Gluten-free is big business these days. I remember just a few years ago when my father-in-law was first diagnosed with Celiac disease how difficult it was to adjust to the gluten-free lifestyle. Food shopping was difficult, as only boutique food markets and health food stores sold gluten-free bread and pasta (and there were very few choices), eating out was even more challenging (and stress-inducing). Well nowadays, just about every grocery store has a gluten-fee aisle, and most restaurants have a good variety of gluten-free offerings. There are even gluten-free food stands at stadiums and boardwalks. Though I still wouldn’t say it’s easy (or cheap) to be gluten-free, it’s certainly more accessible. Gluten-free is also big business in non-food categories like Play-Doh® for kids, shampoo, and of course–we can’t ignore the gluten-free skincare market.
I’m often asked for gluten-free skincare, hair care, nail polish, and makeup recommendations.
Though most people who ask don’t have Celiac disease, many of them do seek to avoid gluten due to allergies, intolerances, or sensitivities that may be the cause of their skin problems. As I wrote in my bestselling book, Love Your Skin, Love Yourself, gluten is a member of the Skin Trigger Trifecta, and is known to perpetuate conditions such as acne, rosacea, and eczema. But is gluten something that really poses a problem when applied topically? Or are its adverse effects only related to internal consumption?
I’ve looked at the research from both the nutritional and topical perspectives, and here’s what I’ve concluded at this point, bearing in mind the fact that new research comes out all the time, so this conclusion may change.
First and foremost, if you have been diagnosed with Celiac disease, wheat or gluten allergy, or functional diagnostic testing you’ve had indicates that you have a sensitivity or digestive intolerance to gluten or wheat, I recommend you consult with your licensed health practitioner on this matter, and my rule of thumb is that it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk whether or not topical exposure to gluten poses a risk to those with known gluten-related health issues.
As of now, the scientific and medical communities agree that Celiac disease, gluten intolerance, and gluten sensitivity–in addition to certain skin conditions such as acne, rosacea, or dermatitis herpetiformis (a type of eczema specifically linked to gluten intolerance) is caused by the autoimmune response that occurs from internal consumption of gluten or gluten-containing grains such as wheat, barley, spelt, or cross contaminated grains such as oats. Research does not indicate that topical application of products containing any form of gluten is problematic, since gluten is a molecule too large to penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin where it could be absorbed into the blood stream. Doctors do acknowledge that these ingredients could enter the body through broken skin, mucus membranes, and of course accidental ingestion (lip balm, lipstick, or even eating with one’s hands after using a hand cream containing gluten)–but it’s unlikely that ingested gluten would exceed 20PPM (the FDA’s cutoff point for gluten-free designation).
From a topical perspective, it is true that gluten itself is a large molecule, like many other proteins (collagen’s a common one), that when applied topically, will not penetrate the skin without help. By help, I mean with the assistance of steam, electric current (iontophoresis, nanocurrent, LED), oils (may allow the ingredients to enter via hair follicles), or special processing pre-formulation. Another issue is that cosmetic ingredient manufacturers and formulators know about penetration issues, which is why proteins and other large molecule substances are hydrolyzed and may also be packaged in a phospholipid or other type of liposomal delivery system to increase the likelihood of penetration and bioavailability. We see this often with collagen and hyaluronic acid–two common cosmeceutical ingredients with molecular size issues.
As a formulator myself, I can tell you that the majority of cosmetic or pharmaceutical grade ingredients have been hydrolyzed or packaged in a penetration-enhancing delivery system. It’s not always possible to know how much gluten a product actually contains. “Unfortunately, suppliers of raw materials don’t always certify the concentration of gluten in the raw materials that they provide skin care companies. And since the raw materials are not standardized with each batch (meaning they adjust each batch to contain a constant amount of gluten) the gluten content could fluctuate…” according to Dr. Diana Howard, in an article from the International Dermal Institute.
That being said, it’s still hard to say how much of the ingredient will actually be absorbed.
It’s absolutely true that the skin is designed to keep invaders out, and since many (but not all) gluten-containing ingredients are water soluble, they will already have a tough time penetrating through the skin’s lipid barrier. However, that’s assuming that the person’s barrier function is intact–and an intact barrier function requires all the immune functions of the body to be working optimally, and for there to be little presence of inflammation. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease, and the presence of food sensitivities, intolerances, and allergies also often indicate the presence of inflammation and autoimmunity. Because of that, it’s safe to say that many people–especially those with known autoimmune disease and food-related health issue–have compromised barrier functions. Therefore, the ingredient’s chance of penetrating and absorbing is increased.
We also know that ingredients absorbed transdermally bypass the digestive process and therefore may not go through the same metabolic processes that lead to the autoimmune and inflammatory responses that happen when gluten is ingested internally. That being said, if someone has an allergy to a substance, any form of exposure to even a single molecule of that substance is enough to produce a reaction. Sensitivities act similar to allergies, in that the substance does not have be internally consumed and digested for it to cause a reaction. The difference is that the reaction is typically delayed, and is more mild than an allergic reaction. So if someone who has gluten intolerance or Celiac disease knowingly uses a topical skincare product containing some form of gluten and they get a rash or other sign of a reaction, it’s possible that they are having an irritant or allergic reaction, not an autoimmune reaction. It’s also possible that the reaction might be from something else in the product, such a synthetic fragrance or preservative.
What’s my verdict about gluten-free skincare?
Again–if you have a known gluten-related health condition, or are experiencing allergy-like symptoms that haven’t yet been explained, I think it’s better to be safe than sorry. However, the judicious use of the term “gluten-free” in skincare and personal care products has become just as problematic as the terms “cruelty-free,” “organic,” and “all-natural.” It’s just another form of greenwashing, or in this case, healthwashing that is more meaningful to the company’s bottom line, than it is for actual benefit. That being said…
Here are the most common gluten-containing ingredients used in skincare, hair care, and cosmetics.
There are many versions of these ingredients, but a good rule of thumb is to avoid products that have any mention of the English or Latin names of wheat, barley, oats, corn (Wait, corn? Keep reading to find out why…), and other gluten-containing grains.
Oats don’t inherently contain gluten but are often stored with and processed with and contaminated by gluten from wheat and other gluten-free containing grains.
- Oat Hydrosolate–hydrolyzed oat protein
- Oat Extract–Lactobacillus/Oat Ferment Extract Filtrate
- Colloidal Oatmeal
- Oat amino acids (avena sativa)
- Sodium cocoyl hydrolyzed oat protein
- Sodium Lauroyl Oat Amino Acids
Wheat–triticum vulgare, triticum aestivum:
- Wheat amino acids
- Wheat germ extract
- Wheat germ oil
- Wheat seed extract
- Hydrolyzed wheat protein
- Hydrolyzed wheat gluten
- Barley extract
Corn–maize, zea mays:
Corn contains its own form of gluten which is not the same as that from wheat, barley, etc. Some people with Celiac tolerate gluten from corn just fine, others do not. So if you’re using gluten-free skincare and are still having weird reactions, check to see if your products contain contain corn-derived ingredients.
- Hydrolyzed corn protein
- Corn silk
- Corn hydrosolate
- Glucono delta lactone/gluconolactone
Other cosmetic ingredients that are either sourced from or contain blends of glutenous grains:
- Beta gluten (this is often derived from oats, wheat, and barley though it is possible to source it from mushrooms)
- 1,3 beta glucan
- Samino peptide complex, sodium C8-16 isoalkylsuccinyl
- Vitamin E –tocopherol–(may be sourced from wheat germ, though this is less the case these days–GMO soy is a bigger issue. I recommend either sunflower derived or bioidentical forms of Vitamin E)
- Hydrolyzed vegetable protein–questionable sources, wheat, oat, barley often in the mix
- Plant-based keratins–contain hydrolyzed corn protein, hydrolyzed wheat protein
- Beer extract–very trendy these days! May contain wheat, barley, hops
- Plant-based peptides: hydrolyzed wheat protein or hydrolyzed wheat gluten. Examples are Trylagen® PCB, Aldenine® PBC, Pentacare® NA-PF
- Ferulic acid–often sourced from the grasses of wheat, oats
- Different blends–enzymes, antioxidant complexes, etc–often contain wheat germ
- Enzyme-modified gluten
- Malt extract
- Phytosphingosine extract
- Whole grain flours, ferments, or extracts
This is just a sampling of ingredients. New ones enter the market constantly and go by many names. It’s always my belief that just like with the food you eat, the only way to know what’s in your products (and how much of each ingredient, the source and quality of the ingredient, etc) is to make them yourself. You may see it recommended on other health and wellness websites to just use coconut oil or jojoba oil. While this might be OK for some people, your skincare routine really should be something that’s customized to your skin’s unique needs.
Learn to make your own customized, natural facial oil and facial butter in my free online class!
Do you use gluten-free skincare?
What’s been your experience? Please share in the comments below!
- A Glutton for Gluten: Should Skin Care Be Gluten-Free?
- Personal Care Products: Do You Need to Worry About Gluten?
- How to Avoid Gluten in Makeup and Skin Care
- Does Your Makeup Contain These Possibly Gluten-Filled Ingredients?
- Does Gluten in Beauty Products Pose Any Risk to Those with Celiac Disease?
*Image 2 by Madhero88 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Image 3 by Christopher Exley (http://dx.doi.org/10.1039/C3EM00374D) [CC BY 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Image 4, public domain. Image 5 by Celinebj (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons