Skin So Sensitive

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Skin So Sensitive

According to the Danish Asthma and Allergy Association as many as 10% of the Danish population suffer from contact allergies attributed at least in part to cosmetic exposure. That is a huge number and one that I have some sympathy for being a contact allergy sufferer myself (although I take responsibility for that having chosen a career as a chemist in spite of my dermatologist telling me that it was a crazy idea being an eczema suffering, hay fever blubbering wreck of a human without too much extra encouragement).Anyway, suffice to say that contact allergies are no fun at all and by the look of it lots of people are suffering.

Contact vs. other Allergens

Before we carry on it is important to distinguish between nature and nurture and explain what a contact allergy verses a regular allergy is. An allergic reaction occurs when the body overreacts to an environmental trigger. This trigger can be passed on genetically as with most hay fever, eczema, asthma and some food allergies and as such can run in families.This genetic pre-disposition for the body to over-react causing skin irritation and hives, itching, sneezing, wheezing and/ or runny eyes is present from birth regardless of the choices the sufferer makes during their life. This is in contrast to the contact allergy which develops to a particular environmental trigger over repeated exposures -it sort of grows on you.

Chemicals and Contact Allergens

There are many environmental triggers that can cause us to develop contact allergies, not all of them synthetic or chemical.People who come into regular contact with sheep (wool or lanolin based irritation), who garden, who handle raw foods or who regularly hug trees (sort of) can all develop a form of chronic dermatitis (dermatitis means skin inflammation) that leaves the skin red and inflamed and covered in fluid filled vesicles (pimples that look like blisters). Once the body has over-reacted to the stimuli it will flare up with each exposure making life very uncomfortable and difficult -especially if handling any or all of the above is required for your work!

Of course the contact allergens that get people more worked up are the chemical allergens, synthetic chemicals that have made their way from a chemical plant into your every-day life. Cleaning fluids, wood treatments, dry cleaning fluids, household polishes and of course cosmetics can all contain ingredients that lead to the development of contact allergens and for some people, the risk is just too much to bare -time to bring in the allergens certification!

The Cosmetic Risk

When it comes to potential contact allergens perfumes and colours are the biggest risk factors - as a general rule of thumb any ingredient that smells or has a colour is signalling trouble. But it isn't confined to that, preservatives are the next big thing -again as you would expect given that preservatives are designed to attack microbes and what are we if not microbial hosts disguised cunningly as humans? Beyond that we get to the next slog of ingredients- those with the potential to become allergy causing -either through being generally more irritating or active and finally we have the non-functional ingredients which I presume are targeted based on the saying that 'the devil makes work for idle hands'...

In order to qualify for the Danish allergy aware standard perfumes have to abide by IFRA (International Fragrance Association) standards. This isn't hard when your perfume has been developed by a large fragrance house but if you have attempted to create your own smell by blending up some essential oil, absolutes and extracts you may run into issues, especially as many of the known allergens include aroma chemicals such as citral (Lemon Myrtle, Litsea Cubeba, Petitgrain, Lime, Lemon, Orange), Eugenol (Clove, Nutmeg, Basil, Bay, Cinnamon), Geraniol (Rose, Citronella, Palmarosa, Geranium), Linalool (Mints, Laurens, Cinnamon, Rosewood, Birch) , Limonene (Lemon, Orange, Lime).

In terms of preservatives those with the greatest potential to cause contact dermatitis are the formaldehyde donors which New Directions no longer stocks (with the exception of Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate). Phenoxyethanol is allowed as are several other synthetic blends although those containing Benzyl Alcohol such as plantaserv M are to be avoided as Benzyl Alcohol is also a potential trigger.

In term of the general chemicals that are to be avoided, the general rule of thumb is a total avoidance of chemicals with the risk phrases R42- May cause sensitisation by inhalation and R43 -May cause sensitisation by skin contact. Irritants which have the risk phrase R38-Irritating to skin are allowed in small doses and under some circumstances but it is wise to limit or avoid these if possible. The risk phrases are globally used codes that can be found on an MSDS to help quickly identify known risks with the material. Generally speaking most materials (outside of fragrance ingredients, preservatives and colours) with these risk phrases are avoided in cosmetics anyway due to their skin-compatibility issues but as there are still cases when these classifications of chemicals exist in a cosmetic setting being able to avoid them easily without having to trawl through hours of online research is a bonus!

Finally this particular standard does take time to point out that organic ingredients are not always better for allergy prone skin and that's something we often point out to our New Directions clients.Organic ingredients often represent the purest, most complete reflection of the plant that we offer. Because of that we can't guarantee that the material will be allergen free, especially in the case of vegetable oils where the cold, minimal processing has the potential to leave pollens and proteins behind. Our Oil table situated on the website under 'essential and other oils' is a good place to start when assessing oils for their potential to irritate (rather than cause allergies).We recommend looking for oils with a naturally low free oleic acid content, that aren't tree nut based and that are refined (no colour or odour).

As the standard that I've been referencing above is Danish it might seem somewhat irrelevant for us here in Australia. However, with more and more people around the world reporting skin reactions and allergies to everything from their food to their hand cream it pays to keep an eye on what other countries are doing.

In a nutshell low-allergy cosmetics will be fragrance free -and that goes for all fragrances including natural and organic ones, will use low-allergy potential (no R38 or R43) preservatives, contain no fillers -be simple formulations with as few ingredients as possible and be un-coloured. This is great for your all-round basic range but leaves little sizzle left for the brand owner to play with to help sell the range. But then again I guess a lowest-potential-for-contact-allergy range would sell its self just as long as people trusted what you were doing.

Happy formulating!

Amanda Foxon-Hill

19 october 2014

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