Many with allergies and sensitive skins will be only too aware of the difficulties of finding suitable, helpful and non-reactive cosmetics and toiletries. Could free from’ skincare products which are free from some of the many allergens or irritants often responsible for triggering sensitivities and reactions be a help? Or is it always a matter of trial and error or even pot luck? Alex Gazzola, co-ordinator and co-founder of the annual Free From Skincare Awards, explains all.

We are often asked, as organisers of the Free From Skincare Awards, to recommend allergy-friendly products to consumers with sensitivities and with chronic skin health problems – such as acne, psoriasis, rosacea and, especially, eczema and dermatitis. It’s never easy. We are not doctors, nor dermatologist. We don’t know our follower s’ and readers’ clinical histories, nor have the knowledge of their own skin type or cosmetic routines. Understandably, people often want a quick ‘miracle cream ‘ recommendation and are quite prepared to spend the money for a possible solution.

But the problem is there are no guarantees that any one product is universally safe, appropriate or helpful. Understandably, problem skin consumers are tired of ‘trial and error’ experimentation – which can be both costly and detrimental to their skin -and so look for shortcuts. Sensationalist media coverage of transformative or supposedly curative products, often based on a single photogenic case study, supported with before and after photographs, reinforce the idea that there is a magical problem-solver out there.

It pays to be realistic. There are likely to be a number of products which could work well for you, and some which won’t work so well. And there are ways of shortening the odds in your favour …

Patch Testing
This is a procedure used to investigate whether any skin -based symptoms you have are aggravated or caused by a chemical or substance to which it is being exposed.

The exposure can come through toiletries, detergents and other household products, as well as clothing, pollen, pollutants, or other materials in your daily environment, such as leather, metal, rubber, plastics and so on.

If your doctor or dermatologist suspects this may be the cause, or would like to rule it out, then patch testing may be recommended – although if your eczema is severe or you are taking certain medications (immune-suppressants, steroids) it may be contra-indicated.

The process itself involves applying small amounts of substances to your skin, along the top of your back, in the form of small discs or patches infused with commonly irritant or allergy -causing substances, and which are fixed in place with medical tape.   Anything from around twenty to over a hundred substances may be tested, depending on your particular circumstances and the chemicals you may regularly be exposed to, for instance at work. Usually, a ‘ baseline’ series will be applied to all patients, plus others which are appropriate to you.

After two days, you will be asked to attend a second appointment, and the patches will be removed, and sites examined. Another two days later, you will be asked to attend a third appointment and your dermatologist will properly re-examine all the sites for potential allergies.

Many reactions will be negative. Some may be uncertain. Some may be due to irritation,  rather  than  allergy  – in other words, your skin may respond to a material simply  because it  doesn’t ‘like’ being exposed to it for several days, but not because it is all allergic, and it may not  react to  it       under normal circumstances or with a fleeting exposure (ie in a wash-off product such as shower gel rather than a leave-on product such a face cream) .

But one or more may be positive – be it weakly, strongly or extremely. Positive allergic reactions show up as elevated pink or red patches, and the stronger ones may be blistered.

The problem ingredients
There are several groups of likely culprits aggravating your skin issues. Some of the most common include:

These include methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone, which have now been banned in leave-on cosmetics but are still used in rinse-off cosmetics and household detergent s. Parabens, although widely feared by consumers for unjustified health concerns, are rare allergen s. Formaldehyde, or formaldehyde-releasers, are more common preservative allergens. We exclude all of these from our Awards, but preservatives are an essential ingredient to most cosmetics, and so we must permit others, which also can occasionally cause allergies.

Fragrance allergens
The subject of fragrances and fragrance allergens is hugely complex. Many of those used are synthetic; many are 100% natural and found in essential oils. Neither is ‘better’ than the other as far as allergies are concerned – both can trigger them – but many prefer the natural aromas to the sometimes heavy, over-powering or cloying synthetic ones.

According to EU cosmetics regulations, 26 of the most reactive fragrance allergen compounds have to be explicitly declared on ingredients labels. They are not permitted to ‘hide’ behind expressions such as ‘parfum’ or ‘fragrance’, which cosmetics manufacturers sometimes use to keep ingredient s a trade secret. These fragrance allergen compounds are normally listed towards the end of ingredients lists, and include limonene, geraniol, eugenol and others, which are found in essential oils, plus artificial compounds, such as alpha isomethyl ionone, common in perfumes and aftershaves.

Food allergens
You may already be aware if you have a food allergy. Food allergens will not be tested for in patch testing. If you know you need to avoid certain foods due to allergy, you ought to avoid them in cosmetic exposure too, as some are commonly used, but often listed by their Latin names (see Table 1). If you have coeliac disease, it is highly unlikely that gluten derivatives in cosmetics effect you, but you may like to avoid wheat ingredients in products such as lipstick, for instance.    If you have a gastrointestinal-based food intolerance, there is no need to worry about food ingredients in cosmetics.

Chromium, cobalt, gold and, especially, nickel can cause allergies. Exposure is usually through jewellery, zips, jeans studs, coins, medical products, razors and more.

Alex Gazzola and team examine some entries from the Skin Care Awards

There is no recognised definition for free from skincare, but our working one is this: free from skincare products are those which are free from one or more of the ingredients typically present in a ‘non-free from’ or everyday high -street equivalent, and which consumers may need or wish to avoid. Those reasons could be health related – such as allergies – or other, including ethical, religious, environmental, or personal preference.


      Fragrance free products obviously fall into this category, but there are many other examples.

      Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) – a detergent which many with eczema find irritating – is typically avoided by ‘free from’ skincare brands. Instead, gentler detergents such as coco glucoside and decyl glucoside, usually derived from coconut, are usually used. SLS-free labelling is common.

      Beeswax is common in natural lip balms, but alternative plant-based butters – such as carnauba wax and candelilla wax – can be used to make animal-free lip balms, as in our 2017 Overall Winner for Best Free From Skincare Product, Benecos‘ Classic Lip Balm.

      The preservatives Ml and MCI are common in shampoos. The same is true of wheat proteins, as these penetrate hair shafts and add volume. Green People shampoos, though, are Ml / MCI-free, and use quinoa proteins instead – another excellent example of a free from product, with multiple free from attributes.

      Alternative terms to ‘free from’ may be used to denote the absence of an ingredient, such as ‘does not contain’. Remember that other claims may effectively constitute a ‘free from’ claim. For example, ‘halal’ implies ‘alcohol free’ –  which is a drying ingredient many like to avoid. Vegan implies not only free from beeswax, but also free from lanolin – an ingredient derived from sheep’s wool, to which many are allergic.

The legal position
Many in the powerful global cosmetic industry, including orthodox cosmetic chemists and formulators, despise ‘free from’ claim s. EU regulations are often negotiated with cosmetics trade bodies, whose members include cosmetic scientists apparently frustrated at the trend towards more ‘natural’ cosmetics and this has resulted in moves to clamp down on such claims. There is some legislation already, but it arguably remains open to interpretation.

      The matter appears to hinge on a ‘Fairness’ clause which states “Claims for cosmetic products … shall not …. denigrate ingredients legally used “.

      In a non-legally binding guidance document issued by the Sub-Working Group on Claims – which is composed of representatives from various European cosmetics organisations – the point is made that making free from claims for the preservatives parabens, triclosan and phenoxyethanol is not permitted because it denigrates these authorised and safe substances.

      That the ingredients are safe – for those who don’t react to them – is not one to argue with, but that making a free from claim for them is denigrating them surely is. Is a food label reading ‘free from gluten’ or ‘free from nuts’ – which are similarly safe to non-coeliacs or non nut­ allergy sufferers respectively – denigrating these ingredients, or merely reassuring allergic or coeliac consumers of suitability?

      Bizarrely, other free from claims – such as for alcohol or animal ingredients – are deemed permissible, on the given basis that some may wish to avoid these for personal or ethical reasons.

      Quite why a free from claim ‘denigrates’ some ingredients and not others is not elucidated by the Sub Working Group on Claims, and where this leaves the allergic consumer is similarly unclear. But if regulation is tightened, we could sadly see a reduction in useful ‘free from’ labelling, as small manufacturers shy away from making such claims due to fear of prosecution and costly label reprinting.

What to choose?
If your dermatologist has advised you avoid certain ingredients, perhaps as a result of patch testing, then you may find ‘free from’ claims useful. As we have seen in this year’s Free From Skincare Awards, some brands continue to provide them. Sometimes such labelling will be discreet, and other times more prominent, even front-of-pack. It’s always worth looking for.

      Your dermatologist may also have access to databases of safe products, free from certain ingredients, which are not made publically available. These can be especially useful if you have multiple and complex avoidance requirements

      Otherwise, you will have to scrutinise ingredients, which is no easy job, not least for those without a qualification in chemistry. Furthermore, botanicals are often listed in Latin, in accordance with a worldwide standardised format known as INCi (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredient s). It pays to know your juglans regia from your helianthus annuus.

       When shopping, take a magnifying glass and allow extra time. Many brands and online stockists now list ingredients on websites, but not all. Remember too that household products such as detergents aren’t required to give as comprehensive an ingredient list as cosmetics although troublesome preservatives and fragrances should be declared.

        Don’t be lulled into security by terms such as ‘natural’, ‘for sensitive skin’  or ‘hypoallergenic’ – none of which will guarantee a product is suitable for you. There is no legal definition for these terms. Hypoallergenic, contrary to what many think, does not mean ‘allergen free’. What it typically signifies is that the manufacturer believes their product to be less likely to trigger allergies, and that ingredients have been selected which are less commonly associated with reactions. It will probably be fragrance allergen free, and be a straightforward formulation, but there are no guarantees.

      You may also see products making reference to skin conditions. It’s technically not permitted to make ‘curative’ claims -which are reserved for medicinal products not cosmetics – but brands can specify suitability for certain skin types. Even something seemingly innocuous as ‘suitable for eczema’ is questionable, but ‘suitable for eczema­ prone skin’ is OK. Similarly, ‘soothing balm’ is fine, but ‘healing balm’ is not. Some brands do trip up on this, though.

      Finally, read instructions on any cosmetic products before use. Many people use the wrong amount of product, be it cleanser or moisturiser, be it too much or too little. If applying emollient products to problem skin, don’ t spread too vigorously or with too much force. It can help, for instance, to ‘melt’ or warm up solid balms between fingers or in your hands before spreading them gently on your skin.

Free  From ‘Achievement’
We have many product categories in the Free From Skincare Awards, but one additional ‘special’ category is for Free From Achievement – products which exclude all or almost all allergenic preservatives, fragrances and food components, and which are therefore suitable for most people with sensitivities. Here are just some of the winning and shortlisted products in that category, which you may like to explore. All are free from all preservatives, food allergens and fragrances, unless otherwise stated.

Filabe of Switzerland Ltd, Skin Clear Young (£33.50 for 28 cloths;
One of our most unusual entries. Recyclable microfiber face cloths infused with anti-inflammatory astragalus to fight teenage acne.

Good Bubble, Little Softy Fragrance Free Moisturiser (£1.99,100ml; good
Affordable and gentle product for children. Contains mild preservatives potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate and is enhanced with coconut and avocado derivatives.

Harborist, Balm-gel Cleanser (£22, 100ml; Ultra gentle facial cleanser with simple ingredients derived from coconut, jojoba, avocado and camellia. Overall Free From Skincare Awards champion for 2018.

Kokoso Baby, Hair & Body Wash Fragrance-Free {£7.99, 200ml;
Ultra-mild baby wash with leading ingredients aloe and coconut, and preserved with sodium dehydroacetate, which is not one of the common allergy­ triggering presevatives .

Little Soap Company, Olive Oil Bar Soap (£2 .95, 200g)
Only pure vegetable oils – rapeseed, olive and coconut – go into this simplest of soaps. Stocked at branches of Waitrose.

Living Naturally, Fragrance Free Deodorant (8.50, 60ml;
A straightforward formula: sodium bicarbonate to absorb moisture, and natural low-allergen plant butters and oils to moisturise.

Lyonsleaf, Zinc and Calendula Cream (£8.99, 30ml; Gold Winner of the Free From Achievement Award 2018. Beeswax, and oils of sunflower, babassu, borage and calendula combined with zinc oxide for a therapeutic cream suitable for eczema­ prone and other problematic skin.

ON! Juniper, Super Colour Bath Bomb (£3.50, Just sodium bicarbonate, citric acid and grapeseed oil, with either beetroot powder or spirulina powder – and nothing else.    A    great alternative for kids with sensitive skins to the over­ fragranced, artificially coloured bath bombs which are so popular

The Great British Bee Co, Honeywash {Fragrance Free) (£12, 250ml; www.greatbritishbee .com) Gentle coconut-derived detergents plus honey and citric acid combine in this very mild liquid soap, which is free of commonly used preservatives.

Do YOU have a favourite skincare product which is kind to face, hands and body?  Or one that gives you a shampoo without an itch afterwards? Do write and tell us. 

(Table 1)
Latin names of food allergens sometimes found in cosmetics.

Almondprunus {amygdalus] dulcis/amara/sativa
Barley – hordeum/hordeum vulgare
Brazil nut –
bertholletia excelsa
Cashew –
anacardium occidentale
Hazelnut –
corylus rostrata/avellona/americana
Lupin –
lupinus albus/luteus
Macadamia nut
macadamia ternifolia/integrifolia
avena sativa
arachis/arachis hypogea
Sesame – 
sesamum indicum
glycine max/soja
Sunflower –
helianthus annuus
Walnut –
juglans regia/nigra
Wheat –
triticum/triticum vulgore

This article first appeared in Allergy Newsletter No. 123. Summer 2018.