in itchy, red splotches where they rested on the test booklet. It wasn’t too surprising as I’m mildly allergic to just about everything. Mostly amused that I was “allergic to the SAT”, I informed the moderator during the break. She suggested that I apply to take the test untimed due to my “disability”. I did not take them up on that offer as spending even more time with the SAT seemed neither fun nor the proper solution to my problem.

  11. I find it humourous that Apple people will continue to use products that cause them PHYSICAL HARM.

    Like digital Christian Scientists…

  12. Has he considered maybe, just MAYBE, buying a different phone and laptop? Non-Apple companies do exist, and writers ARE permitted to buy and use their products (despite all the evidence to the contrary).

  13. I am not a doctor; just one who has seen many doctors. and acupuncturists, body workers, energy healers, witch doctors, voodoo medicine men, shamen, religious nuts, etc. No, I’m not addicted to medical attention, I simply went through chemotherapy and radiation (high doses of each) for a stage IVb cancer that was cured although now I seem to be suffering from the “cure”. That was all a disclaimer to perhaps lend a tiny bit of credence to this one (possibly helpful, possibly way off the mark) suggestion: detoxify. The statement “once your body decides it’s allergic…” makes me think this may have an accumulative component to it. Perhaps this only starts after enough build up remains in the body. There’d be absolutely no risk in trying to detoxify any residual nickel, heavy-metals, plastic coating, etc. that *may* (again not a doctor) be residing in the body and causing this sensitivity-type condition… Only sharing as it seems people don’t want to take ownership of their own health anymore and keep looking for a “magic bullet” (pun intended) to be delivered by the all-knowing doctors (they only went to school for a decade or so); it also seems people would rather complain about something exotic and secretly enjoy the suffering and not really want it to go away lest they lose their chance to be special. Not observing that here, just venting from some cases I’ve seen before – and to possibly poke some trolls. No, I’m not a troll, I’m a dwarf… as always, beware the dwarf… I do hope everybody finds relief from their own individual suffering, and more than that, shares their stories so others don’t have to suffer as much or as long. be well. may the incredulity commence…

  14. Forgive me for going a little off topic (and probably not knowing what I’m talking about to boot), but isn’t there some sort taboo associated with metal chopsticks, like they’re used to pick through the ashes of the creamated dead or something?

    1. Perhaps in Japan. I know I never saw them anywhere either time I was there, and have never been to a funeral.
      Not in Korea, however. Any Korean restaurant in the Twin Cities provides them, and most people use them at home, too.
      Perhaps they like ‘yakiniku’, which necessitates metal sticks to turn the strips of meat…
      But then, their own sticks would burn…

      The whole chopsticks thing seems like a non-sequitur. Maybe they’re a germophobe, and assume most people also carry them…(I’ve met such people).
      They’re strange enough to have their phone and computer coated in rubber, rather than use another brand…

    2. I’ve never heard of that, all I ever noticed in my time in Asia was that metal chopsticks were fairly uncommon in China and Japan — more so in China — but not that uncommon in Korea.

      I have a few full sets of metal chopsticks I bought and use regularly, I never heard of any sort of taboo associated with them there at least; they were fairly common in restaurants too.

    3. It’s actually mismatched chopsticks that are used in the funeral and are hence “taboo”, so you should make sure that you always eat with a matching pair.

      Allergies/intolerances that develop later in life make me sad.

      1. Whoa, thanks!
        That explains SO MUCH!!
        I could have embarrassed myself as bad as the time I took food from someone’s chopsticks, and had to throw the food out…

  15. You can use duct tape to cover the metal parts of your laptop. If this doesn’t sound like a good idea, maybe consider which is more important; looking good or feeling good.

  16. I’m a little disappointed by this stab at Apple. The fact is, as the writer points out, it is a metal allergy. His bathtub caused as much problems as his laptop and phone.

    The fact that Apples products are mostly metal, doesn’t make it an allergy to Apple products which is what this article implies. True the metal they use may be what makes his allergies flair up worse, but he is allergic to many metal products.

    I consider this a low blow shot at Apple.

    1. You are reading a different article from the one printed here.

      The pronoun in the headline makes a difference: “my iPhone”.

      The article is not about being allergic to apple products, its about an allergy that includes these two apple products that he actually still continues to use.

      If anything, it is a good testimony that he continues to use them in spite of this.

    2. “Jake has a metal allergy, therefore Steve Jobs is evil” – BoingBoing logic at its finest. :)

  17. The annals of Sigmund Freud’s cases are full of people who experienced all sorts of physical symptoms rooted in their subconscious conflicts. I’ve often wondered why we can’t find those people in our modern society?

    “As a writer, it’s slightly ironic that the tools of my trade — my MacBook Pro and iPhone — are actually poison.”

    Very interesting….

  18. I have metal allergies too: specifically chromates / chromium salts, which are primarily encountered in concrete (I’ll never be a concrete worker) and in most tanned leather. I accrued my allergy by being caught out in the rain while wearing a leather jacket. The tanning chemicals washed out of it and onto my skin, and so now I cannot wear leather gloves, boots, even with socks, etc.

    It’s tough on me since I ride a motorcycle. It’s unbelievable how high a percentage of all gloves have some leather on them. Even for those that have a patch on the top which normally does not touch the skin, it’s still no good because what if I get caught in some rain again? Stuff would wash right on to me, again…

  19. There’s an emphasis on the nickel in the alloy, but I wonder if other metals could be the source of an allergic reaction. Aluminum in its raw form is toxic, but fortunately its surface immediately oxides when exposed to air, which creates a protective coating. However, I always wonder if that’s enough of a protection, since enough contact with the surface can rub off the oxidation temporarily.

    It’s scary to think of being heavily allergic to the materials found in door knobs, appliances, pots and pans, food storage (foil), and even plumbing.

  20. “Once your body decides it’s allergic, it stays allergic.”

    I can attest to this. I picked mangos one summer, from a very tall (at least 40′) very old tree. I developed an allergy to them, as they are part of the poison ivy family, and cannot touch them now.

    My hands, face and neck ballooned from the poison on their skin, and my stupidity of wiping the sweat off my brow.

  21. Please be aware that it may not be just the metal that is the problem. Many people are becoming hypersensitive to electronics and have been ever since the old video display terminal days. If you’d like to read some of their stories, they are compiled in a report called Black on White, found at the following link: http://www.feb.se/feb/blackonwhite-complete-book.pdf

    Here are some of the warning signs listed on the FEB/The Swedish Association for the Electro HyperSensitive website:

    These are symptoms that people experience with eg. VDT work. For some individuals the problem becomes gradually worse, the symptoms are sustained for longer periods.

    # An unnatural warmth or burning sensation in the face.
    # A tingling, stinging or pricking sensation in the face or other areas of the body.
    # Dryness of the upper respiratory tract or eye irritation.
    # Problems with concentration, dizziness and loss of memory.
    # Swollen mucus membranes resulting in nonviral/bacterial swelling of nose, throat, ear and sinuses.
    # Feeling of impending influenza that never quite breaks out.
    # Headache and nausea.
    # Teeth and jaw pains.
    # Ache in muscles and joints.
    # Cardiac palpitations.


    See also, In One Arizona Community, an Oasis in a Toxic World (an article about chemical and electrical refugees). http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/10/realestate/10nation.html

    Don’t panic, but pay attention to your symptoms and save yourself a lot of trouble later on.

    1. Oh, god.
      Know how many people have been shown to be hypersensitive to electronics in scientific trials?

      Know how many people claim to have been cured by a placebo?…

  22. I doubt it is like a ‘third-degree, low-heat burn’. In a third degree burn, the whole skin layer is burned off. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burn#By_degree

    It may be like a first-degree, low-heat burn.

    I’m not sure how you’d even get to a third-degree burn with low heat. You’d just end up making skin jerky, and it’d take a long time.

  23. This isn’t terribly uncommon. I’ve got metal allergies as well. I can’t tolerate any kind of jewelry without getting the same reddish rash. I first found out because the back of the buttons on my jeans were creating a rash on my stomach. I also have to wear watches with their backing covered up (usually velcro bands take care of this).

    Thankfully I wasn’t planning in a million years to buy an iPhone or iPad.

  24. I have a nickel allery in my right arm. Oddly just my right arm. Left arm, fine, everywhere else fine. Just my right arm.

  25. I have a nickel allergy, as does my mother. She thinks she sensitized herself by wearing a pair of cheap metal earrings for around a year. Now she can’t wear stainless steel, neither can I. I can’t wear it around my neck (i.e. a chain), on my wrists or in my ears or I get red itchy dermatitis that responds nicely to hydocortisone cream. Luckily all my electronies are plastic. I’d never thought of computers and such causing a reaction.

  26. “I consider this a low blow shot at Apple.”

    Is it possible to write anything, anything at all, that is even slightly critical of Apple or their products, and not have a fanboy posset a little on the comment thread?

    1. Is it possible to write anything, anything at all, that is even slightly critical of Apple or their products, and not have a fanboy posset a little on the comment thread?

      No, no it is not possible.

      I personally did not see this as any sort of indictment of Apple. I thought Lisa was showing us that some people are so hypnotized by marketing that they will use well-marketed products even if they are being poisoned by them. This doesn’t seem to be an Apple problem, but rather This Particular Apple User’s problem.

  27. Clear fingernail polish (multiple coats) allows me to wear smooth metal (e.g., wedding band) but doesn’t work for metal with corners (wristwatch band).

  28. Hey there Jake.
    Your little sister here. I was reading along here on Boing Boing and saw that picture and thought: “Hey, that guy looks like my brother.”
    Seems I learn a lot about you on BoingBoing. Mom says you’re allergic to doorknobs too. I myself have an every increasing list of “do not consume” things. The last one being Tylenol. So I suggest you stay away from that one, unless of course you think anaphylactic shock is fun. It does sorta make you look like an oompa-loompa, which, I suppose, could get a few giggles. I hope you have an epi-pen.

    I’m seriously considering trying to give myself hook worms. Dad says it’s not a good idea, but I think if you go for it, he might re-consider. He always did like you best :) I can send you some literature. I bet it’s way easier to find hookworms in Japan.

    Meanwhile. I hope you read this and that I get extra bonus points for not making any “dork” comments. I mean, cause what would be dorkier than being allergic to computers?
    Also. extra bonus points to the guy that said you were gonna turn into a cyborg. It’s like “The Metamorphosis” for the new computer age. Kafka is giggling in his grave.

  29. Someone mentioned that this was a “classic case of hives”. I’ve had hives hundreds of times as a person with a ton of food allergies/sensitivities, and I’ve never gotten them on my palms.

    What I do have on my palms, and occasionally on the soles of my feet, however, is dishydrotic eczema. It often starts as an itchy area, then small bumps form. After the bumps form and itch like crazy, my skin usually peels off, leaving a big red area.

    Dishydrotic eczema is often caused by contact with metal.

    One thing that REEEEALLLLY helps – augmented betamethasone ointment. As much as I try to avoid using steroids and petroleum products, it often seems a small price to pay to get my hands and feet to heal up.

    Anyhoo – just something to ask your dermatologist about. :)

  30. My wife has had trouble with metals, not being able to wear jewelry and watches, etc.

    We determined it was specifically nickel when she dyed her hair dark brown, and got a terrible rash all over her neck and head under her hairline. She had to take Prednisone for a week.

    I was able to use a propane torch on some US Mint silver coins (99.999% pure) to make our wedding rings because it really has no nickel alloy in it, and the ring has never irritated her skin (>5 yrs). Sterling silver at 99.5% is just not ok.

    I later bought her a replacement engagement ring of platinum, which has turned out to be ok. Often it is alloyed with indium, but if it is, it hasn’t turned out to be a problem.

  31. Hard as it may be to believe a full, interesting, and productive life can be lived with neither a mac book pro or an iphone. Might it not be worth considering a change? We all know that, on one level, change = loss, but sometimes a totally new direction is needed to break free of a pathological situation. Try living in the country and eating a lot of peaches (organic ones, of course).

  32. Something you might want to try: http://www.naet.com
    I was raised by hard core scientists, and a pre-med student when I suddenly came down with allergies to EVERYTHING (seriously- couldn’t even shop in a mall) and ended up trying all sorts of alternative treatments when regular western doctors just told me to “learn to live with it” (translation: stop bugging me, go home and die already.).
    Anyway, I ran across this treatment for allergies, and it helped me a lot. They see all kinds of odd acquired allergies, especially ones to do with electronics. Give it a try!

  33. The ThinkPad I’m typing this on at the moment has an all-plastic exterior, except for the hinges.

  34. Hi,

    Can we talk about what you are feeling? I am having a similar problem with my Android, but I am wondering if it s really metal. every time I old it or touch it, I feel like a mild burn pain. The artifact is warm, but not enough to burn. However I still feel like a sunburn in my hands, finger tips and the ear. If I put the phone in a pocket, it burns the closest area even if it is not in contact with the skin. I think this is radiation, but I haven’t found any mention of similar events online. Can you give me more information about how you found out the cause?



    1. Helene, regardless of the source of your symptoms, you should get another phone. If all cell phones cause you discomfort, you should stop using them altogether.

      Your body and mind have evolved over millenia to warn you of danger, and although sometimes the warnings may be false, you should never ignore them.

  35. Weird, I’ve got the opposite– my skin corrodes nickel and I don’t get a rash. Should I stay away from the MacBook Pros?

    My grandmother does the same thing to gold, she sticks to silver jewelry instead…

  36. You all missed the point of the chopsticks.

    Its so that he doesn’t have to touch metal cutlery.

  37. You know that with these types of allergies one must look to foods containing ‘metals’ too. Like brocolli!
    I have contact dermatitis, thought it was metal (as the dermatitis came up on my palm where I hold cutlery) but later found out I was allergic to rubber. But when trying to find out what it was, my doctor told me about the foods thing. ..

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