We never intentionally set out to use skincare or cosmetic products that will cause an allergic reaction, but sometimes, despite our best efforts, that's exactly what happens. When you don't have time or patience to pore over every single ingredient label on all the products you purchase and use, you probably head straight for the formulas marked "hypoallergenic" instead. But if you've ever been burned (literally and figuratively) by a product that was supposedly hypoallergenic, you likely have some questions and concerns. We, too, were curious about what "hypoallergenic" means (if it has any true meaning at all) and what makes a product worthy of the label, so we turned to the experts. Cosmetic chemists Erica Douglas of Sister Scientist, and Victoria Fu and Gloria Lu, from Chemist Confessions, as well as board-certified dermatologist Robert Finney, MD, explain the truth behind the term. Ahead, everything you need to know about allergy-inducing skincare ingredients and the best ways to avoid them in your products.
What Does "Hypoallergenic" Mean?
According to Douglas, there are so many undefined standards in the cosmetics industry, and “hypoallergenic” is just one of them. "The FDA does not define nor govern the use of the term 'hypoallergenic' in the cosmetics space, which means it technically falls under the category of a marketing claim," Douglas explains. "Ultimately, this means that each brand has the autonomy to determine what this term means in the context of their products."
Douglas continues: "Typically, most brands use the term 'hypoallergenic' to signify that a product contains fewer ingredients that are known to cause an allergic reaction—emphasis on 'fewer' because there are so many known allergens and no universal governing standard of what ingredients are classified as 'known allergens.' Therefore, it is impossible to be for certain that a product will not cause an allergic reaction in 100% of users."
Are Products Labeled "Hypoallergenic" Safe?
Unfortunately, no. As Douglas explains it, there is no way for a consumer to be absolutely certain that a product labeled as "hypoallergenic" will not cause an allergic reaction. "There are a plethora of ingredients and chemicals that people have known allergies to, so it is impossible to ensure that none of the millions of consumers that may purchase the product could not be allergic to something in the formula," Douglas explains. "The best way to protect yourself from an allergic reaction is to know what ingredients you’re allergic or sensitive to prior to use, and always check the ingredient panels to survey said ingredients."
Common Allergy-Inducing Skincare Ingredients
Because allergens are so personal, Fu says it's difficult to say which ingredients in skincare products are common potential allergens. "Think of it like a food allergy," Fu explains. "A person could be allergic to peanut butter, but does that mean other people should stop eating peanut butter and miss out on PB&Js? No, and this goes for skincare ingredients too."
But while we're on the topic of food allergies, Douglas says it's important to first identify if you have allergies to certain foods, plants, botanicals, or other natural ingredients that you may be exposed to through foods or other environmental conditions. Ingredients that are associated with these known allergies are the easiest to identify on a cosmetic ingredient panel.
Despite the fact that allergens are so personal, Fu points out that there are a few red flags to look out for in your product formulations. "Pay attention to fragrance (including essential oils) and preservative ingredients," Fu advises. "These tend to be the more common categories that cause trouble for sensitive skin." Unfortunately, however, figuring out which fragrances and preservatives are the sources of your issues will require a little detective work on your end.
Douglas says, in many cases, a person is not sensitive to all fragrances, but a certain subset of chemicals. If a brand doesn't list out these allergens (usually behind the word "fragrance") then there is no way to know which potential fragrance allergens are in the product. In which case, it’s best to steer clear of the product altogether if you know you are sensitive to fragrance. As for preservatives, Douglas notes that these will also not be listed explicitly on the ingredient panel as “preservative.”
But with all that said, anything has allergenic potential. Not only that, but Finney explains that you could develop a new allergy at any point. "You can wake up tomorrow and have a new allergy," Finney says. "Thus, just because you've used a product without issue for years, doesn't mean that it isn't the culprit when trying to figure out what is causing your rash." Finney also cites the American Contact Dermatitis Society (ACDS), which releases an allergen of the year, as a good source to reference. Here are a few ingredients that have all claimed that title in the past: Parabens, propylene glycol, fragrance mix, balsam of Peru, cobalt, nickel, formaldehyde/formaldehyde releases, acrylates in nail polish, p-phenylenediamine (hair dye/henna tattoo), cocamidopropyl betaine, dyes, and neomycin/bacitracin (topical antibiotics).
What Are Common Skin Allergic Reactions?
"The most common allergic reaction to a cosmetic product is cosmetic contact dermatitis (CCD)," Douglas explains. "It is when the epidermis of the skin has a hypersensitivity to a chemical or ingredient in a cosmetic product, which causes a reaction, such as irritation, burning, hives, a rash, or some other inflammatory response."
Finney adds that when you have an allergic reaction to a personal care product, usually a red, itchy rash will develop in the areas that you applied the product, but sometimes it can involve a slightly wider area. For example, Finney says an allergic reaction to acrylics in nail treatments is, at times, first seen with a rash around the mouth or eyes because we frequently touch these areas with our hands, and the thinner skin sees the allergen easier. Similarly, allergic reactions to hair dye, shampoos, and aerosolized things (like essential oils) often present as swollen, itchy eyelids, according to Finney.
How to Test a New Product
"If someone is suspected of having an allergy, it is best to see your dermatologist for patch testing, where we can isolate single allergens causing the reaction," Finney explains. If that's not possible, he recommends conducting a personal patch test at home. Douglas says before using a product all over your face, scalp, or body, try testing a small amount on the inside of your wrist or in the crease of your elbow. "Apply a small amount of product to the area and cover," Douglas says. "Check the area after 24 to 48 hours to see if you observe any adverse reactions, such as bumps, chronic burning, or itching. If you do this with multiple products over time, you can start to look for patterns of certain ingredients that are in these products that may be the culprit."
If a consumer struggles with compromised, sensitive skin, there are two main things Lu recommends doing: Firstly, partner with a good dermatologist to better understand your skin and build a more tailored skincare routine. Secondly, start paying attention to the ingredients in skincare products to become familiar with what ingredients might be okay for your skin and which ones might not. "Everyone's skin triggers are unique, and it pays off to understand exactly which ones are your specific troublemakers," Lu says.