What Does Hypoallergenic Really Mean?
A product labeled "hypoallergenic" should contain few or no allergens (and a pet should be less likely to cause an allergic reaction), but there is no legal definition of the word.
An allergy is your immune system’s response to something that doesn’t bother a lot of other people. It’s why your best friend can cuddle a new kitten without a problem while you sneeze your way out the door.
“Allergies are immune reactions that show a person is hypersensitive, usually on an acute basis, to certain substances,” explains Christine Ko, MD, a Yale Medicine dermatologist, dermatopathologist, and professor at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.
The most common allergens include pollen, dust mites, mould spores, pet dander, food, insect stings, and medicine. Unfortunately, allergies are common and are on the rise. One in two Canadian households are affected by a food allergy.
Why more people are developing allergies than ever before is not completely clear. “One theory is that we are not exposed, as babies or young children, to allergens that we used to be exposed to, and so we don’t develop tolerance to them and instead become hypersensitive,” she says.
With allergies so widespread, it’s no wonder we gravitate to products that are hypoallergenic—less likely (or unlikely) to cause an allergy, according to Dr. Ko. “Hypoallergenic is appealing because we would all like to prevent unnecessary reactions like sniffles and runny eyes, especially during Covid-19,” she points out.
What’s an allergic reaction?
The immune system usually does a good job of identifying and fighting foreign invaders, including bacteria or viruses, that can harm the body. But sometimes it identifies a harmless substance as threatening and reacts by going to war with it.
“Allergies are caused by a given substance interacting with the immune system a certain way and setting off a particular hypersensitivity response,” explains Dr. Ko. For example, many people have no reaction when they breathe in pollen. But when someone who is allergic to pollen inhales it, the pollen is seen as an invader by the immune system’s cells, including antigen-presenting cells and T and B lymphocytes (T and B cells).
This ultimately results in the production of immunoglobulin E, or lgE, and other immune system molecules. They try to fight off the presumed enemy, which causes the body to produce various reactions, ranging from mild (think sneezing, red, watery eyes, and hives) to more severe (swelling, asthma, and even potentially life-threatening anaphylaxis).
What causes allergies?
Allergens are substances that cause an allergic reaction. Here are a few common allergens:
- Animal proteins and animal dander
- Drugs (including antibiotics or medicines you put on your skin)
- Foods (the most common being eggs, peanuts, milk, nuts, soy, fish, animal meat, and wheat products)
- Fungal spores
- Insect and mite feces
- Insect bites and insect stings (their venom)
- Natural rubber latex
What does “hypoallergenic” really mean?
Hypoallergenic means that something is less likely to trigger an allergic reaction. But Dr. Ko points out it doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t. The term was first coined in 1940 and started being used in advertising as early as the 1950s.
Regulation would be a good thing for you. Hypoallergenic is not a scientific nor legal term, it just implies that the manufacturer has created the product with ingredients that are less likely to cause an allergic reaction. So the “hypoallergenic” label on your face cream? It may be misleading.
(Related: 13 Ways Doctors Allergy-Proof Their Home)
What it takes for something to be truly hypoallergenic
It is nearly impossible for something to be completely hypoallergenic, Dr. Ko says. “For something to be truly hypoallergenic, it should not react at all with the immune system, for anyone,” she explains. It is “a hard bar to reach,” she says. Even inert metals can sometimes cause allergic reactions.
(Related: Allergy-Free Snacks For Kids)
What can you expect of hypoallergenic products and pets?
For consumers, hypoallergenic labels generally mean that common allergens are excluded from the product and/or the product does not cause allergy in testing situations, explains Dr. Ko. For example, hypoallergenic cosmetics are products that manufacturers claim produce fewer allergic reactions than other cosmetic products.
“It is reasonable to expect that hypoallergenic products will not induce allergy in the majority of individuals, but some unlucky individuals could still be allergic to a component of the product,” Dr. Ko points out.
So why do companies use the term? Well, the word may help people with allergies avoid certain products or ingredients, but people may also be more likely to buy products labeled hypoallergenic even though there’s no guarantee they are free of allergens.
In the case of pets, namely hypoallergenic dogs and hypoallergenic cats, the term translates to “less likely to provoke allergies” but does not mean they are allergen free. Breeds that fall into this category tend to be less likely to shed, as animal proteins and dander collect in animal hair and fur.
How to safely test a hypoallergenic product
Ultimately, just because a product or pet is dubbed hypoallergenic doesn’t guarantee it won’t provoke an allergic reaction in you. Before testing out a product, always read the ingredients on the label, scanning for any known allergens.
The only true way to know if you are allergic is to come into contact with the allergen. If you are prone to severe allergic reactions, you should contact a doctor to conduct allergy testing. “An allergist can do specific tests by pricking the skin, and dermatologists can also do specific skin tests to look for skin reactions after applying relevant products directly to the skin,” Dr. Ko points out.
There are even tests, called in vitro allergen tests, that can diagnose pet allergies. (But some experts recommend you skip the at-home allergy tests.)
In terms of skin care or beauty products, you can also try the product at home (which many companies recommend doing anyway), using a tiny amount on a small patch of skin. The process is called patch testing, and it can save you from a large allergic reaction. If you notice any sort of reaction, discontinue use.
In the case of a pet, you will generally get a good idea if you are allergic in a matter of minutes. So spend time with the pet before you bring it home for good.
Are hypoallergenic products and pets worth it?
There is no such thing as something being completely hypoallergenic. However, if you do suffer from allergies, products or pets labeled hypoallergenic will be less likely to provoke an allergic reaction. Regardless, always read the label and consider testing a product (or pet!) before completely exposing yourself. “A common sense way to think about it is to avoid products that cause a noticeable, acute reaction in you,” Dr. Ko says.
Next, check out How to Survive Allergy Season in Canada