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The False Promises on Moisturizer Labels

Most 'hypoallergenic' lotions have at least one allergen.

Nick Keppler

Nick Keppler

Lumina/Stocksy

All those comforting terms put on fancy moisturizers to imply they're safe for people with difficult skin may not mean much, according to a new study from Northwestern Medicine.

The study, published in JAMA Dermatology, looked at the hundred bestselling body moisturizers sold by Amazon, Target and Wal-Mart, respectively. These included lotions, creams, oils, butters and ointments. The Northwestern researchers measured how well these products lived up to terms like "hypoallergenic," "fragrance free" and "dermatologist recommended," often sought by those with eczema, psoriasis, and other such skin conditions.

One of the study authors, Jonathan Silverberg, says he was inspired by all the patients he sees who still seem to have outbreaks when using products with labels marking them as safe.

"The [US Food and Drug Administration] has some rules and regulations as to these terms," says Silverberg, an assistant professor at Northwestern Medicine and director of its Multidisciplinary Eczema Center. "But they tend to be broad and allow for a lot of allergens." Silverberg and his coauthors looked for anything identified as an allergen by the North American Contact Dermatitis Group.

Among the products marked "fragrance free," 45 percent possessed a potentially irritating botanical extract or a "fragrance cross-reactor"—a substance that could cause an allergic reaction similar to that instigated by a chemical fragrance. Silverberg says many of them were designed for the trending "all-natural" market. The feel-good, simple tone of these products sometimes causes people to forget that substances found in nature can cause allergic reactions too.


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Of those labeled "hypoallergenic," 83 percent contained some potentially allergenic chemical. Silverberg says most of these products were free of the more common allergens found in cosmetics, but still contained something tagged by the NACDG.

Further, "dermatologist-recommended" does mean just that, Silverberg says, "but if you can get just one dermatologist to recommend it, you can call it 'dermatologist-recommended.' It's a marketing term without much meaning behind it." Still, products with this particular accolade cost about $0.20 more per ounce than those without it, the study found.

Only 12 percent of the moisturizers were free of any component on the NACDG's list of allergens.
After testing several aisles' worth of skincare solutions, the researchers say there are a few that are generally free of known skin allergens: white petroleum jelly, coconut oils that are cold-pressed and not refined, Vanicream's hypoallergenic products, and Aveeno Eczema Therapy moisturizing cream.

This does not mean they definitely won't cause a reaction. "Anything can cause an allergic reaction in some people," Silverberg says. "It's just they haven't been identified as clinically common." He adds that "people often ask for recommendations based on our research, and this is the best of what we have."

Which is to say, the above products are not necessarily "dermatologist-recommended" but, if you insist on asking, they are vouched for by a few studious dermatologists.

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