There was a lot of interest in hypoallergenic products back in the eighties when I first started as a formulator. Back then the perception was that natural ingredients were the problem. Like a lot of popular ideas it corresponded to prejudice rather than evidence. But few of us, scientists included, trouble to check our beliefs against actual data.
A number of brands came out hanging their hat on the idea that they used ingredients that were less likely to cause allergic reactions. The best known was Almay, which hasn’t crossed my path for many years now. It still exists and still claims to be suitable for sensitive skin – without much detail on why they are better. Another brand well known for its claimed skin kindness is Simple. The story for Simple is, well, simple. They avoid colours and fragrances. This was a pretty unique approach back in the eighties when they first came out, but seems a bit obvious now.
Since then the generally held idea has shifted to the notion that natural is better and healthier, and so by extension ought to cause less skin reactions. This idea is just as unsupported by any actual data as the idea that natural products cause skin reactions.
So I wondered how would you go about using what we now know about how the skin to come up with a hypoallergenic product. Here is my list. I can’t cite all the supporting data I have for these because some of it relates to what I learnt from reports of problems to companies for whom I worked. I no longer have access to those.
Hypoallergenic – Safety In Lack of Numbers
Few ingredients – given that anything can cause an allergy logic dictates that the fewer ingredients the fewer reactions. Formulations are often full of ingredients that contribute only marginal benefit to the end user. Tip-ins that are there simply to allow nice sounding plants to be referred to on the packaging are the most obvious examples.
Other ingredients that you can easily live without are some of the more extraordinary actives that come and go in fashion. Bee venom for example seems to be popular with some people but if anything is asking to provoke an allergic reaction amongst those that are prone to them it is a foreign protein like bee venom.
Hypoallergenic – Avoid Protein
Bee venom isn’t the only protein around. Things like hydrolysed collagen or silk are good candidates as well. Proteins do have some benefits in cosmetic products. They can be configured to adhere to the surface of the skin and hair which can, in the right conditions, be conditioning. On the whole this is perfectly safe and fine. But proteins can be broken down to smaller peptides, and these are prime candidates for provoking allergies.
I don’t have any empirical evidence to support this. It might be one of those risks like being hit by a meteorite – it could happen but so rarely it isn’t worth worrying about. But as there are other ways of achieving the same results, why take the risk.
Hypoallergenic – Synthetic Is Safer
As synthetic as possible – allergies are provoked by the immune system which is fine tuned to detect naturally occurring materials. Although it is certainly possible for synthetic ingredients to trigger allergic reactions, natural ingredients that resemble things that our immune systems have evolved with are the most likely to give issues. The ultimate example of this is the rejection of the bodies own tissues, which seems to play a part in diseases like rheumatism, asthma and eczema.
There was a time when this was the conventional wisdom. At the time there was no particular evidence behind it, but since then a good example has come to light. The standard emollient oil in cosmetics is mineral oil. But if you want to be more natural you can switch to a vegetable oil instead. This is generally fine, but you do have to bear in mind that a large number of people have nut allergies.
This is admittedly the only example I know of, but straw clutching is standard for this area.
Hypoallergenic – Preservatives
The biggest problem for creating a product that won’t cause a issues for the end user is the choice of preservative. There are only a handful of approved preservatives that are practical to use. They all get used over and over again, so anyone with an issue to any one of them is going to have a devil of a time avoiding them.
There is one not at all obvious possible solution. Preservatives often work much better in combination than singly. This means that you can lower the overall level of preservative by using lots of different preservatives. Although allergic reactions can occur to very low exposures, the dose does matter. If you can keep the total exposure down then you are a lot less likely to trigger a reaction off.
The objection would be that someone who has already been sensitised to a certain ingredient is going to be very reluctant to try a product that contains their tormenter even if you tell that the level is much lower than usual.
One way this might be made to work is if a set of industry agreed blends which could be
colour coded e.g.. paraben version, MI version, Ethylhexylglycerin version etc. Colour coding would be a lot easier to follow than chemical names.
Hypoallergenic – Fragrance Free
Fragrances are not as big a source of allergic reactions as they used to be thanks to the efforts of the International Fragrance Research Association who continually improve standards. (Blog post coming.) But for a hypoallergenic product there is no justification for taking the risk.
Although there is no such thing as a perfectly safe material with regards to allergy, there are some pretty safe materials out there.
Parabens – given how widely parabens are used it is remarkable how few reactions they provoke. If you have wondered why so many companies have continued to use them despite their terrible reputation, this is it. Switching from parabens to an alternative will almost certainly get more complaints from your customers.
Lanolin – the grand father of cosmetic ingredient scare stories still has some people scared. In fact the incidence of allergic reactions to it is very low. We don’t know the rate of incidence of allergic reactions to many things, but lanolin has a very acceptable level of 5 per milllion.
Silicones – silicones very rarely provoke allergic reactions.Buy my Kindle mini-book on cosmetic ingredients