When skin is sensitive and reactive, choosing something as straightforward as a face cream should be approached with care and consideration.
How do we know if a cosmetic product is suitable for sensitive skin?
The answer may seem obvious: it must be hypoallergenic!
But what does “hypoallergenic”, that word what sounds so reassuring and is found on the labels of so many skin care products, really mean?
What does hypoallergenic mean?
First of all, it is important to understand that this claim cannot be directly measured on healthy volunteers. Normally the test proposed by laboratories to support the claim that a product is “hypoallergenic” is the same one it uses to demonstrate it does not irritate. It is the patch test.
The only difference is how long the cosmetic product is left on the skin, with the occlusion time going from 24 to 48/72 hours.
So the “hypoallergenic” claim is not in itself a guarantee of safety.
The truth is that products labelled “hypoallergenic” can actually contain substances which can cause reactions in individuals who are already sensitive to some ingredients.
What are allergens?
What do we mean when we talk about allergens?
In skin care, the word “allergen” indicates the 26 substances identified by the European Regulation on Cosmetics which can cause sensitisation:
- ALPHA‐ISOMETHYL IONONE
- AMYL CINNAMAL
- AMYLCINNAMYL ALCOHOL
- ANISE ALCOHOL
- BENZYL ALCOHOL
- BENZYL BENZOATE
- BENZYL CINNAMATE
- BENZYL SALICYLATE
- BUTYLPHENYL METHYLPROPIONAL
- CINNAMYL ALCOHOL
- EVERNIA FURFURACEA EXTRACT
- EVERNIA PRUNASTRI EXTRACT
- HEXYL CINNAMAL
- HYDROXYISOHEXYL 3‐CYCLOHEXENE CARBOXALDEHYDE
- METHYL 2‐OCTYNOATE
Allergens are mainly found in perfumes but can also be present in natural extracts.
All the ingredients “at risk”
As well as the 26 allergens listed in the European Regulation on Cosmetics, there are other substances which can cause skin sensitisation and reactions. Let’s have a look at them.
Preservatives allowed in cosmetic products are constantly monitored using epidemiological data.
In absolute terms, there are no “good” or “bad” preservatives. However, there are a number of preservatives which have been used widely throughout the cosmetics industry (as well as the pharmaceutical and food sectors) and have caused numerous cases of sensitisation.
The cosmetics industry should therefore adopt other methods for ensuring cosmetic preservation, keeping the concentrations of the preservatives as low as possible. Using airless bottles, for example, or adopting strict hygiene standards in the production environment enable manufacturers to use fewer preservatives.
Colorants are always included on the INCI list, usually at the bottom. They have a reference code which makes them easy to identify.
Heavy metals are prohibited by law in cosmetic products. However, very small traces of them may be found, transferred from the metal on the machinery used during their production or from the raw materials.
As far as nickel is concerned, from a dermatological point of view the risk of allergy is very low if the concentration of this metal is below 1 ppm (1 part per million).
Fragrance free doesn’t mean allergen free
We don’t want to give fragrances a bad name!
There are actually some cosmetic products that claim to be “fragrance free” on the label but which contain other kinds of allergens.
And, conversely, some products contain fragrances but are free from allergens. This is because their formula contains only allergen-free fragrances.
So it’s always a good idea to check your product is free of potential allergens. How? By reading the INCI list of ingredients on the label.
By law, allergens must be clearly indicated on the label if they exceed certain concentration thresholds: 100 ppm for rinse-off products (shampoos, cleansers etc.) and 10 ppm for leave-on products.
In these cases, they are listed by their chemical name so they can easily be recognised.
Which products should you choose for sensitive skin?
If you’re suffering from a skin reaction, it’s best to seek the advice of your doctor or pharmacist. He (or she) will be able to suggest the most suitable dermatological product to treat your problem.
Dermatological cosmetic products are designed and formulated to minimize the risk of allergy. This means that everything (from the fragrance to the type of preservative and quality of the ingredients) is closely examined to ensure the utmost safety for consumers with sensitive skin.