The issue of nut-based ingredients in cosmetic products continues to cause concern among members of the nut allergy community, and I regularly see confusion about the subject on social media. Here’s what you need to know.
What is a cosmetic?
Cosmetics incorporate not only make-up, but all preparations applied to the external parts of the body or the oral cavity in order to perform at least one of a number of functions — moisturise, condition, cleanse, exfoliate, deodorise, colour or fragrance. That means toothpaste, anti-perspirant, and shampoo are cosmetics, along with all moisturisers, soaps, shower gels, and much more besides. All must follow cosmetics labelling laws.
Ingredients must be declared on cosmetics, and these must follow INCI format — the International Nomenclature of Cosmetics Ingredients — a standardised system of referring to every permitted ingredient.
Besides the impenetrable ‘chemical’ names commonly seen in the ingredients of your toiletries, which are a challenge to consumers, the main bone of contention for people with food allergy is that most botanical ingredients are given in Latin, not always with an English translation to go with it.
Latin is an obvious choice, as it is widely used in botanical classifications, and this approach allows for cosmetic companies in all nations to add translations in their home languages alongside, while maintaining the benefits a universal language offers too. This helps:
1/ cosmetic chemists and scientists accurately monitor reactions to cosmetic products and ingredients worldwide, without concern for mis-translations and local variations in names, and be confident that research papers are accurate in this regard;
2/ medical professionals accurately evaluate potential reactions in dermatology clinics, for instance, should their patients be using non-native products;
3/ consumers identify botanical products accurately, knowing they have to look for one specific term, wherever they may be in the world, or from wherever in the world their cosmetics may be sourced.
So those managing tree nut allergies must learn the Latin names for their personal triggers.
There are 8 “tree nuts” listed in UK food legislation as declarable allergens which must be named and emphasised in the ingredients of any food or drink product in which they are used. Here they are, with their Latin names alongside.
Almond, hazelnut, macadamia and walnut oils are common ingredients in skincare, but the others are rarer.
Almond – prunus [amygdalus] dulcis / amara / sativa
Brazil nut – bertholletia excelsa
Cashew – anacardium occidentale
Hazelnut – corylus rostrata / avellana / americana
Macadamia nut – macadamia ternifolia / integrifolia
Pecan – carya illinoensis
Pistachio – pistacia vera / manshurica
Walnut – juglans regia / nigra
What about other nuts?
This depends on what your definition of nuts is! American law goes further than UK and European law, including most other kinds of nuts or nut-named foods — including ginkgo, chestnut, pili, coconut and more.
There are various interpretations, depending on whether we are using culinary, cultural or botanical terminology. Without going into that issue, here are some others, with Latin names alongside.
Peanut – arachis / arachis hypogea
This is another allergen in its own right. It’s a legume. Rarely used in cosmetics nowadays.
Shea Nut – butyrospermum parkii
Shea butter is a common ingredient in skincare and causes some concern, but there is no known confirmed reaction to shea on record. It is almost certainly completely safe for all. See this previous post.
Coconut – cocos nucifera
This can cause allergies, and there are plenty of coconut derivatives used in skincare, some of which may be reactive to those allergic to coconut. If you can tolerate dietary coconut, you almost certainly can tolerate it is skincare, but if not, safe toiletries, certainly natural toiletries, are hard to find.
Argan nut – argania spinosa
Not quite as common as shea, but argan oil is common in cosmetics. Reactivity is rare, but there are severe cases on record, including this one.
Pine nut — pinus sylvestris
A seed rather than a nut; it is not common in skincare.
Form and labelling format
Most ingredients derived from nuts in cosmetics are oils. Ground nut shells for exfoliating products are still sometimes used, but have fallen out of favour — due to their harshness, rather than for allergy reasons.
Refined oils are far safer than the riskier unrefined oils, because the allergenic protein particulates will have been filtered out in the former, but to a lesser degree in the latter, if at all. Unrefined oils will go stale quicker, and need more preservation, so in theory cosmetics formulators should always use refined options. However, these are more expensive, and there is usually little clue to whether a brand is using refined oils or not from the packaging, unless they print a statement to that effect.
Refined oils are more stable, and are more likely to be found in products with long shelf-lives, but this is no guarantee either. You can make enquiries of brands, or check packaging for any nut allergy statement. If you have been using a particular product safely for some time, there is no reason not to continue to do so.
In a nutshell, if you forgive the pun, nut oils will typically appear in one of two variations — one with English translation, and one without.
In other words, you may see almond oil represented either as prunus amygdalus dulcis oil or prunus amygdalus dulcis (almond) oil, as shown in these two examples, the first of which (from AK Pure) it is the third listed ingredient, and the second (from Pure Lakes Skincare) the second.
Some brands have two sets of ingredients, one showing INCI only, and one showing a ‘Plain English’ alternative, which can be very helpful.
Latin names for other allergens can be found at the foot of my article on Cosmetics Allergies.
You may also be interested in my article 14 Allergens in Cosmetics.
Should Cosmetic Labelling be reconciled to Mirror Food Labelling?
There have been lots of calls within the food allergy community for cosmetics law to be changed, to introduce bold or emphasis for food allergens in toiletries, but I don’t support it.
I’ve given some reasons in this article.
Final thoughts …
We need to improve communication on the subject of nut and other food allergens in cosmetics, and inform the newly diagnosed or their parents of the issues outlined here. Whether that’s through the NHS or the allergy charities or us as a community, is up for discussion. It’s probably best approached from all sides.
And I think any energy we have is best spent on education and communication, not on complaining about the cosmetic industry and looking to change laws which are extremely unlikely to be changed.