Nearly all “natural” skin care products sold at three top U.S. retailers contain allergens, according to a study by a trio of dermatologists at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Nearly 90 percent of the 1,651 personal skin care products studied (including lotions, soaps, and moisturizers) contained at least one of the top 100 most common allergens known to cause contact dermatitis.

Contact dermatitis is more than a passing irritation. It is a red, itchy rash that, at worst, can blister; it is caused by exposure to substances that either irritate or inflame the skin. The latter is an allergic reaction that occurs once the skin becomes sensitized to an otherwise harmless substance.

Rates of contact dermatitis are estimated to be on the rise worldwide, increasing nearly threefold in three decades since 1996, reports Science Alert.

The researchers say that this increase in contact dermatitis, the rapidly growing billions worth of “natural” skin care products and the lack of marketing regulation motivated this study.

Why are “natural” skin care products dangerous?

“The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not defined clean or natural, allowing vendors to freely advertise these terms that imply safety and health benefits,” explain dermatologist Peter Young and his colleagues at Stanford University.

So researchers pulled product ingredient lists from the websites of three US retailers and checked them against an online database that lists common ingredients that people with contact dermatitis should avoid. The database is maintained by the American Contact Dermatitis Society.

Contact dermatitis is preventable, as long as you can navigate and interpret the long list of ingredients found in skin care products and know which ones might aggravate skin problems. This is easier said than done.

“Natural” skin care or cosmetic products can contain anywhere from 15 to 50 ingredients. Research suggests that people may be applying more than 500 different chemicals to their skin each day, depending on their skin care routine.

In other words, the more products you use, the more you expose your skin to potential allergens.

How many allergens are in “natural” skin care products?

Many of the allergens identified in the study were fragrances (such as lavender and other botanical extracts) that have become a leading cause of contact dermatitis.

On average, skin care products contained between 4 and 5 known allergens. In total, 73 different allergens were listed 7,487 times in the 1,651 products studied.

This is only based on product information available online, but gives an idea of ​​the extent of the problem.

“These results suggest the need to educate patients and healthcare professionals to ensure the public is informed about the products they are applying to their skin,” Young and his colleagues conclude in the paper.

Previous studies

Of course, this isn’t the first study to examine allergens in personal care products. In 2017, another US study found that few moisturizers were allergen-free, and even “fragrance-free” products sometimes contained fragrances, which can irritate the skin.

The issue has been on dermatologists’ radar for some time, but their message rarely seems to get past the marketing noise surrounding “natural” skin care products, which often emphasize what supposedly harmful ingredients the products don’t contain in the hope that consumers don’t scrutinize the lists. of ingredients closely.

Also, labeling products as “natural” tells consumers nothing about the safety of an ingredient. Instead, it perpetuates a false division between ingredients that can be obtained from nature and synthetic compounds that may be chemically identical.

“Natural” is just a marketing slogan based on a long history of people sourcing traditional medicines and cosmetics from nature because they believe they are safer.

The truth about parabens

But marketing influences consumer perceptions, and this can have real consequences. An “epidemic” of contact allergies broke out, for example, when a more allergenic preservative called methylisothiazolinone began to replace other safer preservatives, parabens, after they fell out of favor in the beauty industry because of claims based on questionable studies , now disproved.

This is not to say that all marketing is problematic, although it is often misleading and sometimes untrue. Some beauty influencers have contributed to a real change in feeling towards sun protection, now a “must-have” for good skin.

Product claims should be backed up with scientific evidence

But terms like “hypoallergenic” and “dermatologically tested” are invented by the industry to provide an allure of medical credibility when there are no legal criteria manufacturers must meet to make these claims. And that’s not to mention how the marketing touts the health benefits of skin care.

“Consumers and doctors alike should demand that the clean beauty movement back up its claims with evidence,” University of Pennsylvania dermatologists Courtney Blair Rubin and Bruce Brod wrote in a 2019 editorial.

This remains true today.

The study was published in JAMA Dermatology.

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