Food labels aren’t the only ones you have to read. The outside of the body, your skin, can be just as sensitive to allergens as the inside. A surprising number of skin products contain highly allergenic ingredients: milk, egg, and soy are found in many shampoos; body scrubs may contain macadamia nut oil; almond oil and shea nut butter are common softening ingredients in lip balm; pistachio butter and pistachio seed oil are used in body butter and soap. Even Cetaphil, that staple of skincare for babies with eczema, now has several versions with almond oil. (Eczema in a baby is a sign of allergic potential; the last thing you want to do is slather their skin with almond oil twice a day for several months.) Men’s shaving products, too, can contain almond oil. My personal favorite find — sesame seed oil in lipstick.
Organic, all-natural products use even more peanut, tree nut, milk, egg, and soy-derived ingredients than regular ones. These “natural” ingredients may make for attractive marketing, but they can be trouble if you have allergies. It’s ironic that our population, more likely to seek out fragrance-free, simpler products, is often better off with artificial chemicals. Always check and double-check the ingredients.
How Much of a Risk?
Don’t panic. Most of these oils and butters are used in very small amounts, and unless your child is extraordinarily sensitive, holding hands with an adult who used a hand cream hours earlier shouldn’t cause any problems. According to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, “There is no evidence that coconut oil and shea nut oil/butter are allergenic.” (My family avoids them anyway, just to be on the safe side.) Almond, macadamia, and other nut oils, however, should be carefully avoided by nut-allergic patients, as should peanut oil, if you’re allergic to peanut, and sesame oil, if you’re sesame allergic. Many online retailers list product ingredients; drugstore.com and its sister site, beauty.com, have an ingredients tab for most items. It’s very interesting reading.
How’s Your Latin?
Strict USA labeling laws, which require clear, understandable language for food ingredients, don’t necessarily apply to cosmetics and other skin products. Sweet almond oil is often listed by its Latin name, Prunus Amygdalus Dulcis oil. If you’re a gardener, you may recognize the name, but it’s pretty confusing for the rest of us! Shea nut can be disguised as shea oil, shea butter (the word nut is missing!) and, quite frequently, Butyrosperum Parkii. Huh? And you might not want to use mom’s shampoo on your toddler if it contains ovum, which is Latin for egg. So check all the ingredients before you use a skin product. Still confused? Do some research. Feel free to call the company and ask them to clarify. Most companies have consumer relations departments for exactly this purpose. For greater detail, a book worth looking at is A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients by Ruth Winter, which is now in its 7th edition. I find her companion book on food additives to be extremely useful.
By the way, when you travel, those little complimentary toiletries are never labeled, so bring your own soap and shampoo from home—more about that in another column.