More than a third of personal care products, such as shampoos and body washes, marketed as hypoallergenic at Boots and Superdrug have been found to contain common skin allergens, research shows.

As a large proportion of the population have sensitive skin or allergies, products are increasingly using the term “hypoallergenic” to advertise goods. But the British Association of Dermatologists said there needed to be more regulation as some brands were stretching the “terms to their limit” and could not match these claims.

Personal care products included in the studies were shampoos, conditioners, skin care products, cosmetics, wet wipes, deodorants, shaving foams and body washes.

Researchers from Wrexham Maelor hospital and Glan Clwyd hospital in Wales reviewed products marked as hypoallergenic for the presence of allergens in the British Society for Cutaneous Allergy (BSCA) baseline series.

This series is the list of common allergens that are routinely tested during patch testing to identify someone with potential contact allergies – a type of allergic reaction caused by direct or indirect skin contact with something in a person’s environment.

A total of 208 products were included in the review; 47 (23%) were products that are rinsed off during use and 161 (77%) were products that are absorbed by the skin. At least one substance from the BSCA baseline series was an ingredient in 79 (38%) of these products. Of these, 54 (26%) had one potential allergen, 21 (10%) had two and four (2%) had three potential allergens from the series.

Dr Siwaporn Hiranput of Wrexham Maelor hospital, a member of the team behind the findings, said the research, which will be presented at the British Association of Dermatologists’ annual meeting, suggested some brands “understate” or “downplay what constitutes a hypoallergenic product”.

“There are various regulations governing marketing claims in the UK; however, many terms used to market personal care products aren’t clearly defined. Given the huge market for products suitable for sensitive skin, there is every incentive to stretch these terms to their limit. Clearer regulation or better enforcement of the existing rules is needed,” she said.

“In the meantime, we would urge members of the public with a contact allergy to learn the names of ingredients that you are allergic to and look for these on the packaging of products, regardless of whether they are advertised as hypoallergenic or not.”

It is estimated that a fifth of the UK population may have allergic skin reactions to common environmental allergens. The percentage of people who report having sensitive skin is even higher, with one survey putting this at 71% of the population.

The most frequently encountered allergens were cetearyl alcohol and paraben mix, found in 42 (20%) and 37 (18%) of products respectively. In addition to allergens, the researchers looked at related ingredients known to cause reactions in people with allergies to chemicals in the baseline series. Overall, 153 (74%) of the 206 products marketed as hypoallergenic contained BSCA baseline series allergens or ingredients that may cross-react with them.

While there are various regulations relating to marketing claims made by cosmetic products there is no official standard for what constitutes a hypoallergenic product in the UK.

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Prof Mabs Chowdhury, the president of the British Association of Dermatologists, said: “It’s important that consumers are aware that it is not unusual for products labelled as hypoallergenic to contain common allergens. There is no official standard for what constitutes a hypoallergenic product; however, it is reasonable for users to expect that these products will be unlikely to cause an allergic reaction.

“While it is possible that some of these ingredients could legitimately feature in hypoallergenic products if they are used in very low concentrations, it’s hard to see how products containing ingredients such as formaldehyde releasers, methylisothiazolinone, and fragrances such as limonene and linalool could possibly be described as hypoallergenic.”

A spokesperson for Superdrug said: “This study does not provide any information on which products have been tested. However, as per EU/UK law, all Superdrug own brand products go through independent safety assessments and all allergens are listed within the ingredient list on pack in line with legislation.”

Boots was approached for comment.


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