The Internet is awash in message boards on which celiac sufferers tell stories of how a doughnut or even a dash of wheat-spiked soy sauce caused their guts to erupt. Surf the chat rooms long enough and you'll also come across the tale of a woman who was so overcome by her gluten intolerance that she scrubbed her face for 10 minutes after a man who had just eaten a sandwich touched her.
Is the fear that gluten would ooze through pores prudent or paranoid?
"Gluten can't be absorbed through the skin, although this is a common misperception," says gastroenterologist Dr. Michael Picco of the Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic. Gluten can only cause inflammation when it's swallowed, he says. Experts at the Children's Hospital in Boston agree:
Gluten molecules are too large to be absorbed through the skin. But Dr. Rodney Ford, a gluten guru and author of The Gluten Syndrome (RRS Global, 2007), says he has seen cases in which topical gluten caused eczema, rashes and other inflammatory skin conditions in people with celiac disease.
While they may disagree over whether a cosmetic that contains wheat, rye or barley can cause havoc for people with gluten sensitivities, experts do agree on one thing: Ingesting any personal care product that has gluten ingredients may contribute to skin—and gut—inflammation for your gluten-intolerant customers. That includes not only the usual suspects like toothpaste and mouthwash, but also lipstick and lip balm, and even cleansers and moisturizers used around the mouth. Kids who regularly put their hair or hands in their mouths may also ingest gluten used in sunscreens, shampoos or conditioners.
As with food, there's currently no government requirement to identify gluten in cosmetics. Here's how to decipher personal care ingredients lists for anxious shoppers, plus a list of some manufacturers that guarantee gluten-free products.
Gluten free PC
Auromére (all products except Pre-Shampoo Conditioner)
Burt's Bees (used to publish a list of its GF products on its website; now suggests that people call the company and ask)
California Baby (all products)
Desert Essence Organics (all products)
Eco Lips (all products)
Jason (all oral care products and its Kids Only Foaming Hand Soap)
Juice Beauty (all products)
Kiss My Face (lists its GF products at kissmyface.com/faqpage)
Lavera (all products)
Organix-South (oral care, shampoos and conditioners)
Pangea Organics (all products except oatmeal bar soap)
Surya Brasil (all products)
Tom's of Maine (all products except Natural Moisturizing Hand Soap and Natural Moisturizing Body Wash)
Weleda (all products)
W.S. Badger Co. (all products except oatmeal soap)
Look for what's hidden
Wheat is the most common gluten ingredient used in personal care products—even natural and organic brands. Its uses are varied. Wheat germ oil is a good source of vitamin E, known for its moisturizing and preservative properties. Wheat protein is a moisturizing and thickening agent used in everything from mascara to conditioners. Rye extract is used as a firming ingredient in facial creams, and barley is prized for its anti-inflammatory properties.
These ingredients can have other names, however. And to make matters even more confusing, some companies say they have removed gliadin, the gluten component in wheat, from their products, making them gluten-free even if the label lists wheat-based ingredients.
When in doubt, check with the manufacturer, and scan ingredient lists for the gluten terms below.
Avena sativa (oats, which may be contaminated with gluten) • Cyclodextrin • Dextrin • Fermented grain extract • Hordeum distichon (barley) • Hordeum vulgare (barley) • Hydrolysate (wheat) • Hydrolyzed malt extract • Hydrolyzed vegetable protein • Maltodextrin • Phytosphingosine extract (barley) • Samino peptide complex (barley) • Secale cereale (rye) • Triticum aestivum (wheat) • Triticum vulgare (wheat) • Tocopherol/vitamin E (may come from wheat) • Yeast extract