Research is on one side, while some consumers suffering from celiac disease or gluten sensitivities—and retailers seeing the increased demand for gluten-free body care—on another. Now, with manufacturers making more and more gluten-free claims on personal care packaging, I want to know: Is gluten-free beauty bogus, or has the science just not caught up?
In the past, I’ve listened to the science and been skeptical. Claims of experiencing allergies to gluten in topical beauty products is kind of like when I say I’m “allergic” to water parks or ex-boyfriends. Less a legitimate concern (surely I wouldn’t have a reaction upon contact) and more a proper precaution—it’s probably best to avoid just to be safe.
That’s why I was somewhat surprised when wellness retail experts from two stores with impressive health and beauty aid departments recently told me that not only has there been an incredible increase in demand for gluten-free personal care, but that there’s good reason. Both retailers noted that people with gluten sensitivities or celiac disease come in seeking gluten-free products, including lotions and oils, because they experienced topical reactions. Other shoppers simply wanted to avoid gluten in products like lipstick, shampoo and toothpaste to avoid risk of swallowing gluten.
To help consumers, one store (shown right) created a separate small section of gluten-free beauty products. And both emphasized the importance of reading labels for gluten-containing ingredients. A few biggies: tocopherols (vitamin E), triticum vulgare (or hydrolyzed wheat protein, hydrolysate wheat protein), and hordeum vulgare (barley).
I wanted to see how much this demand was impacting recent gluten-free regulatory actions, so I checked with Quality Assurance International (QAI) to see if it had factored personal care into its brand new gluten-free label (Celiac Sprue Association Recognition Seal and the Gluten-Free Certification Organization currently appear on gluten-free personal care).
Here’s what Jaclyn Bowen, General Manager for QAI, had to say: “While we don’t have any personal care manufacturers in the hopper, the seal could appear on personal care products. Personal care products like lip balms can be ingested so those type of products could seek certification. Products that are inherently gluten-free (such as fresh produce) or that are not intended for consumption (hand lotions) would not be permitted for certification. “
This speaks to the fact that there’s no proof of a direct relationship between topical application of gluten and symptoms of celiac disease or gluten sensitivities. In fact, most medical experts say there’s no associated risk. Mayo Clinic asserts: “Gluten-containing skin care products and cosmetics aren't a problem unless you accidentally swallow them.” (It does recommend avoiding gluten-containing oral care products.) Even dermatitis herpetiformis (DH), a topical form of celiac that causes an itchy, blistering rash, is only a result of eating gluten-containing foods, not applying gluten topically, according to Mayo Clinic. If you’re experiencing a reaction, it could be a different wheat or grain allergy.
Yet, exploring various gluten-free forums and websites to see what consumers had to say—those very consumers my two retail experts referred to—I found that many suffering from celiac and gluten sensitivities continue to avoid gluten-containing personal care products, not just toothpaste or lipstick, and advise others to do so because they have had reactions.
In theory, it (kind of) makes sense. I’m constantly preaching about the connection between what goes on your skin and what’s in your body. Your skin is your largest organ, I proclaim, as I write about the villainous ingredients to avoid. Your skin absorbs toxins. Your cells need nourishment, and everyone’s skin is different. Say it with me: Feed your skin! So why then, would we continue to feed our skin something we don’t feed our bodies? Well, the answer could be as simple as this: Gluten molecules are too large for transdermal absorption...
Quite frankly, I’m still not sure where I stand—and I don’t have the personal experience to work with. The science and medical experts seem to be on one side, while some consumers suffering from these conditions and having experienced flare ups from beauty products are on another.
My best advice: First, check all ingredients in the product—do a sort of “skin care-elimination” diet to determine whether it truly is the gluten and not an allergy to another personal care ingredient. Always diligently read ingredient lists (focusing on the ingredients listed above if you’re trying to avoid gluten) and look for certifications from Celiac Sprue Association Recognition Seal or the Gluten-Free Certification Organization.
And hey, never hurts to be safe.