Are Sensitive and Hypoallergenic Products Really Better?

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IN THIS ARTICLE:
  1. What does the term hypoallergenic mean?
  2. Are sensitive and hypoallergenic products better?
  3. What should I be aware of if I have sensitive skin?
  4. Looking out for misleading label claims

What does the term hypoallergenic mean?

We automatically assume that hypoallergenic products are gentler, contain fewer harsh chemicals, and are better than their non-hypoallergenic counterparts. And, most importantly, do not contain allergens (substances that cause an allergic reaction.)

Walk down any aisle in a shop or store, and you will see numerous beauty products, personal products, and even household products boasting claims of being “hypoallergenic” and “made for sensitive skin.”

But did you know that products labeled hypoallergenic can still contain fragrance and other allergens? And did you know that there isn’t a legal, regulated definition of the term? Manufacturers aren’t even required to submit substantiation of their hypoallergenic claims to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA)!

In reality, a hypoallergenic product is a manufacturer’s claim that their product contains few(er) allergens. But since the FDA doesn’t regulate the term, the word hypoallergenic printed on a label can mean whatever the manufacturer wants it to mean.

Are sensitive and hypoallergenic products better?

“By and large, the basic ingredients in so-called “hypoallergenic” cosmetics are the same as those used in other cosmetics sold for the same purposes.”

U.S. Food & Drug Administration

Most brands use the term hypoallergenic to signal that the product contains fewer ingredients that could potentially cause an allergic reaction. Therefore, consumers assume that sensitive and hypoallergenic products should be better. However, none of the widely popular terms “made for sensitive skin,” “dermatologist-recommended,” and “hypoallergenic” are regulated by the FDA. So it’s entirely up to the manufacturer to decide what the particular label means (or does not mean).

As a result, consumers can’t automatically trust a product to be better for sensitive skin even though the brand or product is labeled “hypoallergenic” or “recommended by dermatologists.”

“Consumers concerned about allergic reactions from cosmetics should understand one basic fact: there is no such thing as a “nonallergenic” cosmetic–that is, a cosmetic that can be guaranteed never to produce an allergic reaction.”

U.S. Food & Drug Administration

For example, many hypoallergenic products claim to be natural, organic, and more gentle on the skin. But these products are often not fragrance-free and instead contain “essential oils” or “natural scents,” which can cause a reaction in people with sensitive skin. The fact is that just because a product is labeled as organic or natural doesn’t mean it won’t irritate or trigger an allergic reaction.

We’ve bought and tested numerous products and researched countless labels and products that claim to be hypoallergenic and best for sensitive skin. However, when looking closely at the ingredient lists, you will often find ingredients that dermatologists and researchers have found to be upsetting for sensitive skin or cause an allergic reaction (don’t worry, we’re here to help you find the best fragrance-free products.)

What should I be aware of if I have sensitive skin?

  • Natural ingredients:
    Just because a product is made with natural ingredients doesn’t mean it’s better, safer, or contains fewer allergens. Instead, essential oils and scents can easily irritate sensitive skin and upset delicate noses. So be aware and make sure always to read the ingredient list.
  • Hypoallergenic:
    Remember, words alone don’t mean anything. Anyone can use this label without supporting evidence. And they do.
  • Dermatologist-recommended:
    The FDA doesn’t regulate this claim (just like the term hypoallergenic). If one (perhaps paid) dermatologist tests a product and claims that it is safe for consumers, this is sufficient to warrant a dermatologist-recommended label.
  • Labels:
    Make sure to read the label thoroughly. Many “hypoallergenic products” unfortunately contain fragrances and scents, which is a common cause of contact dermatitis and other allergic skin reactions.

Look out for misleading label claims

Keep in mind that terms like “hypoallergenic,” “made for sensitive skin,” and “dermatologist-recommended” really don’t mean anything. Marketers love these labels because they give a marketing advantage and signal higher value. But, unfortunately, these terms are often misleading, and you’re simply taking the brand’s word for it.

A good way to verify label claims is to check for credible third-party certifications (for instance, the National Eczema Association approves products they find safe for sensitive skin.)

When in doubt, read the label carefully and remember our above tips and recommendations. And always do a patch test before applying any product.

Interested in learning how to spot more of marketers’ sneaky tricks? Read our guide to living life fragrance-free and learn about how to spot greenwashing (another marketing ploy.)

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At withoutfragrance.com, we have extensive experience researching, reviewing, and writing about fragrance-free products within beauty, personal care, and household products. Our experience is based on years of working with fragrance-free products and with some of the best experts in the field, including dermatologist and leading researchers.

We spend countless hours searching for fragrance-free products, and we are committed to finding the best fragrance-free products on the market. By reading our advice, guides, and product reviews, we hope you will save time and be able to live better fragrance-free.

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