The question of the toxicity and dangerousness of cinnabar is hotly debated across this corner of the internet. Some argue that it is too dangerous to touch with your skin while others say that you can swallow the stone whole without worries.
In this article, we’ll cover what you need to know about cinnabar, so you can make your own decision about whether is it dangerous to wear cinnabar jewelry.
What is Cinnabar?
As always, we think the place to begin when asking questions about any stone, crystal, metal, mineral, etc is to first make sure you understand what the material is. Once you know what you are dealing with, you can make further rational inquiry.
Cinnabar (aka cinnabarite) is a bright red form of mercury sulfide. The chemical formula is HgS. It has been used for centuries in decorations and art because of its brilliant color.
Today cinnabar is used to color paint and is also an ingredient in some traditional Chinese medicines.
Cinnabar In Name Only?
Today, people have taken the name “cinnabar” and use it to refer to products that are cinnabar colored, but do not actually contain any actual cinnabar. These items are usually made with other materials. Some may use paint/color containing ground up cinnabar, while others just mimic the color of it.
There is also “cinnabar lacquer” (aka “carved lacquer” or “lacquerware”). These refer to wooden objects (such as vases) which were covered in several layers of lacquer (which cinnabar may have been added to as a colorant). The layers were then carved, but not at a depth deep enough to touch the wood underneath.
In most cases, if you are buying “cinnabar” jewelry, what you’ve really purchased is cinnabar lacquer jewelry. Like the lacquerware discussed above, it should not be treated as though it were a stone/mineral. It is just a piece of wood covered with carved lacquer. It is easily destroyed using metal/gem cleaning methods.
What about Cinnabar makes it dangerous?
The concern about cinnabar comes from its chemical makeup. Cinnabar is full of mercury.
We know very well the dangers of letting too much mercury into our systems.
Depending on the form, amount, length or method of exposure, people might experience temporary issues or permanent ones, from loss of vision, pain in the hands and feet, loss of coordination, loss of hearing/sight, weakness, and birth defects. It can also cause respiratory failure and death.
People consume mercury inadvertently on a daily basis, generally through the food they eat.
It is the exposure to excess mercury that causes us humans the trouble.
So What’s The Disagreement Then? Is Cinnabar Too Toxic To Wear or Not?
There is no question that mercury is toxic to us human when we get too much of it. Where the disagreements arise is whether we actually absorb any or enough mercury to harm us from the cinnabar jewelry by wearing it.
Mineral experts argue that the mercury contained in cinnabar is not very “bioavailable.” It’s bioavailability is low, meaning that it is hard for the mercury that it in cinnabar to get out of the cinnabar and into the human body.
They argue that you could swallow a piece of solid cinnabar and the cinnabar would pass through your body without releasing any mercury into your body.
The basis for this argument is probably this study, which concluded that cinnabar is insoluble and poorly absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract. The conclusion was “…cinnabar is chemically inert with a relatively low toxic potential when taken orally. In risk assessment, cinnabar is less toxic than many other forms of mercury…”
Basically, if you don’t heat the cinnabar, and you don’t grind it up to breathe in the particulate (or wear protective gear when you do) there seems to be little risk that you will poison yourself.
But don’t take our word for it. Read the study.
But what about all the articles on the internet about cinnabar?
Well, there are a lot of articles on the internet about the dangerousness of cinnabar. And like we said earlier, people have strong opinions about working with minerals, gems, and other materials that contain asbestos or arsenic.
Some jewelers refuse to work with cinnabar (or even clean cinnabar) because of the mercury.
Others could care less and argue that there is more mercury in a piece of fish.
If I were a pregnant woman, or someone wanting to become pregnant, I probably wouldn’t mess with cinnabar at all due to the risk of birth defects (like when the doc asks you not to eat certain foods that naturally have some mercury in them).
It is up to you to do the risk assessment.
Recommendations To Wear/Work With Cinnabar Safely
If you want to wear cinnabar knowing that it contains mercury, here’s what we would recommend. First, you should definitely take care when you work with it, especially if you are cutting, grinding, or polishing it. Even though people are grinding it up to use it in medicine, this is still not something we think is a good idea to ingest or inhale.
Wear goggles and a respirator, and change your clothes before removing your respirator to avoid breathing in any dust from your clothes.
Some cinnabar pieces can contain pockets of regular old mercury on the inside, which is more dangerous to you than the cinnabar version of mercury. So keep an eye out for those, and try not to eat them/breath them.
For jewelry, if you are concerned, consider covering the cinnabar with a seal/epoxy so that the stone doesn’t lay against your skin. Use a backer material for pendants, or wear it on top of clothes rather than under on your skin.
Take off your cinnabar rings while washing up.
And don’t sleep with it on.
Could all of this be overkill and unnecessary? Perhaps. But again, do your own research, read the study linked above, and make your own decision about how to wear your cinnabar jewelry.
Want to learn more about rocks and minerals, especially more of the quietly toxic ones? Check out our knowledge hub page for our latest articles.