Why ‘Hypoallergenic’ Skin Care Products Can Be Dangerous
“Hypoallergenic” doesn't always mean you're getting the best skin care products. Here’s the lowdown on that skin care claim.
If you’re reading this article, chances are you’re a human like me, and humans like us have one face and one face only.
Because of this (and probably a lot of other reasons...), it only makes sense that you’d want to invest in skin care products that are good for your skin. As a responsible, single-faced consumer, you may read up on the best skin care routines online and assemble a regimen based on product labels and descriptions. Unfortunately, this method probably isn’t going to be enough to keep potentially irritating skin care ingredients out of your cabinets and off your face.
If you’re someone who reads ingredients on product packaging carefully, you’re one step ahead. For those of you who rely on label markers like “hypoallergenic," you might be unwittingly endangering that precious face. According to a recent study published in JAMA Dermatology, most best-selling moisturizers–which are probably dotted all over Instagram in photogenic #shelfies–have problematic ingredient profiles. For the study, researchers looked at 174 of the most popular whole-body moisturizing products sold online at Amazon, Target, and Walmart and found that marketing claims such as “hypoallergenic,” “fragrance free,” and “dermatologist recommended” are largely just that: marketing claims. The weighty-sounding words are not based on any stringent scientific standard you may have assumed.
The study revealed that just 12 percent of the moisturizers inspected were free of the most common allergens, while 83 percent of products labeled as "hypoallergenic" had at least one of the most common allergen ingredients. The FDA doesn’t even regulate who uses the term "hypoallergenic" or what the word means when listed on cosmetics, saying on its website, "The term means whatever a particular company wants it to mean." That’s pretty ridiculous when you think about it; not too many people are allowed to just say things like, "Oh that’s what ’blush’ means to you? For me, it’s that breakfast food I put in a bowl and eat with milk."
It’s not really a conventional communication strategy to have words that mean anything depending on who you’re talking to, so it seems like brands that use such terminology are intentionally misleading you. Companies do not have to submit anything for approval before publicizing the "hypoallergenic" claim on their skin care products, which makes me wonder what misleading language could pop up on labels next.
The FDA’s website goes on to say, "The term ’hypoallergenic’ may have considerable market value in promoting cosmetic products to consumers on a retail basis, but dermatologists say it has very little meaning. New York City-based dermatologist Marisa Garshick, MD, expands on similar unsubstantiated skin-care terminology, telling us, "There is actually very little regulation as to what can be labeled ’dermatologist recommended’ as the Federal Trade Commission requires a ’reasonable basis’ for this claim, but not much evidence needs to support this claim."
"Labeling products as fragrance-free can sometimes be deceiving as products can have masking ingredients that contain fragrance, particularly if the label says it is unscented, or other cross-reactors or botanicals with the potential to irritate the skin," she adds.
Dr. Garshick recommends Vanicream and VMV Hypoallergenics as helpful brands to introduce into your skin-care routine and says to run products by a board-certified dermatologist rather than trust the marketing jargon, "given there is often little correlation between what the label says and allergic potential." I’m sure whoever first said, "Don’t judge a book by its cover" didn’t mean it as, "Don’t judge a product by what its label explicitly says it is," but here we are.
It may be difficult to keep up with what ingredients you do and don’t want in your skin care products, but relying on claims made on the labels won’t get you very far in creating the best skin-care regimen for yourself. It’s important to know what claims to be skeptical of and, if you’re ever unsure of an ingredient, patch test a product before applying it to your entire body or face.
Until we become a species that can shed and regenerate our skin (Is that a gross or exciting prospect?), it’s better to be safe than sorry.