Are gluten free cosmetics, lotions, soaps, toiletries … really necessary? In some cases, yes.
There was quite a stir after a study by George Washington University researchers showed not only that gluten is an ingredient in many cosmetics and topical lotions (although they are rarely labeled as containing gluten – a problem), but that using these products may actually exacerbate celiac disease. Doctor Pria Prakash, the lead author of this study and a professor of medicine at George Washington University, indicates that anyone who is sensitive to gluten could experience a topical reaction.
Wow – that is news, because up until now, most physicians had glossed over (pardon the pun) any effects gluten in topical products might have on the body of a celiac or someone with gluten sensitivity. These conclusions are considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
What we do know for sure is that accidental and inadvertent exposure to gluten can come from using gluten-containing lotions, lipsticks, or other products if the product is used around the mouth. It’s also wise to check the gluten free status of your dental products, like mouthwash and toothpaste (although it’s not common).
Typically, gastroenterologists recommend that their celiac patients use only gluten free products and cosmetics that come close to the eyes and mouth, like lipstick and even mascara because it can flake off. But most agree that celiacs don’t typically need to worry unduly about gluten in lotions and shampoos (although, of course, it is possible to get either of these in your mouth accidentally). This does not rule out the possibility that individuals can experience sensitivities in topical products completely apart from having celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, leading many to search out gluten free skin care products.
Another risk is posed when the skin barrier is compromised in some way. In my interview on the subject with Dr. Alessio Fasano, Director of the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment and Director of the Mucosal Immunology and Biology Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, he indicated that this risk has been recognized only recently:
“The general agreement is that in order to have the ‘proper’ immune response to gluten that leads to celiac disease, exposure to gluten has to be through the gastrointestinal tract. However, there is some evidence in the literature that when there is a break in the skin, with the subsequent increased absorption of gluten applied directly to the affected area, gluten may indeed reach the bloodstream and boost an immune response similar to the one created when gluten is ingested orally.
Regarding the difference between celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity to topical gluten, I don’t think we have strong, robust data yet for the non-celiac gluten sensitivity population.
If there is no skin damage, topical gluten supposedly does not gain access to the bloodstream and trigger an immune response. This is due to the complexity of our skin as an extremely effective barrier characterized by seven different layers of cells that make passage of macromolecules of anything, including gluten, difficult under any circumstances.”
Dr. Daniel Leffler, director of clinical research for the Celiac Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston was interviewed recently for an article on this subject for Allergic Living Magazine. He noted that “There is infinite variability in human disease, too – perhaps other conditions that share similar pathways to celiac disease. ‘We diagnose people all the time with conditions that don’t have a name or a reason but that doesn’t stop us from prescribing a reasonable treatment for it,’ he continues. ‘That is the bottom line.’”(For more on this investigation and the medical response, read this Allergic Living article).
Whether product reactions could come due to celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, wheat allergy or another sensitivity, the real problem all of us gluten-free’ers face is that there is little to no ingredient labeling on cosmetics and other topical lotions and soaps. The George Washington University study authors investigated 10 leading cosmetic companies in the US, and found that only two offered detailed ingredient information, and even those did not indicate whether their products contained gluten.
Some household cleaners may contain gluten as well.
If you would like to avoid gluten in your cosmetics and skin care products — for whatever reason — these are the main ingredients to watch out for: wheat, barley, malt, rye, oat, triticum vulgare, hordeum vulgare, secale cereale and avena sativa.
If you are interested in gluten-free brands, here are some of my personal favorites, in no particular order*:
Goddess Garden Organics natural sunscreens & lipbalms: certified-organic natural-mineral sunscreen created by a mom for her daughter. The line is free from oxybenzone, parabens and synthetic fragrances. Many use essential oils. From their website: “Our sunscreens do not contain gluten or wheat-derived products. The xanthan gum we use in our sunscreens is fermented from wheat or soy, but our supplier has also tested for both of those specific allergens and none remain after processing. However, we are not a gluten-free facility. For those with a gluten sensitivity (or any allergy or sensitivity), we recommend trying our sunscreen on the inside of your elbow 24 hours prior to use to make sure it works for you.”
California Baby + Kids® – I’ve been using this line of products since my kids were little and I still love them! Their bug repellant and sunscreens are ever-present at our house, but they also make diaper rash creams, shampoos and body wash, super sensitive bubble bath and more. The citronella-lemongrass-essential oil bug repellant is deet-free and it works while smelling like heaven. Their sunscreens are repeatedly praised by the EWG in their annual reports, and all their products are tested to suit the most sensitive of allergic skin types. Their line of gluten-free eczema lotions is made with certified organic, gluten-free oatmeal. From their website: “California Baby products are free of common allergens such as gluten, milk/casein, egg, peanut, walnut, cashew, almond and pecans, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat.”
Deep Steep®: I discovered this brand at Natural Products Expo and I’m in love! Cruelty-free and their claim to fame: “No Parabens * No Sodium Lauryl Sulfate * No Mineral Oil * No Artificial Fragrances * No Chemical Preservatives * Gluten Free * Not Tested On Animals * Vegan” It’s an all natural luxury bath & body care products company that offers everything from hand soap to foot scrub and every shampoo, lotion and body spritz in between.
Red Apple Lipstick®: All Red Apple Lipstick products are certified gluten free, paraben free, soy free, dairy free and allergen free. They are also also vegan, natural and cruelty free. Oh, and they look so amazing on: “Cabernet Kiss” lipgloss is my favorite – I highly recommend it!
DeVine™ Lip Shimmers – These girls make some fun lip gloss, and it’s not only natural and yummy tasting, it’s also packed with antioxidants! Their glosses come in everything from Vanilla to their trademark wine flavors: Champagne, Merlot, Bordeaux and Rosé complete with “tasting notes” on the site! And I see a new product I might have to try since I sampled my first lip shimmer: Rush High Powered Lip Balm with caffeine and B vitamins. Hard to tell what lips pumped up with caffeine might say or do, but it could be fun to try!
Eclair Naturals products are certified GF (including products containing oats), and are non-GMO, soy-free, vegan and paraben-free. Offering hair and body care products that are all made in the USA of pure and natural ingredients.
Younique Makeup: These wildly popular 3D fiber mascaras (my favorite!) and GF lip glosses are just the beginning of their beautiful product line made without gluten. You can only purchase through an on-line contact, not in stores.
Gabriel Cosmetics and ZuZu Luxe products are certified gluten free and oh-so glam. All natural, made of herbs, botanicals, vitamins, minerals and sophisticated colors, each line has unique palettes and features, but both are gluten free and vegan.
Afterglow™ Cosmetics: Certifed gluten-free and cruelty-free, this cosmetic line is also organic. Their under-eye concealer is my favorite — it actually reduces puffiness and offers anti-aging properties from white tea extract. Who doesn’t want all that?
Juice Beauty® – Organic and certified gluten-free, this full line of skin care and makeup offers everything from anti-aging moisturizers to natural blemish treatments. Products are blended with organic botanical juices (aloe, jojoba, grape seed, shea, infused with citrus juices) and some add age defying or blemish clearing ingredients. I love their Stem Cellular™ line of anti-wrinkle skin care – it’s rich and creamy and doesn’t leave my skin feeling oily at all.
Hyalogic® – Offering everything from cleanser to orange stem cell face serum, bug repellants, bath soaks, lip balms and even supplements, Hyalogic® is the company to go to gluten-free, cruelty-free, paraben-free, dye-free, fragrance-free products with the benefits of Hyaluronic Acid. This substance is produced in the body to bind water and to lubricate movable parts of the body as well as tissue like skin, so these products are designed to promote and retain moisture. I particularly love their Lip Balm, pictured right.
SeneGence® International – This line is gluten-free, animal product free, and almost all products are non-GMO. The lip products in particular are wonderful if you have dry lips and contain no wax or lead. They also come in a wide assortment of shades and claim to be “kiss proof” waterproof products that last for hours — nice benefit! They also offer an entire skin care product line which touts many impressive anti-aging benefits.
Rooted Beauty™ is a brand anyone would love. Each product they sell is linked to the cause of a specific woman burdened by extreme poverty, abuse or sex trafficking. Their products are made with botanical and fruit extracts with lovely smells and no harsh chemicals. Their facial wipes and facial scrub are favorites in our house, and gentle enough for my daughter to use to remove makeup after school plays!
Crunchi™ This collection of cosmetics for face, eyes and lips are all certified organic and ECOcertified. They are also gluten-free and vegan, made without toxins and cruelty-free. The company was started by two women looking to detoxify makeup for all.
Just Love Massage Oils – Organic massage and moisturizing oils are so much more than traditional massage or lubricating oil for the bath or bedroom: they’re also totally gluten-free and totally edible, so you can even use them in the kitchen as a dressing on salads, fruits, vegetables and meats! They also do triple time as a makeup remover, a facial cleanser, facial moisturizer, anti-wrinkle serum, feminine cleanser, vaginal moisturizer, hair conditioner, shave oil and after shower body oil. Naturally gluten-free and moisturizing, these oils also help to soothe dry skin. Comes in appealing flavors like Ceylon Cinnamon and Sicilian Citrus or unscented.
For another personal view on this topic, I asked Kristen Campbell, gluten intolerant “Skinnovator” of the Gluten Free Beauty skin care and cosmetics line to share her opinion on the subject. Below is Kristen’s take on whether and why gluten doesn’t belong in your cosmetics, lotions and shampoo, and how to find out whether it is an ingredient. To hear more from my interview on the subject with Kristen, listen to the free podcast of The Gluten Free Voice with Jules.
Years ago when I read that up to 60% of what we put on our skin is absorbed into the bloodstream, I was a fast convert to natural and organic skin, hair and cosmetic products. If anything was going to be absorbed into my body, I was going to have something to say about it.
Despite my healthy diet and switch to healthier, natural beauty products, however, in the middle of my twenties, I found myself battling horrible, seemingly incurable acne. Oddly enough, it was mostly relegated to my back and chest; a sudden and strange occurrence that even a doctor, an aesthetician, and an acupuncturist could not solve. But then I made the connection to gluten.
After being diagnosed as severely intolerant to gluten, I thought about that 60% and figured I had better raid my bathroom cabinets and drawers, ridding it of all traces of gluten. This was several years ago now, so at the time, there was little information available about gluten in topical products. The few online sources I found blamed Vitamin E Oil, and finding a list of natural and gluten-free products was nearly impossible.
So I started calling the manufacturers. At the time most companies had little clue what gluten was, so I would have to know what I was talking about. Some ingredients were easy to pick out like “hydrolyzed wheat protein,” but ingredients like Vitamin E Oil, Lactic Acid and Xanthan Gum which can be derived from various protein sources needed further investigation. And I was surprised by what I learned:
- Vitamin E Oil is More Often Than Not Gluten-Free: Even a few years ago, most companies were using Vitamin E Oil sourced from corn or soy, not wheat germ oil. I’ve even tested pure wheat germ oil using an ELISA Tek EZ Gluten Test Kit and had it come out negative. But, would I use a product containing wheat germ oil, still NO.
- Expect the Unexpected: In food terms I’ve never heard of Xanthan Gum or Lactic Acid derived from wheat. Usually Xanthan is from corn, and Lactic acid is from beet sugars or dairy. But in the realm of the beauty world, I have come across both sourced from wheat. In a recent news release Dr. Pia Prakash spoke about a patient who was reacting to a gluten-containing lotion, stating that, “celiac patients face a huge challenge in trying to determine whether cosmetic products contain gluten — and a risk of unknowingly exposing themselves to gluten.” I find that the easiest way to avoid topical gluten is to use only products with easily understandable ingredients. And if you don’t know what something is, ask.
- What Goes Up Must Come Down: For me, some of the less obvious contributors to my breakouts were my hair products. While gluten can be in any product from a lipstick to a body wash, I would say that more hair products than not contain gluten. When you think about the nature of a hair product, it is actually meant to coat the hair, so when you’re showering—especially if you condition your hair last thing–it’s all washing right down your face, back, chest and body, coating the skin.
Things are, however, moving in the right direction. Some of those same companies that I was calling a few years ago are already labeling gluten-free hair, skin, nail and cosmetic products as such. I’ve even called the not-so-natural brands to receive prompt answers to my inquiries about the gluten status of specific products.
But where are the doctors on this? A little behind. Most celiac experts will admit that while medicine tells them that the gluten protein is too large to be absorbed by the skin, their patients are telling them otherwise. And those same doctors are paying attention. In a recent article for Living Without Magazine, renowned celiac expert Dr. Alessio Fasano confirmed the existence of gluten intolerance and sensitivity saying, “The patients, as usual, were visionary, telling us this stuff existed but healthcare professionals were skeptical.” So I would say, “Hold tight!” The medical community is still playing catch up, but they are getting there.
Personally, I know that topical gluten affects the body, because I’ve witnessed it firsthand. After ridding our home of all external (and internal) gluten, my skin cleared right up. If I do have a topical gluten-slip and accidentally apply gluten to my skin, I will still have acne breakouts, or develop a rash on my scalp, but by sticking to gentle, natural product lines with good ingredient labeling, staying topically gluten-free is not too big a challenge.
The subject of gluten in beauty products is a cause that has become close to my heart; going topically gluten-free has improved my health and my life, and I hear from hundreds of men and women each year who are also making the connection between the gluten in their hair, skin and cosmetic products and the challenges they have faced with their skin and health. After years of reviewing natural, gluten-free beauty products, I even decided to create my own gentle, natural line, Gluten Free Beauty to help eliminate some of the guesswork.
*In some cases some companies have provided me with free products to review; in other cases, I have purchased the products myself. In all cases, these opinions are my own and I was not paid to provide positive reviews. Read my disclosure policy here.