Fitbit and the nickel dermatitis problem: they should have known

As I mentioned elsewhere Fitbit has a problem with their new gadgetry. It’s causing rashes in the people who wear it. The latest:

Since the first reports of contact dermatitis caused by Fitbit Force movement trackers surfaced on the company’s forums (and gained publicity when Consumerist broke the story last month) customers have asked that the company recall the trackers. Fitbit has been happy to refund customers who have skin problems and send their trackers back. Today, the company announced that they’re recalling all Force wristbands.

The thing is, there really shouldn’t be any surprise at this:

The basic problem is well known: so well known in the industry that it’s something of a surprise that the company has let itself get caught out this way.

Some 20-30% of the population are sensitive (ie, allergic, but not very much) to nickel. And usually, if you want to make something out of iron but you want it to last, then you make it out of steel. And one way to make good looking shiny shiny steel is to make nickel steel.

But! Obviously, you don’t really want to do that with something that people are going to wear next to their skin for long periods of time. So, instead, you make your watchesn’stuff out of different alloy formulations, perhaps chrome steel.

Just a pity Fitbit didn’t think of this earlier really.

The estimations of nickel sensitivity vary wildly. For full on simple contact dermatitis at 1-2%, through wearing sweaty watchbands at 20% (?) through to 30% or more susceptible with the bimetallic alloys used to make euro coins (sweat makes the two alloys act as a battery, moving nickel ions around and onto the skin).

But my point is that this was an obvious and avoidable error. Yes, Silicon Valley invents lots of lovely shiny shiny for us all to enjoy. But that doesn’t mean that all engineering that has come before is irrelevant. And as we move into wearables it would be a very good idea if those designers started to have a few chats with the previous generations of wearables designers. Given nickel sensitivity you’ll want to avoid certain types of steel. For certain wearables you might want to look at rhodium plating for the hypoallergenic, as with various ranges of ear rings. The subtleties of the alloys used to make glasses frames might be usefully explored…..people have worked out quite a lot about the interaction of various metals and the human skin before now. No need to reinvent the wheel, just talk to a few people who already know (no, not me, this is not my area of expertise).

7 thoughts on “Fitbit and the nickel dermatitis problem: they should have known”

  1. Comes of not knowing what your product is. No doubt they’re thinking it’s a gadget does something. You can count on most of the buyers regarding its purpose is the wearing of. Demonstration of the “fitness syndrome”. Much of the problem will have resulted from the continual ostentatious adjusting on the wrist so it gets noticed.

  2. Tim,

    The penny has just dropped for me…

    The last few times I’ve worn my Bose Noise Cancelling headphones for extended periods (aka sweaty ears) I’ve had a sudden onset of a rash covering my head and shoulders which subsides after about an hour.

    I stopped using the headphones, and the rashes stopped. Reading your post it sounds like exactly the same thing as what you describe.

    This has had me and the doc confounded for weeks but I’ll be raising this at my next visit.

    Economics blog diagnosis: Who would have thunk it?

    Matt

  3. So Much for Subtlety

    Given Americans being American, the question is really going to be what it is going to cost them. If their customers can clearly demonstrate an adverse health outcome, they will sue for everything from cancer to penile erection dysfunction.

    So I hope they have some cash on hand to pay off the shysters.

  4. I wonder if they wanted to make it non-magnetic. The usual way to make non-magnetic stainless steel is to bump the nickel content to stabilise the austenitic phase. Cutlery etc. is usually martensitic which is magnetic.

    If they really wanted to make the likelihood of skin interactions as small as possible I’m not sure what the best alloy would be. Titanium? TiAlV alloy? Probably too expensive.

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