Aesthetician Pamela Drake saw the telltale signs: a red, itchy rash on her client's swollen hands. The cause? Most likely an allergic reaction to a lotion, soap or other topical application. In 2003, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration received approximately 144 reports of adverse reactions to cosmetics. And the FDA admits that there could be a whole lot more, because many people don't go to the government when their skin gets a little inflamed after slathering on a moisturizer or when they get choked up after rubbing on antiperspirant. Instead, they visit someone like Drake, an aesthetician at Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy in Sonoma, Calif., or an employee at another natural products store for help and natural alternatives.
To find an allergy-free option, the first step is pinpointing the problem ingredient—not always an easy task. After all, the American Academy of Dermatology reports that the average adult uses at least seven different cosmetic products each day. "People can be sensitive to anything," says Kelly Uusitalo, buyer of health and beauty aid products for Bastyr University's Center for Natural Health in Seattle. "Something that affects one person may not affect another." Still, says Drake, "the most common allergens are fragrances and preservatives." Here are several common ingredients that can cause allergic reactions and the pure and safe alternatives to which your customers can turn.
Allergen No. 1: Parabens. Cosmetic manufacturers use this ingredient as a preservative in lotions, creams, facial cleansers, hand soaps, hair conditioners, toothpastes and men's shaving creams, according to the Washington, D.C.-based environmental watchdog Environmental Working Group. Parabens can cause red marks and a raised rash on skin, says Jennifer Barckley, spokeswoman for Weleda, a Palisades, N.Y.-based company that makes natural personal care products. Even worse, parabens can cause what Barckley calls an "internal allergy." The theory goes that because parabens mimic estrogen, they affect hormone function and could ultimately cause cancer. In a 2004 study in the Journal of Applied Toxicology, researchers did find parabens in human breast tumor samples.
Alternative: essential oils. Tell customers to look for products containing essential oils, which inhibit bacteria and fungus growth. "In nature, essential oils help preserve the plant," says Barckley. "The purpose they serve in nature is the same as what they do in the beauty product." In addition to their preservative properties, essential oils can offer health benefits. "Rose oil is harmonizing and restorative," Barckley says. "Lavender is calming and soothing." Other alternatives to parabens, Uusitalo says, are sugar (glucose oxidase) and milk (lactoperoxidase), which work as natural enzyme preservatives in creams and lotions.
Allergen No. 2: Fragrances. The most common allergens Drake sees in her practice are synthetic fragrances, which can cause swelling, itching and blisters. Unlike natural ingredients, which the body has been exposed to for many years and therefore knows how to process, synthetic ingredients can surprise us. "The body doesn't recognize them," Uusitalo says. "Some people have chemical sensitivities to them."
Alternative: fragrance-free products. Although people can opt for products with naturally aromatic essential oils, some people with sensitivities to synthetic fragrances are allergic to essential oils, too, according to Drake. To help customers make sound decisions, Weleda not only lists the Latin scientific name for essential oil ingredients, but all the essential oil components. "We do this because of allergy concerns," Barckley says. "Only 1 [percent] to 3 percent of the population has an allergy to essential oils, but we want to ensure that people are informed." To be completely safe, Drake recommends that allergy-prone clients stay away from any fragrances—whether natural or synthetic?in shampoos, conditioners, soaps and detergents.
Allergen No. 3: Aluminum salts. Another "internal allergen" according to Barckley, aluminum pretty much defines antiperspirants. "It blocks the skin's breathing and sweat, so it can cause some external irritation," says Barckley. "But the internal allergy is more serious." Although a 2005 study in the Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry found that aluminum could interfere with hormone action, it is unclear whether aluminum actually plays a role in breast cancer incidence. Also, some studies have linked the use of aluminum-based antiperspirants to an increased risk for Alzheimer's disease, but researchers have yet to give the final word on this issue. According to EWG, aluminum is a respiratory toxicant and can trigger asthma.
Alternative: deodorant. These products aren't antiperspirants, so customers can expect to sweat. "You might have to reapply deodorants during the day, but antiperspirants aren't natural; sweating is," says Barckley, who recommends a sage-infused deodorant or one with licorice root extract. Sage and licorice root extract both neutralize bacteria, which causes the unwanted odor, and help relieve inflammation.
Allergen No. 4: Propylene glycol. Like parabens, this ingredient with humectant properties serves as a preservative in just about every type of personal care product, including creams, hair gels and fragrances. Propylene glycol can cause shortness of breath, bumpy rashes and inflammation, according to Drake. EWG reports that propylene glycol also enhances penetration, which means it allows other chemicals to penetrate deeper into the skin and thus increases the amounts of chemicals that can reach the bloodstream.
Alternatives: natural oils or antioxidants. For use in creams, Uusitalo recommends that people look for unrefined oils, such as avocado oil, that naturally preserve products and offer many skin-friendly nutrients. "This is whole food for your skin," Uusitalo says. "You want to recognize what's listed on the label and if not, you want to be able to find out without a lot of research." Drake says that natural antioxidants, such as vitamins A, C and E, can also help preserve personal care products without too much allergy risk.
Allergen No. 5: Sodium lauryl sulfate. This ingredient produces the foaming action in shampoos and other products. It also can cause dry, irritated skin, according to Uusitalo. Some experts, such as Drake, aren't so concerned about the ill effects of sodium lauryl sulfate. "I don't get as upset about these in shampoos as I would with some ingredients in lotions, which stay on your skin," Drake says. "You wash off shampoo."
Alternative: aloe. This thick and gooey plant extract can add body to shampoo and lather up. "You get some sudsing," Uusitalo says. "But not to the degree of sodium lauryl sulfate."
Allergen No. 6: Nut oils. Even a hint of nuts in food can be a matter of life or death for some people. Take the example of the Canadian teenager who late last year went into anaphylactic shock and died after kissing her boyfriend, who had eaten a peanut butter sandwich hours earlier. Peanut or tree nut allergies affect about 3 million Americans, about
Natural alternatives: organic sunflower oil or organic sesame seed oil. These are gentle and stable oils, according to Barckley. "They are similar in quality to peanut oil," she says.
Allergen No. 7: Petroleum/mineral oils. These notorious oils in moisturizers are supposed to hydrate the skin, but they "don't let the skin breathe," Uusitalo says. The lack of airflow can lead to a negative reaction, such as a breakout.
Alternative: jojoba oil. A lot of light and natural vegetable oils would work well as a replacement for mineral oils, but jojoba is rich in natural vitamin E and compatible with the skin, Barckley says. "The skin absorbs and utilizes it," she says. "It's not occlusive."
In most cases, the natural, allergy-free ingredients will work as well if not better than synthetic ingredients, which tend to be the most common irritants. But keep in mind some of the differences. "We may need to change our concept of what we want from a shampoo, for example," Uusitalo says. "We want it to suds up, remove oils, but then add back in some oils. One natural product may not be able to do it all without chemicals. The chemicals are doing what we're expecting to happen." Also, natural preservatives may not offer a forever-and-a-day shelf life. "If you buy an apple, you know it has a shelf life, and you wouldn't expect otherwise," Uusitalo says. "It's the same with natural products." Most natural products have a two- to three-year maximum shelf life, according to Uusitalo. "Look for expiration dates," she says. "Companies should list them on the package." Still, an informed approach to personal care is worth it, the experts say. "The skin is the largest organ," Uusitalo says. "You're feeding it, so know what you put on it."
Pamela Emanoil is a freelance writer in Boulder, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 4/p. 40, 42