Study: Most "Natural" Skin Care Products Contain Allergens

There might be a new reason to pay attention to product labels. A recent Stanford study just found that most “natural” soaps, lotions, and fragrances contain allergens in their ingredients.

Key takeaways:
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    A recent Stanford study just found that most “natural” soaps, lotions, and fragrances contain allergens in their ingredients.
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    The most common effect of allergens in skin care products is contact dermatitis, which is an itchy rash caused by direct contact or an allergic reaction.
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    Many products labeled “natural” or “clean” can be misleading.
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    People with sensitive skin can avoid harsher ingredients by using hypoallergenic and fragrance-free products.

The research letter, featured in JAMA Dermatology, showed that many products that are advertised to be “clean” and "natural" may still cause skin issues due to ingredients that can lead to allergic contact dermatitis.

Contact dermatitis is an itchy rash that happens when you come into direct contact with something or have an allergic reaction to it. Even though the rash isn't contagious, it can be very painful.

The researchers were able to analyze 1,651 so-called "natural" personal care products (NPCPs).

Unfortunately, most of the products contained ingredients that can lead to allergic contact dermatitis. Out of all of the NPCPs, more than 94% of the products contained at least one known contact allergen.

About 90% of the NPCPs had an ingredient that was ranked as one of the top 100 most clinically prevalent allergens. This means that it is an allergen that patients are most likely to be allergic to.

The most common of all the allergens listed was fragrance. In fact, "fragrance mix," which can be very irritating to sensitive skin, was listed in over 36 percent of the products.

The fact that there are no regulations for what makes a product "natural" better explains why so many products contain allergens.

Stanford Medicine dermatologist Dr. Gordon Bae explained further:

"Most people think of natural products as containing fewer synthetic ingredients. These products may use ingredients such as minerals, herbal extracts or plant oils instead of their synthetic counterparts. But the Food and Drug Administration doesn't have an exact definition of 'natural', so consumers don't have a clear idea of what they are getting when manufacturers label their product as 'natural'."

Dr. Bae and co-author of the study, medical student Haiwen Gui, confirmed that even products that promise to be "good for people who have sensitive skin" can be misleading due to still containing harsh allergens.

However, even truly natural ingredients can be harsh on sensitive skin.

“If you're using a facial moisturizer that contains an essential oil you're allergic to, you'll develop itchy red patches within a day or two of application. In the U.S., contact dermatitis accounts for around $1.5 billion in medical costs each year. It's a pretty common problem,” said Dr. Bae.

Not only can natural ingredients be harsh, but so can some of the solutions for contact dermatitis.

“We often prescribe topical steroids to calm down the itchy rashes, but if you're very sensitive, you need exposure only once every three weeks to keep the allergic reaction going. It causes a lot of misery for patients because these allergens are so prevalent in natural skin care products that people end up getting exposed quite often, even if they stop using the product that caused the problem and switch to a new one,” said Dr. Bae.

The study found that the number of people with dermatitis caused by personal care products has more than doubled since 1996. Currently, about 60 percent of people report having sensitive skin.

According to the researchers, there are a few things people with sensitive skin can do to avoid harsh allergens and irritants in their skin care products.

Avoid ingredients like limonene, eugenol and hexyl cinnamal and other fragrance-based ingredients.

Use fragrance-free products.

Look for products labeled "hypoallergenic" rather than “natural.” Hypoallergenic ingredients tend to be safer for sensitive skin.

The researchers urged more consumer awareness when it comes to misleading labels like “natural” and “clean.”

“We need clear regulatory guidance for natural products so consumers aren't led astray,” said Dr. Bae.

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