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We take a deep dive into what it means for something to have a ‘hypoallergenic’ label, and ask whether it is a meaningless marketing phrase or an industry-recognised stamp for consumer safety.
The UK has the highest rates of allergic conditions in the world with over 20% of the population affected by one or more allergic disorder. Is it any wonder then that we want everything from beauty products to dogs that are sensitive to our needs?
Hypoallergenic is the mantra for any of us who have sensitive skin or allergies, it implies we’re less likely to have an allergic reaction, or at least that’s what we thought.
But new research presented at the British Association of Dermatologists’ 103rd Annual Meeting has revealed that more than a third of personal care products like shampoos and body washes marketed as hypoallergenic at Boots and Superdrug, contain allergy producing substances.
In other words, despite the advertising, an increasing number of products and brands are stretching the term to its limits by claiming they are hypoallergenic.
While there are various regulations relating to marketing claims made by cosmetic products, unfortunately there is no legal or scientific standard for what is and isn’t hypoallergenic. So seeing the word printed on the label doesn’t necessarily protect you.
But how do you determine exactly what you are getting?
We’ve done our own investigation to try and help you sort out the fact from the fiction.
Researchers from Wrexham Maelor Hospital and Glan Clwyd Hospital in Wales reviewed 208 products for the presence of allergens in the British Society for Cutaneous Allergy (BSCA) baseline series.
This lists common allergens that are routinely tested during patch testing to identify someone with potential contact allergies – a type of allergic reaction caused by direct or indirect skin contact with something in a person’s environment.
Products tested included shampoos, body washes, deodorants, wet wipes and shaving foam. Three quarters were leave-on formulas designed to be absorbed by the skin, the remainder were rinse-off.
At least one substance from the BSCA baseline was an ingredient in 79 of the items – or 38% of the products tested. Of these, 54 had one potential allergen, 21 had two allergens, and four products had three potential allergens from the series.
Dr Siwaporn Hiranput, one of the team behind the findings, said the research suggested some brands ‘understate’ or ‘downplay what constitutes a hypoallergenic product’.
‘There are various regulations governing marketing claims in the UK; however, many terms used to market personal care products aren’t clearly defined. Given the huge market for products suitable for sensitive skin, there is every incentive to stretch these terms to their limit. Clearer regulation or better enforcement of the existing rules is needed’.
‘In the meantime we’d urge members of the pubic with a contact allergy to learn the names of ingredients you’re allergic to and look for these on the packaging regardless of whether they are advertised as hypoallergenic or not’.
It’s reported that 71% of the UK population suffers from sensitive skin so it’s important to know the most likely offenders. Some of the most common include: Cetearyl alcohol, paraben mix, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol, Lanolin, Decyl glucoside, Diazolindinyl urea, Methylisothiazolinone, Limonene and Linalool.
Professor Mabs Chowdhury, President of the British Association of Dermatologists, said: ‘While it is possible that some of these ingredients could legitimately feature in hypoallergenic products if they are used in very low concentrations, it’s hard to see how ingredients like formaldehyde releasers, methylisothiazolinone and fragrances such as limonene and linalool could possibly be described as hypoallergenic’.
Ingredients in a product are listed in order of concentration and it can sometimes be confusing because the manufacturer may use the chemical or latin name instead of the common name. So find out the alternative names for your allergens to ensure you don’t miss them. An app that can help save you time is incidecoder.com which is a free database that analyses products and their ingredients to help you avoid harmful reactions.
If you’ve ever had red or tender skin after wearing jewellery, then you could be part of the 15% of the UK that is allergic to nickel, a common additive used to reinforce softer metals like silver or gold.
The best hypoallergenic metals are rhodium plated sterling silver, nickel-free sterling silver and platinum. Be aware, though, that some jewellery may be described as ‘nickel free’ but this refers to there being no nickel in the plating of the metal, not the metal itself. So if the plating wears off, the jewellery will no longer be nickel free.
Many hypoallergenic products remain competitively priced but that isn’t always the case.
It’s estimated that two million people in the UK are living with a diagnosed food allergy and 600,000 with Coeliac Disease – an autoimmune disease triggered by a mixture of proteins found in wheat, barley, rye and oats, known as gluten.
A whole industry was launched with gluten and ‘free from’ sections in our major supermarkets, not least when gluten-free diets became fashionable (much to genuine Coeliacs’ horror).
However, these gluten-free alternatives are not cheap. A UK study in 2018 showed that some gluten-free products cost on average 159% more than their conventional counterparts.
Manufacturers argue that the demand is smaller and that the higher price comes from the more complex form of production.
We’re a nation of animal lovers so hardly surprising that even dogs are marketed as hypoallergenic. But according to experts, all pets have allergens, with 35% of pet owners suffering some form of allergic reaction to their animals.
People can develop allergic reactions to pet dander (similar to dandruff in humans), saliva, urine and hair. When exposed to these substances, the body can mistakenly see certain proteins or allergens within them as a threat. Cue itchy eyes, runny nose, asthma attacks and sneezing.
As all dogs produce the same proteins, it would be more accurate to label dogs as ‘shedding’ and ‘non-shedding’. Shedding dogs cause a buildup of dog hair in your home, which may lead to a greater threat of allergies.
So while they aren’t hypoallergenic, non-shedding breeds like poodles, Schnauzers or Bichon Frises might be a better match if you suffer from allergies, but there’s no guarantee.
Superdrug insisted that all its products go through independent safety assessments and all allergens are listed on packs in line with legislation. Meanwhile a Boots spokesperson said: ‘We are transparent about ingredients contained in products and ensure they are displayed clearly for our customers’.
The reality, however, is that without any legal or scientific standards, you should probably do your own research and perform an at-home patch test with each product before you give it a go.