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Shannon's Edit

Gluten-Free Beauty. Trend or Health Must?

August 25, 2014

If we follow the rule that what we put on our skin goes within, it would make sense that those suffering from gluten intolerance, or celiac disease, should avoid skincare products that contain gluten. But is it necessary?

It’s a beauty industry trend that catching the attention—and dollars—of those suffering from celiac disease; a condition resulting from the inability to digest grains such as wheat, barley oats and rye. Gluten-free products, from moisturisers to make-up, are popping up on beauty counters across the country with a promise to beautify sans the need for gluten, ensuring better health for the wearer. But is it a real concern or simply clever advertising?

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According to some skincare experts such products are beneficial, particularly if worn near the mouth, with the likelihood of being swallowed, however, there is no documented proof showing gluten contained in skincare remedies penetrates the epidermis, the skin’s outermost layer.

“There is no scientific evidence that suggests gluten can be absorbed through the skin,” says skincare expert, facialist and educator Christine Clais. “The possible risk of getting a skin reaction from gluten containing skincare is in fact caused by accidentally swallowing these products. For this reason, it might be safer to use gluten free lip creams, lipsticks, foundation, toothpaste or mouthwash—that is, all products that come into direct contact with the mouth. And of course, eliminating gluten out of the diet is as equally, if not more important!”

Symptoms of gluten intolerance can include iron deficiency anaemia, gastrointestinal upsets, weight loss, rashes and fatigue—a debilitating combination for sufferers who avoid gluten in many foods, from breads and muffins to pasta and beer. For those wanting to eliminate it completely, taking stock of the beauty cabinet is now a must, particularly according to marketing and brands that have added gluten-free to their ranges.

However, it’s this advice that should make the buyer beware, says eco skincare expert, Sophie Uliano, who believes gluten-free skincare is “much more of a trend than a beauty must-have” for celiacs.

“It makes those who are gluten-free feel more safe and secure, however, there is little proof to substantiate the evidence that products with gluten in them can penetrate the skin, and thus be a problem for those with gluten sensitivities,” she says. “There is obviously a great niche in the skincare market for gluten-free products, however, we have to be mindful that much of this can be marketing hype.”

Traditionally, wheat, barley and oat-derived ingredients are used as thickeners in products such as moisturisers and lipsticks. It’s simply left out of gluten-free beauty, often replaced with synthetic additives to ensure a creamy consistency.

Recent reports have revealed that the use of some cosmetics, including products used on the lips and face, can result in unexpected exposure to gluten.

It’s estimated 15 to 25 percent of celiac sufferers also develop a form of the disease called dermatitis herpetiformis, which manifests as itchy, blistering lesions that can affect the elbows, knees, buttocks and back. However, while this condition is linked to gluten intolerance, gluten products directly touching the skin doesn’t cause it, says Christine Clais. As such, those who suffer from the rash won’t benefit from using specifically formulated gluten-free products.

Research conducted by George Washington University in the United States found that the need for gluten-free beauty products might be justified. Titled Information About Cosmetic Ingredients is Difficult to Obtain: A Potential Hazard for Celiac Patients, the study was prompted after a 28-year-old celiac experienced gastrointestinal complications, as well as a rash, after using a lotion containing gluten.

“Recent reports have revealed that the use of some cosmetics, including products used on the lips and face, can result in unexpected exposure to gluten,” said researchers Marie L. Borum and Pia Prakash.

“It was difficult to determine whether gluten was contained in the product she was using,” said Dr Prakash. “But once she stopped using the body lotion her symptoms resolved.”

Rohan Widdison, CEO and founder of natural and organic skincare brand NVEY ECO, says his company’s research shows products are neither less or more effective, with or without the presence of gluten.

“As per our studies, the lack of or presence of gluten in topical beauty products does not lessen or enhance the performance of the products, however we do highly encourage the use of certified organic and natural ingredients as they are gentle and more nourishing on the skin with results you can see in the short and long term,” he says.

“Certainly if you have an intolerance or allergy to gluten you should make sure to check products you might ingest for gluten content, but as it is a medical case you should always consult your doctor if you are unsure.”

While there are no contraindications with the use of gluten-free beauty products, as with any product worn on the skin, it’s important to review all of the ingredients and, if possible, opt for natural and organic.

Ingredients that Contain Gluten

Wheat derived:

Wheat amino acid
Wheat bran extract
Wheat germ extracts
Wheat germ glycerides
Wheat germ oil
Wheat germamidopropyldimonium hydroxyproply hydrolyzed wheat protein
Wheat protein
Wheat bran extract
Triticum vilgare flour lipids
Triticum vilgare germ extract
Triticum vilgare germ oil

Barley derived:

Amino peptide complex
Barley extract
Hordeum vulgare extract
Amino peptide complex
Barley extract
Hordeum vulgare extract
Phytophingosine extract

Oat derived:

Avena sativa flour
Avena sativa flour kernal
Avena sativa extract
Oat beta glucan
Oat extract
Oat flour
Sodium lauroyl oat amino acids

This article originally appeared in WellBeing magazine, Australia’s leading health and lifestyle publication.