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

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


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.


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 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.
The ingredient lysozyme is egg-derived. It is found in some toothpastes and perhaps other products.


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. Another is the ingredient chitin, which appears in Chitodent toothpaste.


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


Goat milk — caprae lac — is quite common in some natural and therapeutic skincare products (eg for eczema) or in soaps.
Milk derivatives may be tricker to spot. Among these are lactoferrin, colostrum and lactoperoxidase. Some of these occasionally turn up in toothpastes and perhaps other products.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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


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.


  1. Fred de Vries

    It seems that oil from peanuts will hardly ever result in allergic reactions. See here:
    [1] Crevel et al: Allergenicity of refined vegetable oils in Food and Chemical Toxicology – 2000
    [2] Hourihane et al: Randomised, double blind, crossover challenge study of allergenicity of peanut oils in subjects allergic to peanuts in British Medical Journal – 1997
    [3] Kull et al: Peanut oil in vitamin A and D preparations: reactions to skin test and manifestation of symptoms in Pediatric Allergy and Immunology – 1999
    [4] Ring et al: Allergy to peanut oil- clinically relevant? in Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology – 2007

    1. Alex G (Post author)

      Thanks Fred. I think too though that the risk of sensitisation through peanut on the skin in those prone to allergies is also a possible concern? While possibly safe, those with peanut allergies are likely to want to avoid peanut in cosmetics, and should be made aware of what to look for if they wish to do so, I think. Best wishes, Alex.

  2. Karen Adnett

    Is there any campaigning currently to get beauty manufacturers to declare allergens? I almost used a clarins cream this week made with peanut oil – my small child is highly allergic. I’m totally horrified.

    1. Alex G (Post author)

      They do have to declare the peanut – but I’m presuming it was in Latin and almost caught you out? Which product was it, out of interest?


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. Please read our Privacy Policy and our Affiliates Disclosure in 'About' more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.