Health & Wellness

Most moisturizers labeled as hypoallergenic actually aren't

Even if you’ve chosen a hypoallergenic moisturizer, there’s a good chance you could get a rash after slathering on the product if you have sensitive skin, a new study suggests.

Northwestern University researchers found that nearly half of moisturizers advertised as devoid of scent contain chemicals that could irritate the skin as much as fragrances. Worse, 83 percent of products labeled “hypoallergenic” contained at least one potentially allergenic ingredient, according to the study, which was published in BMC Medicine.

In fact, only 12 percent of the 174 best-selling moisturizers analyzed by the researchers were free of ingredients known to cause reactions in some people.

And it's no better with a product labeled “dermatologist recommended.”

"They were more expensive, but there’s no real objective evidence they were better,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Steve Xu, a resident physician in dermatology at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “They had similar percentages of allergenic ingredients compared to products without the ‘dermatologist recommended' label."

Further, that label doesn’t mean all dermatologists recommended the product. It could anywhere from three to 1,000, Xu said.

The misleading labels are unfortunate, because truly hypoallergenic moisturizers can improve skin function. They can also help patients with atopic dermatitis and psoriasis, according to Xu.

Moisturizers can hydrate the skin and protect it, Xu said. If you’re choosing between types of moisturizers, ointments work better than any cream, lotion, butter or oil, he added.

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Among the moisturizers tested, the most common potential allergen was scent, or fragrance.

Among products currently on the market that are free of known skin allergens, the report listed:

  • White petroleum jelly
  • Certain coconut oils that are cold-pressed and not refined
  • Vanicream’s hypoallergenic products
  • Aveeno Eczema Therapy moisturizing cream

"The new study spotlights the difficulties in locating an allergen free moisturizer, said Dr. Laura Korb Ferris, an associate professor of dermatology at the University of Pittsburgh.

If a label says fragrance free, natural, pure, or dermatologist recommended, consumers may assume it won't trigger an allergic response, but nearly half of the tested products had at least one component that is considered a known allergen — 83 percent of products labeled hypoallergenic also had at least one known allergen, Ferris said. "There is no regulatory agency that oversees products labeled as fragrance free, natural, or dermatologist recommended, so any company can make that claim without the official science to back it up," said Ferris.

Natural doesn't mean a lotion won't cause an allergic reaction. "Poison ivy is natural and botanical but we all know it can produce an allergic reaction in most of us," said Ferris.

If your favorite moisturizer doesn't cause a skin reaction, there's no need to stop using it, though.

"However, if you are having a problem, its best to see a dermatologist to make sure the reaction is evaluated and you can receive guidance on the best option for you," said Ferris.

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