The Food in your Bathroom Cabinet: an Allergy Risk?

We received an email last week from food allergy adviser, researcher and trainer Hazel Gowland of Allergy Action, asking us whether the eventual winners in our FreeFrom Skincare Awards could be listed by the food allergens which they don’t contain.

Food allergens in skincare products is a subject we have thought about a lot since we began the Awards last year, and indeed since we launched the ‘spin off’ site from its former roots some years before that.

Many of our readers have food sensitivities of varying degrees of severity, and some have problem skin conditions related to them. Not surprisingly, many need or choose to avoid skincare products containing their food triggers. But that’s easier said than done …

The first hurdle is botanical ingredients in Latin. Know your ‘anacardium occidentale’ (cashew) from your ‘triticum vulgare’ (wheat)? You’d need to if reactive to either. Some brands helpfully list English ingredients too, often in brackets after the Latin, while others list only in English, which is useful to the allergic consumer, no doubt, but not correct according to cosmetic labelling laws. (You can find a list of Latin food allergens here on the ‘FreeFrom Skincare’ page of my blog, Food Allergy and Intolerance Ink.)

The second is source. A nut oil will be declared, but the source of an ingredient such as Vitamin E may not be — is it wheat, corn, or a seed? How pure, processed or refined any ingredient may be — and therefore how unlikely it is to harbour residual allergy-causing proteins — will probably not be made clear either.

But there is cause for optimism. Some brands such as Mychelle and Sophyto make declarations on their gluten free products, our Award sponsors NATorigin state they are free of many key food allergens, Saaf are totally grain free, while others such as Premae and Raw Skinfood avoid using all key food allergens.

We’d like more to follow suit — and more statements to appear on labelling. As my colleague Michelle has already made clear in her recent blog touching on these issues and the Awards judging, it’s not that we want brands to necessarily exclude all food ingredients, but merely communicate more clearly what is and is not present. The increasingly seen ‘suitable for vegans’ is welcome, and can reassure those allergic to dairy or egg, but it’s of no use to those avoiding nuts, wheat or corn, which are used more often.

“It seems to me that non-food products which contain known food allergens should be subject to similar law as food regarding declaring ingredients,” Hazel told us, “especially as they are often used for example on the lips, near eyes, and also from all we know about sensitisation via skin.”

She added that, as a nut allergic individual, finding suitable products can take her more time than buying safe food; in her research, she has come across cases of reactions at cosmetics parties and in shops, including an inhaled reaction to brazil nut in a spray.

One of our Awards judges this year, Sarah, who writes the Sugarpuffish blog, last year posted an interesting blog, Food Allergens in Skincare, which spawned many comments from others who had either not considered the issue, or felt better information / labelling was needed, or who had their own tales of unusual reactions.

In 2011, I wrote about Gluten-free Skincare for — examining whether people with coeliac disease or other gluten-related disorders needed to be concerned about wheat and oat in cosmetics. The issue remains uncertain, but many coeliacs aim to avoid all sources of gluten in their life, and to that end I wrote to our extensive mailing list of manufacturers and asked them whether or not their ranges were gluten or wheat free (GF/WF) and indeed dairy free (DF) and nut free (NF) too.

The results can be seen at the foot of that article, with brands such as Essential Care, MuLondon and Witch Skincare confirming they were free of all these allergens. We received few replies, though, and would like to develop this table further.

Would readers find such a more detailed resource useful? It would be impossible to manage on a product-by-product basis, but if we could establish more exhaustively which brands excluded certain allergens as a whole, might it help, at least in pointing the food sensitive consumer towards brands and products potentially worth exploring? What other information might be useful to you?

This is our first post on the new Skins Matter blog — so comments would be most welcome and encouraging. Do let us have your thoughts on what we can do, what consumers can do, and on what the cosmetics industry can do too!



  1. Sarah

    I would like to see better labelling, either by helping customers understand the Latin names (having English in brackets) or by clear labelling pointing out any major allergens. I worry about using products containing my food allergens even though I’m unsure if I will ever react via my skin. I have naturally always chosen to avoid products containing milk. A more detailed resource would be welcomed. I would be interested in pointing me to brands which are free from particular allergens. I think Companies need to be made aware that this is a concern for people with allergies.

    1. Alex Gazzola

      Thanks Sarah – lovely to have our first ever comment! Hopefully endeavours like the Awards and your blog will help communicate that need to companies. As we’ve learned with respect to free-from food, it can – and probably will – take some time.

  2. Micki

    Welcome to your first post, Alex! Years ago, we used to come across the odd person in the clinic who reacted to gluten/seeds/wheat etc on their skin but it didn’t seem a massive issue, although I always advised avoidance of gluten to coeliac since we can’t rule out skin absorption ingestion in my view.

    Recently, I have had dealings with a lot more skincare-reactors, but that’s probably because I am dealing with hyper-sensitive people more now. That said, I have also seen people develop the issue where they were non-reactive before. I have one lady who has her normal grain reactions to corn citric acid in shampoo, another who comes out in skin blisters when she touches sunflower seed-containing products. I myself have actually just had two months of unexplainable migraines (my normal grain reaction) which has been tracked down to moisturising ingredient changes in my usual cream that weren’t declared on the label (as they were using up their old labels, head in hands, literally…). Yes, I did shout at them.

    It can and does happen and if we could have more of an idea what the source of, say, Vitamin E and citric acid, is in a range, it would save an awful lot of investigative time for people who do need to be that careful. A resource where people could go to see what products might suit their avoidance criteria would be fabulous – but good luck with that; I have been researching grain free now for over two years! Lots of oils and ointments but not much else. No shampoo at all. The search goes on.

  3. Alex Gazzola

    Thanks Micki. I too would really like to see sources of those ingredients like Vit E declared – not only from the food allergy perspective, but also I think it would inspire real confidence in the manufacturer being clear and knowledgeable about their own ingredients and how they are derived. As for shampoo – I’ll put a little call out on Twitter and see if anything happens…

  4. Pingback: The food in your bathroom cabinet, part II

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