The Truth About Hypoallergenic Skin Products
The fact that a skin or beauty product is labeled 'hypoallergenic' doesn't mean it can't cause an allergic reaction. Find out why hypoallergenic products can still trigger allergies or irritation.
By Myra Partridge
Medically Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
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The prevalence of allergy to cosmetics has been reported as less than 1 percent, but this may be underestimated because many people don't seek medical care when they have a mild reaction. If you’ve ever experienced skin irritation from cosmetics, your strategy may be to try hypoallergenic skin products, hoping for better results. However, it’s important to know that although manufacturers claim that hypoallergenic cosmetics cause fewer allergic reactions, no standards govern these products — they aren't regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Fortunately, all hope isn't lost. There are other steps you can take to protect yourself from hypoallergenic products that still trigger allergies.
The Meaning of Hypoallergenic
According to the FDA, the word "hypoallergenic" is somewhat of a myth. Beauty industry manufacturers put the word on product packaging and claim that their formulas produce fewer reactions than their competitors' products. Without standardized testing, however, there's really no way to back up those claims, the FDA notes.
. More than 3,000 fragrances can potentially be used in the beauty products you see on store shelves, so fragrance-free might indeed be easier on your skin. However, many people develop allergic contact dermatitis, a common skin reaction, to ingredients other than fragrances in personal care products, according to Susan Nedorost, MD, a dermatologist and director of the residency program at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland. So finding hypoallergenic skin products may not be enough to prevent a reaction.
Consider this: Each day the average woman uses 12 personal care products with a total of 168 unique ingredients, almost any of which could bother your skin or trigger a noticeable reaction when it comes into contact with your skin.
Here’s the truth about hypoallergenic skin products: Besides fragrances, some of the most common allergens in skin products are the compounds thimerosal and propylene glycol, cobalt chloride, preservatives like quaternium-15, and chemicals in many sunscreens.
How Do I Know Whether I'm Having an Allergic or an Irritant Reaction?
“Because there is a delay of several days between skin exposure and the onset of a rash and because even a brief exposure can cause a rash lasting several weeks, most patients do not correctly identify the cause of their allergic dermatitis," Dr. Nedorost explains. “Anyone who requires frequent use of topical or systemic corticosteroids to treat an itchy rash should discuss with their health care provider and see whether they may benefit from referral to a dermatologist who specializes in evaluating dermatitis.”
Keep in mind that you don’t need to have skin allergies to have sensitive skin or get a reaction from a product, says Jacquelyn Levin, DO, a researcher and dermatologist with the DermaBare Aesthetics & Laser Center in Mission Viejo, Calif. She notes that products can have ingredients that are irritating to the skin without being allergenic — they may cause irritation by damaging the skin in some way or by disrupting the skin barrier. “The red and itchy skin symptoms from skin irritation are similar to the symptoms seen with allergy, so it can be very confusing for consumers to tell the difference between allergy and irritation,” she explains.
To identify the cause of skin reactions, Nedorost says, a dermatologist may conduct skin patch testing to evaluate your responses to small amounts of allergens, which is the most precise method to identify contact allergens.
Short of testing, if you have a chronic, itchy rash, a hypoallergenic product tip to follow when shopping for beauty items is to avoid water-based products to minimize your exposure to preservatives. Nedorost says that means choosing a bar rather than liquid soap, petroleum jelly rather than , and loose powder rather than foundation.
Video: Best Products for Sensitive Skin | Dermatologist at the Drugstore | Harper's BAZAAR
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