The set of ingredients found in body lotion, hair shampoo, and other personal care products can be overpowering for a consumer to read. This is particularly true for people suffering from hypersensitive epidermis rashes who want to figure out what chemical is causing these to break out or itch. Marketing words such as “hypoallergenic” are found on many products, cosmetics especially, but these terms are of little help to consumers. These words seem to imply the merchandise is less inclined to cause allergies than competing items. But the Food & Drug Administration says no technological evidence backs up those statements.
Recent work led by Carsten R. Hamann, a medical college student at Loma Linda University School of Medicine, in California, confirms that the hypoallergenic label on many personal care products, those marketed for children particularly, is meaningless. The experts find that many products labeled as hypoallergenic contain at least one known pores and skin allergen. Hamann and co-workers analyzed 187 personal maintenance systems designed for children from six suppliers in California. They looked for 80 common allergens, including fragrances, preservatives, and surfactants.
All of the merchandise were tagged “hypoallergenic,” “dermatologist suggested/tested,” “fragrance free,” or “paraben free.” The products included shampoos and conditioners, sunscreens, diaper creams, and “anything marketed toward kids that was said to be used on epidermis,” Hamann says. Of the products studied, 89% contained at least one chemical substance recognized to cause contact dermatitis and 11% included five or more contact allergens.
The most frequently found allergen was the surfactant cocamidopropyl betaine, which was found in 24% of the merchandise. Methylisothiazolinone, highly allergenic preservative, arrived in 21 of the 187 products. “There is very good data from Europe displaying the proliferation of the use of methylisothiazolinone as a preservative,” Hamann tells C&EN. The chemical substance was first found in occupational settings in liquid paints, water-based paints used in sprayers especially, he says, and has worked its way into consumer products.
Methylisothiazolinone has become so wide-spread that in 2013 it was chosen as the “allergen of the year” by the American Contact Dermatitis Society, a group of healthcare professionals. The preservative “is about to be banned from cosmetics in Europe because of severe cases of allergic contact dermatitis,” Hamann and colleagues write.
Use of methylisothiazolinone in makeup products increased about a decade back when consumers began requesting products that do not contain paraben preservatives. Parabens have been associated with endocrine disruption, and developmental and reproductive problems, as well as allergies. Methylisothiazolinone, however, is more allergenic than parabens, Hamann asserts. But because of consumer backlash to parabens, manufacturers turned to methylisothiazolinone as a substitute. “These products need a preservative,” he says. Many chemical preservatives, as well as fragrances and other chemicals in makeup products, are potent allergens to a small percentage of people, based on the UNITED STATES Contact Dermatitis Group, a standards-setting organization composed of doctors.
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But if a consumer suspects a specific chemical is leading to an allergic skin reaction, staying away from that ingredient can be a problem because many chemicals are advertised under five or six different brands, Hamann says. “It becomes very difficult for a consumer to wade through an ingredient label,” he says. For the 80 allergens that the researchers analyzed, there have been about 500 different brands, he adds.
Hamann and co-workers are contacting FDA to modify marketing conditions such as hypoallergenic and dermatologist-tested to help patients with conditions such as dermatitis avoid products that contain skin sensitizers. Because FDA does not have any definitions or specifications for such terms, hypoallergenic “means whatever a particular company wants it to imply,” according to the agency.