The word “hypoallergenic,” like the word “natural,” is not regulated.
And while we’re at it, no actual dermatologists are required to test products labeled “dermatologist-tested.”
That’s right, for marketing purposes, companies can claim anything is “hypoallergenic.” According to the FDA website, “There are no Federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term ‘hypoallergenic.’ The term means whatever a particular company wants it to mean.”
And it goes without saying that the word “hypoallergenic” does not take into account specific allergies.
Now, when people with allergies and sensitivities see a product that has hypoallergenic, fragrance-free, paraben-free, etc., stamped all over its bottle and/or website and the manufacturer does not disclose the FULL list of ingredients (including inactive ingredients), it normally sets off a very important but little-known part of the brain:
My bullshit detector was clearly broken the other day when I was at hand therapy (I have repetitive-strain injury). I was getting treatment with a TENS machine, which sends an electrical current into your muscles in order to ease tension and soothe pain. (It sounds scary and Frankenstein-esque but feels amazing.)
But this time, the electrodes stopped working. They didn’t have new ones, so the therapist offered to put conduction gel on my back to make the old electrodes work better.
I never allowed her to do that before because of my allergic skin. Who knows what’s in that gel? “No, it only contains water and salt,” the therapist said.
People who don’t have allergies or sensitivities can really, truly believe that a sticky, chemical-looking gel that increases electrical conduction could only contain water and salt.
Anyway, she convinced me to try JUST A LITTLE TINY BIT THIS ONE TIME. Non-allergic people can act as though I’m worrying too much, being neurotic, or being “negative.” Usually, I don’t fall for it, and I try to raise awareness of allergies. This time, I was weak. I wanted to use the TENS unit, my neck muscles felt like cement, and she convinced me that no one had ever reacted to the product.
I got a rash. Surprise. Not. I’m always that one person in 100 who reacts. I hate being constantly vigliant, but my immune system has its own agenda.
I Googled all over the place and I couldn’t find the ingredients for this product. Not on the company’s site and not on any other site.
What I did find was one report to the FDA, from a physical therapist who was allergic to methylparaben and had reacted to this product. Now, I try to avoid parabens as much as possible because of their endocrine-disrupting properties and persistence in tissue, but I’m not actually allergic to them, at least not on my last test. False negatives do happen on patch tests, and once you start developing allergies, you often develop new ones. Still, I have one prescription cream that has methylparaben, and I don’t react to it.
I wondered if the company was using a formaldehyde releaser. I am very allergic to one of these. Formaldehyde releasers preserve products by slowly releasing formaldehyde into the products; the formaldehyde ends up on your skin. Yes, it is the same formaldehyde used to embalm dead people. Also, formaldehyde is a carcinogen, although the cosmetics industry insists that the trace amounts in cosmetics are fine. The formaldehyde releaser I’m allergic to is called “diazolidinyl urea” and is often found in shampoos, cleansers, conditioners, creams, hair stylers, and other personal care products.
But the product website had “no formaldehyde” on it too. Fact is, I’ll never know what was in that product, because the company didn’t practice full disclosure. Instead, it wrote on the website: “Unique ‘can’t be copied’ formula is bacteriostatic, non-sensitizing and non-irritating.”
I’m quite happy this formula can’t be copied, since it was definitely not “non-irritating.” I could have called or emailed the company, but in this case it was less work just to not use the product again.
So, the moral of the story? If a company makes all sorts of claims and doesn’t disclose its ingredients, it’s usually hiding some unsavory chemical.
To find a dermatologist who does patch testing, click here.
And as for the word “natural,” for an excellent and hilarious explanation of just how meaningless that word is, check out this post (with videos) from Seriously “Sensitive” to Pollution.
Here’s one video: