If you think a label claiming that the product is hypoallergenic will protect your kids against allergic reactions, think again. Research published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology showed that a lot of products marketed for kids with itchy skin often contain ingredients that cause the very problem they’re promoted to address.
As explained in a story by Reuters, labels with the word “hypoallergenic,” which means unlikely to cause or designed to reduce an allergic reaction, are not regulated by the FDA. That means there’s no oversight of the claim and nothing to enforce its veracity.
The study tested products that might be used by children with eczema, a red, itchy skin condition common among children, but which can strike anyone at any time. It’s chronic, and tends to flare up, then die down without any clear cause. There is no cure for the long-lasting condition, known formally as atopic dermatitis.
Eczema affects nearly 18 million people in the U.S.
“Kids who have eczema or atopic dermatitis use more lotions and creams and ointments, …,” Carsten Hamann told Reuters. He’s the medical student who was lead author of the study. “Ostensibly, their caregivers who purchase these products to use on the kids' skin, give preference to products using these meaningless marketing terms.”
His team tested 187 cosmetic products sold in six different stores in California. They looked for any of the 80 most common known allergens identified by the North American Contact Dermatitis Group.
All of the products tested were promoted as safe for use by children, and all were labeled as “hypoallergenic,” “dermatologist recommended/tested,” “fragrance-free” or “paraben free.”
- Nearly 9 in 10 products contained at least one allergen.
- More than 6 in 10 contained two or more, and more than 1 in 10 contained five or more.
- The average number of allergens per product was 2.4.
- Preservatives and fragrances accounted for nearly 6 in 10, and 3 in 10 allergens, respectively.
- One in 10 products contained methylisothizolinone, a preservative the European Union plans to ban because it can cause severe skin irritation, according to the researchers.
Doctors usually advise eczema patients to use moisturizer on inflamed skin, but a lot of people with eczema also suffer from so-called “contact allergies.” That is, they might have allergic reactions to substances that touch their skin, including fragrances and preservatives.
“It would be very difficult for even the most caring, intelligent and well-read parent to know the names of 80-plus allergens and their synonyms,” Hamann told Reuters, “let alone compare that list of allergens to a 15-plus long ingredient list on the back of a pediatric product.”
The study wasn’t universally embraced. Dr. Donald Belsito, Professor of Dermatology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, commented to Reuters Health that the study “misrepresents a lot of these chemicals because they’re listing the frequency with which they were found in a product, not the frequency at which they cause allergy. … Many of the chemicals on that list are very, very rare causes of allergy.”
Another skin disease specialist, Dr. Michael Ardern-Jones from the University of Southampton in the U.K., noted the difficulty of defining terms associated with allergies. “Almost any chemical compound could be implicated as an allergen, so it is almost impossible for a cream to be truly nonallergic,” he told Reuters. “… as there is no true ‘hypoallergenic’ cream, there is no agreed meaning of ‘hypoallergenic.’”
But the greater point is that consumers — parents — believe that something called “hypoallergenic” offers a degree of protection. And with or without this study, it doesn’t, because there is no regulatory standard or oversight for the claim.
Both experts recommend treating eczema with ointments rather than creams and lotions, which contain water and therefore also must contain preservatives. That makes them more likely to contain allergens.
Belsito recommends petroleum-based products such as Vasoline, and advises keeping skincare products simple. Ardern-Jones said that prescription moisturizers generally are reliable, and advises against using products that contain fragrance and color, and that lack a list of ingredients.
The National Eczema Association reviews products and, according to Reuters, “is a more reliable resource than the product labels.”
To learn more about an additional risk factor for children developing eczema, see our blog, “Early Use of Antibiotics May Lead to Eczema Later”