If you’ve ever bought any kind of skin-care product, even just a body moisturizer, you’ve no doubt seen the term “hypoallergenic.” The cosmetics industry has used it for decades—with increasing frequency over recent years—as a means to convey that the designated products have an ingredient list free of harsh chemicals and irritants, which makes them safer than the standard variety. Or, at least, they won’t cause an allergic response in most people.
This may come as a bit of a shock, but there’s no basis for the claim.
Hypoallergenic is a marketing term, not a legal one.
The FDA attempted to set up guidelines for the term back in the 1970s, but cosmetics companies fought the effort in court and won. To this day, there’s not a single standard or test that’s required to use the term on a product label.
That said, a company may consider a basic patch test to be sufficient basis for using the term. It’s a standard industry test—though, not a required one—to determine if a product causes sensitization or other abnormal reactions. Not necessarily allergic reactions, however. In most instances, the products aren’t known to trigger allergies anyway.
For the test, volunteers have the product applied to their back with a patch (to ensure the product penetrates the skin). A major blind spot arises when the hypoallergenic claim comes into play because people with allergies are not specifically recruited to participate in the test. And if someone with very little to even no allergies is the one being tested, it wouldn’t make much sense for someone who does have allergies to be going off of those test results. Yet, that’s what’s happening.
There’s also no mandated list of ingredients that need to be included or excluded in order for a product to be considered hypoallergenic. But it would be nearly impossible to curate such a list anyway. At best, the hypoallergenic claim on a skin product should mean that the product is relatively less likely to cause allergic reactions compared with non-hypoallergenic products. In that situation, the potential allergens are limited, but they could never be completely eliminated. There are just too many potential allergens, and what people are allergic to can vary.
In other words, no product is allergy-proof.
What should you do with this news? For starters, approach the labels on skin-care products with a bit more cynicism. Pay closer attention to the ingredient list on the back of the package than the marketing jargon on the label. Consult a dermatologist to get a better understanding of what, if anything, you’re allergic to. And even then, apply a small amount of a new product to a discreet area on your body for 24 hours before using it as instructed.