“There are no Federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term “hypoallergenic.” The term means whatever a particular company wants it to mean. Manufacturers of cosmetics labeled as hypoallergenic are not required to submit substantiation of their hypoallergenicity claims to FDA.
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.”
So said the American Food and Drug Administration in 2000 on the subject of hypoallergenic products.
It is not often a regulatory body goes out of its way to renounce its authority and even less common for it to express an opinion. ‘ Nothing to do with us, mate’ isn’t really something you expect to hear from the authorities. I do sympathise with the FDA wanting to wash their hands of the issue. They aren’t the only ones. The EU doesn’t regulate hypoallergenic claims either. So basically anyone can use the term hypoallergenic on a pack and it can mean whatever they choose it to mean.
There are a lot of people with allergies out there so it is an appealing thing to say about your product. It also seems to be a growing market. More and more people are getting allergic reactions. The reasons aren’t entirely clear in the short run. But taking a longer view puts things in perspective. We all pack one heck of an immune system and it wasn’t that long ago we really needed it. Diseases like the Black Death and Bubonic Plague we have all heard of are not so distant events from a biological point of view. We don’t talk about it much, but intestinal worms used to be endemic as well. Survival of the fittest in human history has largely been a question of being fit to deal with germs and parasites.
What this means is that we now have the equivalent of a nightclub bouncer looking after a nursery. We have got rid of infectious diseases and parasites by a combination of inoculation, medication and sanitation. So our highly effective immune systems are all dressed up but with nowhere to produce inflammatory responses. We no longer get worms, so we get allergies.
All of this happened without us making it a conscious choice to trade one problem for another. But I think most of us would agree that we have ended up with the best side of the deal. But allergic reactions are a real problem nonetheless and although reactions to cosmetic products aren’t particularly common it would be good to reduce them if possible. And it is one of those problems that can afflict any of us at any time, so let’s not ignore it.
There are only a few contributions the cosmetic industry can realistically make to this issue. We can avoid ingredients that have a high probability of causing reactions. We can use a diversity of raw materials so that there are options open to the allergic. And we can clearly label the packs in ways that sufferers can understand.
The first one is pretty much on course. All big companies take notice of skin reactions and will reformulate if they get too many. The diversity one is a bit trickier, especially as everyone formulates out the same bad ones. But at least we now have more brands than we used to. The rise of natural products has also given people another alternative even if that wasn’t their objective. It is a shame so many natural products go down the ‘certification’ route. Quite apart from the fact that most natural standards are simply daft anyway, they also impose more uniformity which is a bad thing for allergy sufferers.
But when it comes to labelling the situation is not at all good and could be a lot better. In fact the hypoallergenic label is certainly not helping. How could it when nobody knows what it means, including the people making the products. It is tempting to suggest it is time to ditch the term altogether. But it has been around since the fifties. Although you could argue that it hasn’t done much good in that time, it must have some kind of resonance with people to have lasted that long. I think it is possible to come up with some kind of definition of what constitutes a product that is less likely to provoke allergic reactions. But that is another blog post.
For now, if you see hypoallergenic on a personal care product I suggest you simply ignore it. You don’t know what it means. The person who wrote it in the first place doesn’t know what it means. In fact, nobody anywhere knows what it means.