By Louise Hidinger, Ph.D.
Is Gluten in Beauty Products a Problem?
Gluten is blamed for a whole host of health problems, often without any real medical basis. However, despite the fact that gluten is only a serious issue for those who have been diagnosed with celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity or wheat allergy, many people still choose to avoid gluten, suspecting that it is causing weight gain and bowel irritation. The craze for gluten-free hasn’t just affected the food industry, it has started to appear in cosmetics and beauty products. We have been asked if gluten is a concern in skincare and beauty products, so it was a good time to address the issue.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein composite found in the grains (seeds) of the wheat family, including, wheat, spelt, barley and rye. It is composed of two different proteins, a gliadin and a glutenin, joined by a starch molecule. These proteins are meant to serve as food for embryonic plants.
What is celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and wheat allergy?
Because gluten is a protein, once ingested, it can be recognized as an antigen by the immune system.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease wherein an enzyme within the body, tissue transglutaminase, cross-reacts with the gliadin portion of gluten, forming a composite protein. This composite protein is seen as foreign by the immune system, setting off an inflammatory reaction in the small intestine that results in the truncation of the villi lining the small intestine. This severely reduces the ability of the small intestine to absorb nutrients from ingested food, and also gives rise to the numerous symptoms of celiac disease, including digestive problems (abdominal pain, bloating, gas, and chronic constipation and/or diarrhea), anemia, fatigue, vitamin deficiencies and failure to thrive (in children).
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is similar to celiac disease in terms of the symptoms, including abdominal pain, bloating and chronic constipation/diarrhea, but the damage to the small intestine is not observed.
Wheat allergy is different from celiac disease, as it is a direct reaction of the immune system to the various proteins found in wheat. Symptoms are similar to those seen with other food allergies, including swelling, itching or irritation of the mouth and throat, nasal congestion, hives, itchy/watery eyes, cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea. In some individuals with wheat allergy, anaphylaxis is a possible reaction.
Is there gluten in cosmetics and beauty products?
The short answer is that in most cosmetics and beauty products, gluten is not present at an appreciable level as it is not really used in cosmetic formulation. (If you’re wondering, check the ingredient list of your products!) However, there is the possibility that trace amounts of gluten may be present in certain ingredients that are derived from wheat (Triticum vulgare), barley (Hordeum vulgare) and rye (Secale cereale). Some common examples of wheat-derived ingredients include wheat extract, wheat germ oil, wheat amino acids, and hydrolyzed wheat protein (note that in an actual ingredient list, plant sources will be named with their scientific names, e.g. Triticum vulgare extract).
The amount of gluten that may be present in a cosmetic ingredient depends on how processed and purified the ingredient is. For example, Vitamin E (tocopherol) that has been derived from wheat germ, would likely contain little to no gluten, as the wheat germ must be processed in a number of steps in order to obtain purified Vitamin E. On the other hand, an ingredient such as “wheat germ extract” may contain some gluten as it has not been subject to many processing and purification steps.
Oat (Avena sativa) is another grain that is sometimes used in beauty products. Common examples of oat-derived ingredients include colloidal oatmeal and hydrolyzed oat protein. Although oat does not contain gluten, it is often grown and/or processed alongside gluten-containing grains such as wheat, so there is the possibility of cross-contamination. Therefore, unless otherwise indicated by the manufacturer, an ingredient like colloidal oatmeal might contain trace amounts of gluten.
Are trace amounts of gluten in cosmetic ingredients a problem?
Gluten applied to the skin cannot penetrate the skin to any significant degree, and it cannot enter the intestine when applied topically. This means that, for anyone who is not allergic to wheat, using beauty products containing wheat-derived ingredients, even if they happen to contain trace amounts of gluten, is not a problem.
For people with celiac disease and most people with wheat allergy, trace amounts of gluten are only an issue if the beauty product in question might be ingested and thus enter the intestine. Beauty products that stand a good chance of being ingested include lip cosmetics, toothpastes and mouth washes. Any other topically applied products can be used, with the proviso that hands should be washed thoroughly after applying lotions, and care should be exercised not to ingest any toiletries (e.g. body wash) while bathing. Parents of children with celiac disease may also want to exercise caution with shampoos, body washes and body lotions, as younger children may swallow small amounts of body care products during bath time, or get lotion on fingers which may then get put in the mouth.
For those people with a diagnosed wheat allergy, the same rules apply as for those with celiac disease. That is, most people with wheat allergy are fine with topically applied beauty products that contain wheat-derived ingredients, so long as the product is not ingested or comes in contact with the mouth area. However, some people with wheat allergy also exhibit contact dermatitis in reaction to topically applied products with wheat-derived ingredients. Unfortunately, those people would have to avoid any beauty products that contain wheat-derived ingredients.
About the Author Louise Hidinger is a Toronto-based cosmetic chemist.