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Pole’s Itchy Little Secret: Chrome Allergies

By on July 14, 2015

As polers, we’re pretty used to a lot of body trauma: pole burns, righteous bruises, and general aches, pains, and whatnot. But, there is one itchy little subset of injuries that doesn’t get a lot of attention: “chrome” allergies.

What is a “chrome” allergy? In short, it is contact dermatitis due to an allergen. Although chrome itself can cause allergies, particularly in industrial uses, the prevailing theory in the pole world is that the allergic reactions dancers have to chrome poles is actually due to the nickel content found in the plating. According to the Mayo Clinic, nickel allergies and other metal allergies are among the most common causes of contact dermatitis. [1] Pole dancers who suffer from these allergies can have reactions ranging from itchy skin, to red patches, hives, and worse, depending on the level of allergy and duration of exposure.

(c) Getty Images

(c) Getty Images

About Metal Allergies

Metal allergies are more common than you would think, with studies showing that anywhere from 10% to over 20% of the population may suffer from nickel allergies alone, and those numbers are reportedly on the rise. Women are statistically more likely to suffer from metal allergies, in part because of the higher occurrence of piercings among females. [2] Within the pole community, some reactions may go unrecognized due to the lack of discussion around the topic. Anecdotal evidence shows that these types of allergies and reactions occur primarily after using chrome poles. Unfortunately, many studio poles in the US, Canada, and Mexico (and beyond) have poles made from chrome, and students with metal sensitivities may get the short end of the stick. They can enjoy class at their own peril and hope they get to a shower fast enough to wash their skin before the reaction begins. If they don’t, they are in for an ugly, painful, and itchy few days…often longer.

Allergic reactions (aka allergic contact dermatitis or ACD) can appear similar to irritant reactions (aka irritant contact dermatitis), with many of the same symptoms. A licensed allergist can administer a patch test to rule out allergies, but some differences include the severity of the reaction; the localization of the reaction (ACD tends to be localized to the contact points, while ICD is more wide-spread); and the swiftness with which the reaction occurs (ACD tends to crop up 24 to 48 hours after exposure, while ICD is more immediate). [3]

Severe Chrome Rash. Photo courtesy of Andrea Plancarte - reprinted with permission.
Severe Skin Reaction. Photo courtesy of Andrea Plancarte – reprinted with permission.

Metal allergies can impact anyone – even pole stars!

These allergies are so common that even world famous polers like Marlo Fisken, Bad Kitty® Brand Ambassadors Michelle Stanek, Lou Landers, and Nadia Sharif suffer from them. In Nadia’s case, her allergy was so serious that topical steroids failed to resolve her issues. After a follow up appointment with a doctor, she had a blood test that diagnosed her with metal toxicity. Due to the severity of her skin lesions, she was forced to take a 2 month hiatus from training while she healed. Her allergies began with training on old, chrome poles in humid weather; the first signs were sores and blisters on her hands and feet, but it soon progressed to cracked, bleeding skin that would not heal, despite the use of topical steroids. Nadia was able to get help through Chinese herbal detoxes, but she avoids chrome whenever possible; when she does have to train on chrome poles, she resumes her Chinese herbal treatments.*

Photo of Bad Kitty® Brand Ambassador Nadia Sharif by Nina Reed Photography

Photo of Bad Kitty® Brand Ambassador Nadia Sharif by Nina Reed Photography

For Lou Landers, her troubles began after a switch in poles:

“After a change from 50mm stainless poles to 45mm chrome poles I started to notice I was becoming itchy in any places that had been touching or gripping the pole – underarms, forearms, elbow pits, stomach, sides, back of knees, inner thigh, my hands and between my fingers. A doctor diagnosed a nickel allergy.

X-Pole heard that I had had a reaction to chrome poles and approached me to test a stainless steel pole in a range of weather and heat conditions. My role is to create an awareness of allergy issues with chrome – a lot of people don’t realize that is the reason they develop a rash. I try to educate people as much as possible about the ways to work around and manage their allergy so they don’t give up on pole. I train on chrome poles almost every day and manage to get by, so don’t let it stop you!”

baseball-card-lou-landers

In an effort to hear more about how ACD impacts polers at all levels, we reached out to dancers across the US and into Mexico with the allergy. All of the respondents reported similar symptoms after using chrome poles, particularly in humid conditions: itchy, red rashes localized to contact areas such as armpits and torsos/sides, and in severe cases, blisters, sores, and/or cracked skin that failed to heal. You can see a gallery of their photos at the end of this piece. One featured poler, Andrea Plancarte of Mexico, told us that her symptoms included itchiness, particularly on her contact points, with blisters (also called vesicles) forming about a week after exposure. These vesicles eventually burst and cause erosion of the skin, with flaking and cracking skin scales that prevent her from poling. Her dermatologist recommended using only stainless steel or silicon coated poles for training, but she’s found it difficult to locate studios near her with stainless or silicon options.*

How do poles cause allergic reactions?

To find out a little more about the science behind chrome use in poles, we sat down with an expert who not only has his PhD in Chemistry, but also has the good taste to be the significant other of a pole dancer! He helpfully laid out how these types of skin reactions could easily occur:

‘The chrome poles are almost certainly manufactured with nickel, as that’s what you electroplate chromium onto to get that classic ‘chromed’ finish…So, you’re looking at chromium electroplated onto nickel. There is a very high probability that the contact dermatitis is being driven by a nickel allergy, not a chrome allergy. Nickel is a notorious allergen…and has been demonstrated to dissolve in water due to corrosion from extended contact with sweat. The most straightforward explanation is that the chromium is wearing off due to extended contact with skin/sweat, exposing the nickel and that’s what’s causing the problem.”

But where does the chrome plating go? Dancers have been concerned that it may be absorbed through the skin, but our Chemist had this to say:

“The first oxidation state of chromium (Chromium III) is very, very poorly absorbed across the skin and almost none of it will be generated in any case. What you’re seeing is very likely the chromium just coming off in microscopic particles due to friction – there’s probably a very light dusting of it on the studio floors…it is very, very, very unlikely to be absorbed into the body.”

We also asked, “How do chrome poles become stripped and expose the nickel beneath?” According to our chemist, the quality of the electroplating can be a big factor, but in addition, the way dancers clean chrome-plated poles is completely opposite to standard chrome care outside of the pole world – for example, the use in the automotive industry. To maintain that shine and sparkle, polishing is discouraged; instead, an oil or wax treatment is recommended. Between the friction of skin and constant scrubbing with alcohol or cleaners, it’s no wonder that chrome can quickly degrade in pole studios. While stainless poles can contain nickel, the way that they wear down differs from the wear of chrome, which accounts for why chrome appears to cause more problems for those with allergies.

Why is chrome so prevalent?

Chrome is a popular finish for many pole dancers because of its grip / ability of the skin to stick to the pole without sliding. When pole was starting to emerge as a fitness option over a decade ago, a lot of research and development went into how to build poles. According to industry insiders we spoke with, early tests showed that chrome yielded a much better grip than stainless, and it became the go-to for pole coating. It took some time for stainless finishes to be worked out to the ideal grip level needed for regular use. Another reason why we see a lot of chrome? It’s usually priced more affordably than other finishes. When starting a pole studio, there are a lot of expenses to factor in, and this is one way for studio owners to keep costs within budget. Many students prefer the grip of chrome to stainless or brass, so chrome can also be a crowd pleaser for those who do not suffer from metal sensitivities.

We reached out to leading pole manufacturer, X Pole, to find out more about the pole finishes they offer. Representatives from X Pole’s headquarters in the UK shared that X Pole does now offer the following for the US, Canada, and Europe:

  • Chrome, Brass, and Stainless X-Pert Build-A-Poles for studios, in 45mm and 40mm widths
  • Full Stainless comp poles
  • A new range of one piece poles in Stainless and Brass

Although the stainless and brass Build-A-Pole options are not explicitly listed on the US website, we did confirm that these options are available! Anyone interested in these options must contact X Pole directly for purchasing info. According to a rep at the X Pole US office, the stock for the top extensions of the stainless and brass Build-A-Pole options may be limited, so chrome top extensions may be substituted in to expedite orders. While X Pole’s home poles are made in a variety of finishes and pole diameters, home poles are not suitable for the battering that goes on in a studio environment and are not recommended for studio use. In addition to the permanent ceiling mounts for the X Pole studio Build-A-Poles and the optional PoleAway mount system, the studio poles are actually built with an interior lining to help stabilize or stiffen the pole, something not included in X-Pert home poles.

What are the alternatives?

The other main US brand, Platinum Stages, does offer single piece, stainless steel poles for studios, but their poles are not as widely sold outside of major US markets, and therefore, not as easy to find. While they offer 50mm and 45mm poles as high as 14 feet or more, their 40mm offerings top out at 10 feet. The company has also been plagued by customer service complaints, which has reportedly hurt their trustworthiness amongst studio owners. A lesser known US brand with studio pole options is Pole Danzer, which offers 45mm and 50mm stainless or brass permanent mount poles, as well as some portable options. And, while Lil Minx does offer a stainless permanent pole, they are best known for their home-used options. One newer option to the US market is Lupit Pole. We recently confirmed that studios on the East Coast of the US have been importing Lupit’s stainless steel 42mm options from Europe. The Lupit poles are offered up to 4 meters in height.

What can you do?

If your studio has chrome poles, be sure to inspect them regularly and keep them clean! Stripping of the chrome actually worsens the allergic reaction for most sensitive students, so if you have an allergy and have to use chrome poles, look for the newer ones – the old poles will be more likely to trigger a reaction. In fact, you may not even show symptoms until you use an older pole! If you are a studio owner, be sure to clean your poles regularly and be ready to replace your chrome poles as soon as they show signs of stripping: not only is it better for your students with the allergy, but it is better for your overall clientele, as stripped poles also lose their “stick.” While X Pole confirmed that the average life of a pole is between 3 and 4 years, studios with high volume classes may experience wear and tear at a faster rate. To save a bit on replacing the entire pole or poles, you can also now purchase both the stainless 8 foot sections and extensions from X Pole and swap them out for the stripped chrome ones on your existing build-a-poles. As a bonus, X-Pole offers special studio refit discounts! And, on another positive note, they have also increased the thickness of the chrome coating as a preventative measure for allergens due to older, stripped poles, should you prefer to stick with chrome for your studio.

Research into how to treat the allergic reaction shows that the most common recommendation is to clean the skin as soon as possible after contact, then follow with a hydrocortisone cream. If you have a serious allergic break out that includes skin eruptions, you may need to consult your dermatologist for additional care, possibly including antibiotics to ward off a secondary infection.

Some treatment tips from polers I spoke to include:

  • Bring alcohol wipes with you to class and wipe down your contact areas as soon as class ends – Follow up with a warm shower as soon as you are home/able
  • Bring a towel to class and use it to wipe yourself down when sweat appears
  • Oral antihistamines
  • OTC (over-the-counter) hydrocortisone cream
  • Benadryl allergy gel (no greasy finish to worry about!) or other antihistamine creams
  • Oatmeal lotion and oatmeal baths
  • Ice packs (applied to reduce inflammation)
  • Essential oils mixed in coconut oil and applied topically (A couple drops each of lavender, tea tree, and geranium oils works best)
  • Creams used for diaper rash (i.e. Zincofax or Penaten) or psoriasis/eczema
  • Prescription topical steroids (i.e. stronger hydrocortisone)
  • Chinese herbal remedies/detoxes

Unfortunately, there are not many ways to prevent an allergic reaction that don’t involve a) keeping your skin covered b) applying a lotion that will block the allergens, or c) using stainless steel or brass poles. While poling in sticky pants can be an option for pole dancers, we all know that lotion and poling don’t mix. Some dancers have found relief through using grip aids that act as shields, like knee pads from Mighty Grip. The best option is avoid chrome all together, which is pretty difficult if your home studio doesn’t offer stainless steel poles. In a city like Los Angeles, where there are many studios to choose from, it’s easier to avoid chrome if you need to do so. But in smaller markets, students with this allergy are likely to be stuck with chrome as their only poling option. Silicon coated or powder coated poles are also options, but again, these are difficult to find in most markets, particularly in a studio environment.

Until our industry makes the shift toward increasing the stainless options for studio use, those polers with allergies must be diligent in avoiding poles that trigger their reactions and take proper care of their skin after contact. It would behoove studio owners to educate themselves on the needs of their individual students and markets, and adjust their studio stock or maintenance routines accordingly. Hopefully, we can all work together to increase the demand for chrome alternatives and help solve this issue for good.

*A disclaimer:

Please remember: each dancer is an individual, and while allergies exist and skin reactions may pop up, only a dermatologist, allergist, or licensed physician is qualified to diagnose the condition and cause. Not every dancer will react to chrome poles in the same fashion. For studio owners, we strongly recommend caution in exploring your options and best practices for your studio, students, and market.

Some additional resources regarding chrome and nickel allergies:

[1] Mayo Clinic – Nickel Allergy Definition

[2] Detection of Nickel Allergy

[3] Allergic Contact Dermatitis

Sparrowhawk Dances – Suffering for Art [This article was published in 2011. Some information may be outdated.]

 

Comments
Danielle C.

Danielle C.

Creative entity, cat mom, dog auntie, consumer of too much sugar. Pole and lyra enthusiast, amateur foodie, local explorer. One half of Poleitical Clothing. Read my musings at www.poleitical.com.
Danielle C.

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