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Chrome Allergies: Pole’s Itchy Little Secret

(This article was originally posted on Bad Kitty’s blog, which is no longer active. I pulled an archived, early draft to repost here, since the demand for information is still high. It does not have quite as many photos or personal stories as the original, but much of the other information remains the same.)

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.

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Photo from Michelle Stanek

About Metal Allergies

Metal allergies are more common than you’d think, with studies showing that anywhere from 10% to over 20% of the population may suffer from nickel allergies alone, and these allergies are reportedly on the rise. Women are reportedly more likely to suffer from metal allergies, in part because of the higher occurrence of piercings among females. [3] 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 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) 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 (ACDs tend to be localized to the contact points, while ICDs are more wide-spread); and the swiftness with which the reaction occurs (ACDs tend to crop up 24 to 48 hours after exposure, while ICDs are more immediate). [2]

Research into how to treat the allergic reaction shows that the 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 recommended 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 shower as soon as you are home/able
  • Hydrocortisone cream
  • Benadryl allergy gel (no greasy finish to worry about!)
  • Oatmeal lotion and oatmeal baths
  • 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)
  • Topical steroids (requires prescription)
  • 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 poles. While poling in sticky pants can be an option for pole dancers, we all know that lotion and poling don’t mix. 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.

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. It 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.*

In an effort to hear more about how contact dermatitis impacts polers at all levels, we reached out to polers 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, vesicles (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 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.*

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Photo from Lara Michaels

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 takeaway here is that the rate of chromium oxidation is likely to be extremely low and very unlikely to be a health hazard. 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 about how chrome poles become stripped, exposing the nickel plating, and his answer was fascinating. While the quality of the electroplating will have a lot to do with how quickly chrome will break down, the ultimate reason for the wear is that chrome requires care that is the opposite of how it is treated in pole. To maintain the shine and integrity of chrome, oil or wax is recommended, and polishing is discouraged. Between the use of alcohols and cleaners, to the friction created by skin grips, slides, and general contact with skin through movement, the chrome on poles is likely to not survive use in a pole dancing environment.

 

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. We reached out to leading US pole manufacturer, X Pole, to find out more about the pole finishes they offer. Until recently, X Pole offered only chrome options for their studio Build-A-Poles, but they do now have stainless steel 45mm Build-A-Poles available for studios in the US, as well as brass 45mm of the same style for Canada. Until demand grows, these options will remain limited to their respective North American markets, but they are available by inquiry (as of publication, neither option is listed on the US website). With the new stainless option, the main base pole is stainless, but the extensions for higher ceilings are chrome – again, until demand increases, this is unlikely to change. While X Pole’s home poles are made in a variety of finishes, home poles are not suitable for the battering that goes on in a studio environment.

Another reason why we see a lot of chrome? It’s usually priced more affordably than stainless. 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.

What are the alternatives?

The other main US brand, Platinum Stages (now owned by X Pole), 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. The company has also been plagued by customer service complaints, which has reportedly hurt their trustworthiness amongst studio owners. Lupit Poles are an excellent option for studio or home use, being that they are stainless and well made – their popularity in the US has grown over the last few years (since the original publication of this article), and they are my personal choice for a pole. 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. Unfortunately, based on our research, there is no 40mm stainless studio-quality option currently available on the US market.

What can you do?

If your studio has chrome poles, be sure to inspect them regularly. 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 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.” To save a bit on replacing the entire pole or poles, you can also now purchase one of the stainless 8 foot sections from X Pole and swap it out for the stripped chrome ones on your existing poles. On a positive note, X Pole has 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.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:

[compiling a list of links on nickel allergieschrome allergies, and contact dermatitis]

[1] Mayo Clinic – Nickel Allergy Definition

[2] Allergic Contact Dermatitis

[3] Detection of Nickel Allergy

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Ink-N-Iron 2014: Pole Performer Showcase and PCS Queen Mary Championship

This weekend, we spent a couple of days as vendors at Ink-N-Iron, a massive culture festival in Long Beach, CA. The festival has everything from tattoos, piercings, hot rod shows, and live performances, to burlesque, pin-up, and yes, POLE!

The event played host to the inaugural PCS Queen Mary Pole Championship, with Amateurs competing on Friday evening, followed by the Pros on Saturday afternoon. After each day of competition, there were also Pole Performer Showcases of some incredible polers, too!

Ink-N-Iron Pole Performer Showcase & PCS Queen Mary Pole Championship posters

Ink-N-Iron Pole Performer Showcase & PCS Queen Mary Pole Championship posters

The festivities were held inside the Queen Mary, on the M deck, which was kind of hidden away from the rest of the festival: you had to go up 3 floors, then inside the ship, then up another floor, then walk the length of the ship, where you’d then find the mid-sized Brittania Salon/Ballroom, home of the poles! The room filled up quite a bit for each round of competition, with the Pro comp being a bit more packed.

For the Amateur round, we saw 8 competitors take the stage, many of them performing in their first competition. The gals went out and did themselves proud. The routines included some impressive tricks, but as a pack, the gals were at a reasonable level for an Amateur Comp – no crazy fonji antics, just some great dancers performing mostly clean routines with strong tricks! Judges Jennifer Kim, Rachele Ribera, and Katherine Voorhees had a tough job! First place went to Sandra Guadiama with an emotional piece set to a remix of “Mad World”, Second was Nadine Young playing up the wild side with a routine to “Paradise City”, and Third went to Rea Kowalski, with another more-emotive piece and some impressive strength tricks.

In the Pro Division, we saw 11 competitors, all of whom were so strong and amazing, but each very different in what they presented and the stories they told! The crowd really enjoyed a lot of the performances, but in the end, judges Karol Helms, Sarah Jade, and Alethea Austin selected Sasj Lee as the PCS Champ (making this her third straight victory in a row). Her first runner up was Amber Wolf, with a sexy and playful routine that was both beautiful and strong. Second runner up went to Tiffany Rose Mockler, who also took the Audience Award, and Kerri Friedman rounded out the pack.*

PCS Queen Mary Championship Pro Division placeholders with hostess Tara Phillips

PCS Queen Mary Championship Pro Division placeholders with hostess Tara Phillips

As far as the International Pole Performers Showcase goes, each night was all about the sexiness! Katherine Voohrees opened the shows, displaying her signature style of sexy, bendy beauty, which the crowd loved. Her fellow performers included Jennifer Kim, who combined grace and sex appeal with an incredible connection to the crowd; Sarah Jade, whose bendiness and sexiness are intoxicating; Rachele Ribera, who impressed with powerhouse moves and sexy flair; Nadia Sharif, whose “Roxanne” themed routine was a phenomenal showstopper; Jamilla Deville, who seduced every last person with her showgirl moves and incredible grace; Karol Helms, who lived up to her Miss Sexy title; and Alethea Austin, who closed the show with drama, sex, darkness, and some special sidekicks.

The event was sponsored by X Pole, Bad Kitty (who provided the Pole Pixie costumes), and Glitter Heels, who also had a vendor booth. My company, Poleitical Clothing, was on site as vendors, debuting new items and selling some old favorites! There were some last minute changes to the rigging, with the poles moving from 40mm and 10 feet tall, to 45mm and 12 feet tall, but the performers and competitors took it in stride. The festivities began relatively on time and ran fairly smoothly, with only some minor hiccups along the way, like a shoe malfunction with one performer, and a brief lighting issue when an audience member leaned against some switches for the house lights. While there was no private dressing area for the dancers, the girls all seemed to be in great moods and take everything in stride!  All of the pole events were hosted by Tara Phillips, who is always cheerful, fun, professional, and eloquent when she hosts and event – she works hard and does her research on each dancer and company present, and it really shows when she gets on stage.

Poleitical Clothing vendor table at Ink-N-Iron 2014

Poleitical Clothing vendor table at Ink-N-Iron 2014

As a pole dancer, it was interesting to see the reaction of the crowd to each of the performers. This crowd was not stacked with polers, but rather, stacked with people looking to watch women dance. The pole dancers present were there to support friends, but mostly from the Long Beach and Orange County areas – much the SoCal posse is from LA studios, and we saw very few familiar faces from LA studios, beyond those competing. The crowd’s lack of familiarity with pole beyond strip clubs was obvious at times, from the reactions of some of the drunker attendees, but on the whole, most of the audience appreciated the performers and stayed relatively respectful (save for one or two incidents). While the usual tricks that get mad applause at all-pole events did not get the same response with this crowd, they did scream for crazy flexibility and super sexiness, which was fun to see.

While we did not spend a ton of time at the rest of the festival, it did look like fun, especially if you’re into pin-ups, burlesque, and tattoos – some of the pin-up vendors had some to-die-for items available, and the tattoo room was incredible to behold: three floors of artists working on all manner of tattoos, from small pieces to full back art. The event organization left something to be desired, especially for vendors – for example, we faced arguments with parking attendants and having to pay through the nose for parking because we never received a vendor packet from the Ink-N-Iron office, which was disappointing and frustrating. The event itself is expensive (tickets, parking, and food alone will cost you a bundle), but there is a TON to do once you are there – you could probably attend all three days and still not see everything!!

The Ink-N-Iron pole performers and Queen Mary Pole Championship competitors held their own in terms of the entertainment available, and who knows, maybe they converted a few souls in the audience into thinking that pole is more than stripping and sexiness – and, maybe…just maybe…they inspired some folks to go take their first class!

*At the time of the announcement of the placeholders, Lindsey Green had been awarded 3rd Runner Up. She was given the plaque in the awards ceremony and was initially shown to be the 3rd Runner Up in photos online. The results were re-tabulated and placements changed after the event, moving Kerri moved up to 3rd. To my knowledge, there no formal announcement widely shared online, so I found out about it after writing this piece. I have updated this post to reflect the new placements. My apologies to Kerri and Lindsey for not correcting it sooner – I’m sure the situation was uncomfortable for all involved. ~DC 7/16/2014

 

Ink-N-Iron stage

I couldn’t resist playing on the poles after one of the showcase performances!