What Does Hypoallergenic Actually Mean?

The term hypoallergenic is a term that you have probably seen before on your skincare, makeup, or hair care products. But the term hypoallergenic may not actually mean what you think it does.

When you think of hypoallergenic you think of products that are safer, less irritating, better regulated, and free from harsh ingredients. Unfortunately hypoallergenic is not a legal term and as such doesn’t have any set standard or regulation of the terms used. The term hypoallergenic is essentially a marketing tool used to capture the sensitive skin market.

Why Is It Important?

The issue with not having a set standard of the term hypoallergenic is that any company can make the claim that their product is hypoallergenic without having to prove that it actually is. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration had previously tried to implement a standard for hypoallergenic products in the 1970s but the Federal court struck down the potential for FDA regulation of this term.

For the most part, the US Food and Drug Administration along with the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel is responsible for reviewing safety data of skincare and cosmetic ingredients to ensure their safety and evaluate efficacy claims. This has meant that many of the harsh ingredients have been regulated or banned for these uses. This makes the hypoallergenic claim even shakier as non-hypoallergenic products are just as likely or unlikely to cause allergy or reaction.

What is sometimes misunderstood about allergy or reaction is that it isn’t cut and dry. When someone has a reaction to a product it can be either of two origins. The first is that they are having a reaction to a specific ingredient. This can occur even with ingredients that are deemed as safe for sensitivity. This type of reaction is indicative of an allergy to an ingredient and not sensitive or reactive skin generally. People who experience this will find that some products will cause a reaction and some won’t. Unfortunately, it can be a difficult process of elimination to discover which ingredient may be causing the reaction. It is always best to work with your doctor or specialist to discern what is causing the reaction and ensure you stick to products that you know don’t cause you to flare up.

The other type of reaction is a generalized reaction which may not be to one specific ingredient. Unfortunately, allergy, irritation, and sensitivity can be contributed to by many different elements such as diet, stress level, immune health, gut health, the frequency with which you use the product as well as the concentration and type of product such as whether it is a leave-on or rinse-off product. It isn’t just as simple as using hypoallergenic products. Often products won’t be the cause or trigger of the allergy.

Who Should Use Hypoallergenic Products?

Fortunately hypoallergenic as a term has taken on a modicum of meaning in the industry. For the most part, companies will formulate without ingredients that are known to cause irritation in sensitive or reactive skin, so they can be less irritating for some people but it doesn’t mean that they won’t trigger an allergic reaction. As it stands it is really up to you, the consumer to read labels and claims carefully and look at ingredient lists and speak with your dermatologist or doctor until there is more standardization of the term ‘hypoallergenic’.

But What About Natural Products?

Natural or clean beauty products have increased in popularity in recent years and many with sensitivity or irritation have turned toward the clean beauty industry in hopes that they might hold the answers to their allergy issues. Unfortunately, the clean beauty and natural beauty industries face the same issue, lack of regulation. Like hypoallergenic clean beauty isn’t a regulated term and many brands have decided for themselves what they consider to be clean beauty.

The other issue, when talking about sensitivity and allergy and clean beauty products is that in an effort to avoid ingredients that have been touted as bad for your health (often not necessarily true), they will end up formulating with ingredients that are more likely to cause irritation and allergy such as essential oils, alternative preservatives or plant ingredients which are a complex mix of many different compounds, making it hard to know what is causing a reaction. Natural isn’t always best. As many of you who have sensitive or reactive skin will know, what works for one person may not work for you so the best thing to do is patch test, do your research using trustworthy sources, listen to your dermatologist or specialist and trust your body.

References:Ghadially, R, Halkier-Sorensen & Elias, P, 1992. ‘Effects of petrolatum on stratum corneum structure and function’, Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, vol. 26, is. 3, pp. 387-396.
Sethi, A, Kaur, T, Malhotra, S, & Gambhir, M, 2016. ‘Moisturizers: The Slippery Road’, Indian Journal of Dermatology, vol. 61, is. 3, pp. 279–287.
Hamishehkar, H, Same, S, Adibkia, K, Zarza, K, Shokri, J, Taghaee, M, & Kouhsoltani, M, 2015. ‘A comparative histological study on the skin occlusion performance of a cream made of solid lipid nanoparticles and Vaseline’, Research in Pharmaceutical Sciences, vol. 10, is. 5, pp. 378–387.

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