I’m often asked for recommendations for allergy-safe or hypoallergenic cosmetics. Many refer to ‘allergen free’ skincare but in practice little can be truly allergen free, given that almost all ingredients used in toiletries can — at least in theory, if not in practice — cause allergic or irritant reactions.
But if you are experiencing a lot of skin sensitivities and are unable to pinpoint the reason, or are perhaps due for patch testing with your dermatologist, but want to minimise exposure to possible allergens in the meantime, there are some cosmetics which are very unlikely to aggravate or cause problems. Trying an ‘elimination’ skincare regime, using only products with extremely simple, fragrance free formulations, might ease skin troubles, though there are no guarantees.
Such products are not always easy to find, though, and brand claims can’t always be relied upon. An American study from autumn 2017 found that almost half of so-called ‘fragrance free’ moisturisers contained either fragrance allergens or botanical ingredients with the potential to cause reactions in those with fragrance allergies, while 5 out of every 6 ‘hypoallergenic’ products contained at least one potential allergen, as defined by the North American Contact Dermatitis Group. The excellent brand Vanicream was singled out as being the closest to a truly allergen-free brand; its manufacturers, PSICO, also produce the Free & Clear range of low-allergen cosmetics (mainly for hair), and both are worth exploring.
For those who prefer ‘natural’ ingredients, those to look out for are olive oil, palm oil, argan oil, shea butter, cocoa butter and other plain, natural oils, butters and waxes. Mineral oil or petroleum jelly, while not popular with green cosmetic lovers, are safe too — with Vaseline pure petroleum jelly mentioned by the study’s American researchers as an allergen-free product.
Here are some further suggestions. Asterisk denotes an affiliated link.
Pure scent-free oils are perhaps the best option, as they should be essentially preservative free.
For the face, you may only need a few drops daily, so although some can be expensive, they will last. Pai Rosehip BioRegenerate Oil (click here for US*, and click here for UK) and Fushi’s Golden Organic Jojoba Oil are both beautiful oils to try.
Face oils can generally be used anywhere on the body, and many body oils are suitable for the face, but dedicated options including Balm Balm’s Fragrance Free Body Oil in the UK, and in the US, California Baby Oil might be worth a try, which is just canola, linseed and evening primrose.
Pure shea butter — widely available — is about as close to allergy free as you can get. (Although shea is defined as a tree nut in US allergen legislation, there are no confirmed shea allergies on record.) If you find it too hard, whipped shea butter is a little softer, but melt between fingers before applying. It may not suit the face, but works well on the body.
For blends, in the UK you could try MuLondon Fragrance Free Moisturiser — a simple blend of oils and butters. In the US, S W Basics products contain 5 ingredients or fewer, and their Basics Cream is just a blend of three — coconut, shea and olive.
If you want a traditional ‘cream’ cream and don’t mind a ‘non natural’ product, Vanicream Moisturising Skin Cream contains only water, petroleum, silicones, stearates and a few other non-reactive ingredients.
Simple, unfragranced, uncolored soaps are what to aim for, preferably made from just one oil source. Although goat’s milk and oats are common in ‘hypoallergenic’ soaps, these can be triggers for some. The easiest pure soaps to acquire seem to be 100% olive oil soaps. Both Kiss My Face Pure Olive Oil Soap, and Oliva Pure Olive Oil Soap in this US* — but available very affordably from Holland and Barrett in the UK — are just saponified olive oil, water, and salt.
If you prefer a blended low allergen alternative, I like the look of Falls River Soap Company’s Natural White Soap Bar*, which contains only coconut, rice bran, palm, shea and castor.
Many pure oils can be used as cleansing oils to remove make-up. Castor oil is regarded for its cleansing properties, but look for any unfragranced pure oil blend.
Gel or water-based cleansers are trickier, because even unfragranced ones will contain potentially allergenic preservatives and other ingredients. You could try Free & Clear Liquid Cleanser*, which combines a few natural ingredients such as glycerin with other non-reactive synthetic ingredients.
A cleanser won the overall prize in the annual Free From Skincare Awards 2018 — Harborist’s Balm-Gel Cleanser. It performed excellently.
Two other allergy-safe products worth considering:
Konjac Sponge Company’s Eye Cleansing Pads, which are made without using any additive, colorants or irritants, and are ideal for sensitive eyes.
And finally, WaterWipes. Ideal for baby, but suitable for all, especially with sensitive skin, for simple cleansing needs. Just water and 0.1% grapefruit seed extract.
There are few natural, unfragranced and vegan lip balms out there, but one highly performing one is the Benecos Classic Lip Balm, which won the Free From Skincare Award in 2017 for best Overall Skincare Product. It’s excellent — a blend of allergy-safe plant waxes, oils and butters, such as shea, olive, carnauba and castor. In the UK, you can order it from Suvarna Natural Beauty — which is home to lots of natural / allergy-safe products — and in the US through True Natural.
Shampoos with simple formulations are hard to come by, and some women with extreme sensitivities resort to simply rinsing regularly with water or using the gentlest of soaps.
Worth trying are hair powders, which are mixed with water by the user, thus avoiding the need for preservatives.
In the UK, Suvarna Organic Beauty is the best supplier of so-called no-poo (i.e. non-shampoo) hair cleansers and powders — they stock Logona LavaErde Rhassoul clay / hectorite cleanser, plus soap nut powder and shikakai powder by It’s Pure Organics. Well worth a look.
In the US, there seems to be a greater range — search for shikakai powder or soap nut powder on Amazon or other online stockists, but make sure any you try are pure, suitable for cleansing, and with no added fragrance or colouring agents such as henna (unless that’s what you want).
The next step up, and still helpful in avoiding the preservative issue, are shampoo bars.
In the US, Maple Hill Naturals Shampoo Bar* is essentially an unscented hair soap made of sapnoified plant oils (coconut, castor) plus moisturising oils and butters such as shea and hemp seed. Sappo Hill Shampoo Bar looks an equally simple formulation, with avocado, palm, coconut and castor oils, plus glycerine.
In Britain, perhaps try Living Naturally Coconutty Soap Nut Shampoo Bar, with olive oil, soap nut, coconut, rice bran and other non reactive naturals.
You can keep conditioning very straightforward with just coconut oil (suitable for all hair types) or shea butter or a liquid hair oil such as camellia oil or argan oil (which is good for dry hair).
For an orthodox traditional conditioner, again Free & Clear’s is perhaps the best to try.
Pure henna dyes, or dyes made from a blend of henna and other non-reactive botanicals such as cassia, beetroot, coffee and indigo, are the safest options, but are sadly the least long-lasting. As you move towards semi-permanent and then permanent hair dyes, the allergens increasingly start to creep in. PPD and TDS, found in most permanent hair dyes, are among the most allergenic ingredients, sometimes dangerously so.
View this article on PPD-free Hair Dye for more information on hair colouring and allergies — in section 1, it has lots of links to natural henna dyes and related options.
Given where most make-up is applied — eyes and lips — it may be better to side-step make up altogether until you’ve resolved or identified any skin or sensitivity issues, especially if they’re on the face.
For lips, Tinted Lip Balm by low-salicylate brand Cleure contains only plant butters, beeswax, vitamin E and mineral colour (mica, TiO2), and can impart some colour in place of lipstick. Ere Perez Beetroot Cheek & Lip Tint is all natural and low-allergen — mainly beetroot, blue agave, glycerine, methyl cellulose and a generally ‘safe’ preservative in potassium sorbate. In the UK, PHB’s Lip Tints are worth a look — plant butters, mineral colours and vitamin E.
For a hypoallergenic eye liner, perhaps those by 100 Percent Pure.
But mascara is very difficult …
First thing to point out is that your choice of razor or shaver could potentially be a problem — nickel metal, a very common allergen, is often in the blades. Learn more from this article on Nickel Free Razors and Shavers.
For wet shaving, you can adapt using a safe moisturising or cleansing oil as a base, with some safe thick soap on top.
For a dedicated product, in the US, WSP’s Hypoallergenic Rustic Shaving Soap consists of just stearic acid, coconut oil, glycerin and potassium hydroxide. In the UK, Le Pere Lucien Unscented Shaving Soap is just potassium stearate, coconut derivatives and glycerin.
Shaving gels and creams generally contain water, which means potentially allergenic preservatives are required. Vanicream’s Shaving Cream may be worth trying, but it does contain disodium EDTA as a preservative, which is an occasional allergen.
Lyonsleaf Zinc and Calendula Balm is a major winner in the Free From Skincare Awards, and contains just calendula, zinc oxide, babassu oil, beeswax, and borage oil — suitable for skin prone to nappy rash. In the US, BabyLabs Unscented Diaper Balm is a blend of cocoa butter, sunflower coconut oil, beeswax, rosemary / chamomile extracts and vitamin E — a very allergy-safe formulation for very young children.
Baby Powder? The US has better fragrance free and talc free options. Little Twig’s Baby Powder is corn starch, kaolin, aloe, bicarb and a few other ingredients. Ora’s Amazing Herbal Unscented Baby Powder is kaolin, bicarb, arrowroot and plantain powders only — even less allergenic. Simply Baby Unscented is just kaolin, arrowroot and tapioca.
And don’t forget those Water Wipes …
Another tricky one, as anything applied to the underarm — a very delicate skin area — risks a reaction. Vanicream have a very simple Deodorant you may like to try, though.
Or try one of the baby powders above as a moisture absorber — and gently rinse or wash pits regularly with water …
For some natural or ‘flavour free’ toothpastes, this article, Salicylate Free Toothpaste, may have some useful suggestions (salicylates are aspirin-like chemicals, present in botanicals, especially mint, which some are sensitive to).
You may also like to consider a natural tooth powder, such as the Georganics Natural Toothpowder — just mineral salts, earth, tartaric acid and vitamin E.
If you do have problem or reactive skin, or skin which is flaring up, a barrier protective product such as plain Vaseline may help with regard to future reactions.
Some swear by Aquaphor Healing Ointment.
SkinSmart Antimicrobial is a hypoallergenic spray, just water and hypochlorous (an antibacterial), which is said to promote healing and soothe skin.
And finally, RoBathol Bath Oil, is a fragrance free cottonseed-based bath oil (also includes a seemingly non-reactive polymer alcohol compound) which ‘soothes, lubricates and moisturises’ dry and chapped skin.