“Hypoallergenic” is no doubt a term you’ve heard myriad times in relation to beauty. Can’t find a mascara that doesn’t make your eyes water? Try a hypoallergenic formula! Easily irritated skin? Hypoallergenic products will fix that! Sound vaguely familiar? It should — considering the cosmetics industry has been using the word for decades now as a way to convince customers “hypoallergenic” products are safer, better regulated, and/or have an ingredient list free of harsh chemicals and irritants.
Well, my friends, I truly hate to be the bearer of bad news but sadly, none of the above is true. And cosmetic chemists are the first ones to be vocal about it. “Hypoallergenic is not a legal term. It’s a marketing claim and basically means the product won’t cause an allergic response in most people,” said cosmetic chemist and former Senior Director of Hair and Skin Care R&D for Alberto Culver and Unilever, Randy Schueller.
Cosmetic chemist, founder and CEO of Skinects.com, Ni’Kita Wilson, acquiesces, telling Allure, “the term ‘hypoallergenic’ is a marketing term created to make consumers think that the product will trigger fewer allergic reactions than other products.” She’s quick to explain that the aforementioned actually means very little, adding that she wouldn’t personally make any recommendations based on the claim alone. (Might I remind you this is coming straight from an expert professionally trained in the making of cosmetics?)
What’s arguably even more alarming, though, is that there’s actually no official way of regulating what gets deemed “hypoallergenic” and what doesn’t. Albeit the the FDA’s attempt to set up guidelines for the term in the 1970s, cosmetic companies ultimately ended up fighting them in court and winning. Subsequently, to this day, there aren’t any standards or tests required to use this claim on a product label, according to Wilson.
“Many times the products are not known to trigger allergies anyway. With that being said, a company may use the term if they conducted patch testing — a test that people volunteer for to have a product applied to their back with a patch (to drive penetration of the product into the skin),” Wilson explained. “This is a standard industry test to determine if the product causes sensitization or other reactions — not necessarily allergic reactions, but any kind of reaction like contact dermatitis,” she added.
But — and this is a major but — Wilson says it’s crucial to keep in mind that said test does not specifically bring in people with allergies to participate, meaning someone who has very little or even no allergies at all could be the one getting patch tested. In other words, it really doesn’t make much sense for someone who does have allergies to be going off of a test that may or may not have been administered on those without any. Schueller also revealed that companies have no mandated list of ingredients they have to use or exclude in order to be considered “hypoallergenic.” So there’s that.
“A hypoallergenic label on a skin product means that the product is relatively less likely to cause allergic reactions compared to non-hypoallergenic products. This is because hypoallergenic products contain fewer potential allergens, or substances that trigger allergic reactions. However, the products are not allergy proof. It’s impossible to guarantee that a product will never cause an allergic reaction because there are numerous potential allergens and what people are allergic to can vary,” explained Shah. What’s more, she also made the same point about there being no standards for products to meet in order to put “hypoallergenic” on the label.
Marchbein, on the other hand, warned consumers to be wary of ingredient lists and not simply trust the term in itself. “This is a case of buyer beware. It is up to the consumer to carefully read all labels and especially the ingredient list on the back of the package,” she said, also adding that there needs to be more standardization of how skin-care products are regulated and labeled.
Well, there you have it, folks, straight from the sources themselves. It’s not great news, especially for those with easily sensitized skin who might have been using “hypoallergenic” products all along, believing they were safer. That being said, now that you know the facts, you can make better decisions for yourself when it comes to picking out cosmetics and skin care.
I’ll leave you with this: Be your own advocate! And when in doubt, go see a dermatologist you trust.
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