Photo"Hypoallergenic" is like "natural" -- it just makes you feel good all over, as long as you don't break out in a rash. Neither word has any legal meaning, and should basically be considred as marketing hype.

Many consumers seek out shampoos, soaps and cosmetics that are labeled "hypoallergenic" or "dermatologist tested," words that imply the products are safe to use. But recent research gives shoppers reason to question what those labels really mean.

Now some scientists and consumer advocates are calling for change, according to an article in Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), the weekly newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society.

Britt E. Erickson, a senior editor at C&EN, notes that the definitions of the terms "hypoallergenic" and "dermatologist tested/recommended" is currently left to the manufacturers that put them on their products. The Food and Drug Administration has not set any standards for using these descriptions.

Regulation challenged

The last time the agency attempted to do so was in the 1970s, but cosmetic industry giants Almay and Clinique challenged the regulation and ultimately won in an appeals court.

A recent study led by Carsten R. Hamann, a medical student at Loma Linda University School of Medicine in California, confirms that the hypoallergenic label on many products, particularly those marketed for children, is meaningless.

The researchers find that many products labeled as hypoallergenic contain at least one known skin allergen.

Hamann and colleagues analyzed 187 personal care products intended for children from six retailers in California. They looked for 80 common allergens, including fragrances, preservatives, and surfactants. All of the products were labeled “hypo­allergenic,” “dermatologist recommended/tested,” “fragrance free,” or “paraben free.”

Of the products studied, 89% contained at least one chemical known to cause contact dermatitis and 11% contained five or more contact allergens. 

The products included shampoos and conditioners, sunscreens, diaper creams, and “anything marketed toward kids that was supposed to be used on skin,” Hamann says.

Some companies are self-regulating and moving away from using certain compounds, such as those that release formaldehyde. But that doesn't necessarily guarantee a safer product. And one preservative that some manufacturers have turned to in place of parabens, which are endocrine disruptors, can cause allergic reactions. Some researchers are calling for the FDA to step in. But for now, it is up to consumers to shop by trial and error.

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