We’ve all heard about it, and it’s trending so much even Miley Cyrus has it – it’s gluten-free. I’m sure everyone knows someone who suffers from gluten-intolerance to varying degrees. For me, it’s my mom, and she has kindly agreed to let me share her story. My mom has had stomach problems since childhood and these continued to plague her for most of her adult life. I remember times when her symptoms of pain, constipation, bloating, extreme weight-loss and anemia would become so bad that trips to the emergency room had to be made. No doctor ever figured out what was wrong with her, until last year when I went to medical school, my dad read a magazine article, and we thought, “Wait a second, what if she is gluten-intolerant? She has all the abdominal signs and she gets these weird gluten-intolerance looking rashes.” So we tried an experiment where my mom cut back on the gluten, and viola, she was symptom free, gaining weight again and feeling much better. To be clear, my mother has never been formally diagnosed with celiac disease, but it certainly seems to our family that cutting the gluten from her diet has had marked improvement on her health. But what about gluten from sources other than food? Should those diagnosed with celiac disease and those, like my mom, who are obviously somewhere in the spectrum of gluten-intolerant, be avoiding things like cosmetics containing gluten?
Gluten-avoidance has become the “new big thing” in diets, but also in other aspects of consumer life such as cosmetics. It is a heated debate whether gluten in cosmetic products will actually cause problems in celiacs or not – gluten-free cosmetics may prevent flare-ups, but does the gluten actually cross the skin barriers and if it does, is the amount of gluten really high enough to cause a reaction? Though most experts would agree the amount of gluten in cosmetics is almost non-quantifiable and gluten cannot be absorbed across the skin, some disease-sufferers will experience a blistering rash (similar to dermatitis herpetiformis, which is caused by the ingestion of gluten) with the application of gluten-containing products to the skin almost instantly (with some even suffering the abdominal consequences of gluten exposure). Therefore, doctors advise that patients suffering from celiac disease and who are worried about developing a “gluten-related” rash to their cosmetics, should avoid gluten-containing products around the lips and mouth (where it could be ingested) and around the eyes (where there are exposed mucous membranes that could react to gluten presence). Other precautions to take include washing hands thoroughly after any product use, and using gluten-free mouth products such as toothpaste and mouthwash. If the products used on the skin (such as lotion) cause a rash, it is most likely a second allergy to grains that may be causing a reaction and should be looked at by a dermatologist.
The overwhelming conclusion seems to be, if you want to go that route, it is a personal decision and gluten-free cosmetics are obviously not going to hurt. Fortunately there are many companies that are now catering to the gluten-sensitive community such as Hourglass, Lavanilla and Alterna), so there are many choices at many price-points for the gluten-intolerant. And like groceries, avoid products with ingredients such as wheat, barley, malt, rye, oat, hordeum vulgare, secale cereale, triticum vulgare and avena sativa. To be absolutely sure a cosmetic is gluten-free, it may also be helpful to call the manufacturer.
However, though there is no harm to gluten-free cosmetics, there is no research to define whether gluten-free cosmetics are a necessary measure to take for the gluten-sensitive person. If, as a gluten-intolerant person, you really can’t give up that shade of blush for a gluten-free variant, it is most likely not going to do you any harm to continue using it. Just take precautions to ensure there is no accidental ingestion, nor contamination from hand to mouth. The advice I gave to my mother, is the same advice I give to you . . . if you have no reaction, you’re probably safe continuing down the cosmetic road you have chosen; if you have any reaction to any cosmetic, try some gluten-free varieties to see if your skin clears up, and always go see a dermatologist for a second opinion.
Margit Lai Wun Juhasz
Mount Sinai Medical Student