14 allergens in cosmetics

The experience related in The Sun this week of a nut allergic student suffering a severe reaction after using a Nivea lip balm containing sweet almond oil should serve as a reminder that, if you have food allergies, the ingredients in skincare products should be carefully checked too.

This would not be a particular additional difficulty, arguably, were cosmetic labelling regulations similar to food labelling regulations.

They’re not.

Allergens will not be highlighted, but even more cumbersome for the allergic consumer is that botanical ingredients are unlikely to be declared in ‘plain English’ terms, but instead in Latin terms, following the standardised INCI format which is recognised and understood internationally. Animal ingredients may also be in Latin, but plain English is more common.

Some skincare brands put helpful English translations in brackets, or offer an alternative plain English ingredients listing, but most do not.

This means you have to learn the Latin or INCI for your food allergens, and scrutinise labels carefully. This is especially important for eye and lip make-up — but all should be checked.

In practice, severe reactions to food allergens in cosmetics are rare. Often the oils used will contain only trace proteins, but this is no reason to drop your guard.

So here is a list of the 14 EU food allergens, with the INCI Latin term where applicable, plus examples of cosmetic use. Remember that vegan products should be effectively free from animal-sourced allergens. Any trace contamination is unlikely to trigger a reaction, as it might in the corresponding food scenario, given the quantity and method of exposure.

 

Surprising food allergens can turn up in cosmetics

Celery
Apium Graveolens.
Rare in cosmetics, but here’s one explicit example of a celery seed oil face cream.

 

Cereals containing gluten
Triticum vulgare (wheat); hordeum vulgare (barley); secale cereale (rye); avena sativa (oat).
Wheat and oats are the most common cereals used in cosmetics, followed less frequently by barley, and very rarely rye.
Hydrolysed wheat starch (which may be described as such) is common as a thickener, and wheat proteins may be used in shampoos and conditioners.
Oat derivatives are commonly used in bath milks, skin cream and therapeutic skincare products.
Barley extracts are sometimes used in skin creams with purported antioxidant benefits.

 

Crustaceans
My feeling is you’re unlikely to see Latin terms for shrimp / prawn, crab and lobster on cosmetics, but chitosan is a cosmetic ingredient derived from the shells of crustaceans, and appears in ingredients as chitosan succinamide and trimethyl chitosan. You may also see the word chitin. It appears the risk of a reaction to these derivatives is quite low, but they’re best avoided.

 

Eggs
Ovum
Eggs are rich in collagen and protein and sometimes used in cosmetics. Lush, for example, use it in their Curly Wurly Shampoo and their Shine So Bright Hair Balm. It is labelled there as ‘egg’ though.

 

Fish
Piscum lecur / gad lecur.
Like some of the above, the use of fish derivatives in cosmetics tends to be more of an issue for vegans as the ingredients are highly refined and processed, and are unlikely to trigger reactions. Guanine is derived from fish scales, and adds ‘shimmer’ to make-up. The emollient squalene / squalane can be derived from shark liver, but also from plant sources. Looking for vegan and vegetarian skincare products and brands — of which there are many these days — should protect you of any small risk.

 

Lupin
Lupinus albus
You might find lupin oil or derivatives in anti-ageing formulas. This Susanne Kaufmann Regneration Cream contains fermented white lupine, for example.

 

Milk
Lac
Goat milk — caprae lac — is quite common in some natural and therapeutic skincare products (eg for eczema) or in soaps.

 

Molluscs
I’ve not seen any Latin terms for molluscs on skincare products, but mollusc ingredients are sometimes used — in Pernaton Green Lipped Mussel Gel, for example, and snail secretion in the Dr Organic Snail Gel range.

 

Mustard
Brassica alba / sinapis alba
Apparently mustard seed oil is a good cosmetic oil, but it seems quite uncommon, and I’ve been unable to find an example. Other brassica seed oils — such as broccoli and rape — are sometimes used, though I don’t know about potential cross reactions.

 

Nuts
Prunus [amygdalus] dulcis/amara/sativa (almond); bertholletia excelsa (Brazil nut); anacardium occidentale (cashew); corylus rostrata/avellana (hazelnut); macadamia ternifolia (macadamia); carya illinoinensis (pecan); pistacia vera (pistachio); juglans regia/nigra (walnut)
Very common in any cosmetic oils and cream moisturisers, as well as make-up. Almond is perhaps the most used. I’ve not seen an example with pecan.

 

Peanut
Arachis/arachis hypogea
Much rarer in cosmetics these days, following the recognition over a decade ago that it may be contributing to higher rates of food allergy, but here it is in a Dr Sebagh Replenishing Cream, showing that you can’t drop your guard.

 

Sesame
Sesamum indicum
Widely used, in creams, lipsticks and more.

 

Soya
Glycine max/soja
Common, again, right across the spectrum of cosmetics — skin creams, hair products, make-up.

 

Sulphites
Widely used in various forms (eg sodium sulphite, potassium metabisulphite), but look for the word ‘sulphite’ to play safe. As in food, they help protect discolouration by oxidation, so tints, dyes and make-up are the most likely sources. See also my previous article on sulphite free hair dye.

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