It seems that almost all cosmetics nowadays are hypoallergenic, with more and more products featuring this descriptor on their labels. But what does it mean? How is a cosmetic’s “hypoallergenicity” measured? Are hypoallergenic cosmetics more effective at keeping our skin healthy?
Target users of this type of cosmetics are people with sensitive skin. This term – which is colloquial, not medical – describes a skin that easily reddens or peels or that tightens after contact with certain products or in response to environmental aggression (wind, cold, heat, UV radiation).
The term “hypoallergenic” is widely used in cosmetic products, although it is the subject of some controversy. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides this rather surprising definition:
“Hypoallergenic cosmetics are products that manufacturers claim produce fewer allergic reactions than other cosmetic products.”
It must be assumed that most manufacturers try to fulfil this claim. But advertising leads consumers with sensitive skin – and even people with “normal” skin – to believe that hypoallergenic cosmetics are gentler and more skin-friendly than non-hypoallergenic cosmetics.
Is there any such thing as a hypoallergenic cosmetic?
Although thousands of products are marketed as hypoallergenic, there are still no regulations, legal definitions or controls that regulate the use of this term in the USA or Europe. Nor is there any common manufacturing standard regarding the composition and effectiveness of tests that could prove the hypoallergenicity of cosmetics.
The marketer of the product, in the event of a health scare or an inspection by the competent authorities, would merely have to provide adequate scientific evidence of the veracity of the properties advertised.
Naturally, manufacturers do try to make cosmetics with the desired characteristics. Two main aspects are considered in the development and marketing of a hypoallergenic cosmetic:
1. Formula components. A suitable formula is critical to obtaining the best results. Any ingredient is, in fact, capable of causing sensitivity, but we update our toxicological information regarding raw materials frequently and so know which substances are particularly allergenic: e.g., the 26 possible allergens in perfumes that are regulated by European legislation.
A “theoretical” system to formulate and predict the allergenicity of a cosmetic exists, called the Validated Hypoallergenic Cosmetics Rating System (VH).
A table of 76 known allergens classifies a cosmetic product as follows:
VH-(number of allergens NOT present in the formula)/76
For example, VH-73/76 on a face cream label indicates that the product has only three of the allergens from the list; in other words, as a high-VH cream it would be very hypoallergenic.
Referring to this classification, studies show that the incidence of cosmetic contact dermatitis (CCD) is 10 to 100 times lower among users of high-VH cosmetics compared to users of regular cosmetics.
The list of 76 allergens includes: acrylates (nail polish); parabens, isothiazolinones, formaldehyde and bronopol (preservatives); phenylenediamine (hair dyes); perfume and hair permanent ingredients; nickel sulfate (cosmetic accessories); and benzophenone-3 (sunscreens). Over time the list has grown and continues to grow.
2. Cosmetic testing. In Europe, where animal testing is banned, predictive in vitro tests are carried out before human volunteers are used to determine a product’s probabilities of causing an allergic reaction.
Conclusions for consumers
Thanks to scientific advances in understanding ingredients, to historical data collected regarding contact dermatitis and to new dermal evaluation tests, it can be said that hypoallergenic cosmetics are currently the best choice for sensitive and even normal skins.
But do not forget that any substance can cause a skin sensitization reaction in a particular user – this is a sporadic, not widespread, effect.
Choosing suitable cosmetics for sensitive skin should be based on reading the label and avoiding any ingredient known to cause sensitization. In theory, cosmetics that claim to be hypoallergenic are likely to create fewer problems.
Unfortunately for the consumer, however, although the VH score is a system accepted by manufacturers and medical associations, its use is not mandatory regarding use of the descriptor “hypoallergenic” for a cosmetic product.
A word of advice. For very reactive skin, apply a small amount of a cosmetic to the inside of the forearm (a very sensitive area) to check how it will affect the rest of the body.
By Susana Andújar, chemist