Gluten free diets have had their moment in the sun over the last year. They have become a big enough thing for the New Yorker to run a cartoon with the punchline ” I have only been off gluten for two weeks and already I am annoying.” Gluten is found in wheat and there is a very similar material in oats. It is the protein that holds bread together, and consequently it is rather hard to avoid. But it does give some people some real problems.
Whether or not this means avoiding it is a good idea I think I’ll leave until I have had a chance to review the evidence. But this is far from a new story in cosmetics. Both wheat and oats get used in a few cosmetic products, and there is one well known brand, Aveena, that uses oats as its unique selling point. Should these products be avoided?
It is a good question. Wheat derivatives are largely used as skin and hair conditioning agents, with hair care being the bigger user. They are highly processed and purified, and it is extremely unlikely that any trace of gluten would get through the manufacturing process and end up on a users skin. Even if it were to do so there’d be very little chance of it getting across the skin. So I’d have to say that logically people with a known sensitivity to gluten can use products with wheat derivatives in them without fear. But us humans aren’t that logical and I can understand why they might not want to take the chance.
Wheat derivatives will be listed on the ingredient list. Gluten itself doesn’t have an official name reflecting the fact that it is not used as an ingredient. The closest ingredients to it are gliadin and hydrolyzed wheat gluten. If you have a gluten problem these two should probably be avoided. There are a couple of other hydrolyzed wheat derivatives as well which while are unlikely to contain gluten are probably best avoided for peace of mind. None of these ingredients are widely used so you should be able to steer clear of them fairly easily.
Oats might pose more of a problem. Oats are supposed to be a useful anti-inflammatory material when added to a bath. They have been used traditionally as a cure for itch. There is work that shows an effect on the skin’s biochemistry that might be how this effect works. It has also been demonstrated to some extent in a clinical trial, though the results weren’t all that dramatic. But another study indicated that using an oat bath increased the risk of developing an allergy to oats. Neither of these studies are particularly satisfying in terms of the numbers of patients, and drawing any kind of conclusion from so little work is a risky.
A study in adults indicated that people who were allergic to components of cereals didn’t react to a topical treatment. This is perhaps not too surprising – the skin is an exceptionally good barrier.
But nonetheless I think if I had a child with problem skin I’d think twice about using an oat bath. The balance of probability is that there will be no adverse effect. But you are trading a short term benefit against a potential long term problem. I’d be inclined in this case to err on the side of caution with children.