Paraben-free, sulfate-free, and gluten-free: is it all necessary? It can be hard to debunk skincare packaging these days. It seems there are so many ingredients to avoid, or at least that's what the labels might have you thinking. While we've debated the former two claims, we've yet to really dig into the latter. What does gluten-free skin care really mean? Should celiacs be avoiding gluten in their products? Is it just more ingredient jargon? We asked dermatologist and aesthetic expert Tatiana Lapa.
Firstly, let's clear up how gluten can affect the body. Dr. Lapa explained that a "gluten-related disorder" (GRD), including an intolerance, allergy, and celiac disease, is a "spectrum of conditions where the immune system reacts to gluten found in grains," and symptoms can include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, pain, and bloating. "In celiac disease, the immune system attacks and destroys the bowel lining, causing problems such as poor absorption of nutrients, leading to vitamin deficiencies, weight loss, and muscle wasting. Dermatitis herpetiformis, a skin rash related to gluten allergy and celiac disease, is caused by the ingestion of gluten."
"If topical application of gluten can cause skin reactions in celiac disease, it is possible that it may do the same in nonceliac GRD."
But what about skin care? The majority of people with GRD will not experience issues with using topical applications of products containing gluten because it is a large protein that does not penetrate through the skin. However, Dr. Lapa said a reaction can happen and noted a 2012 published report that showed five patients with celiac disease out of 14 tested developed an eczematous rash affecting their face, neck, and arms after applying gluten-containing skin products or after touching gluten-containing foods. So if someone has a skin condition related to GRD, steering clear of gluten in skin care might be beneficial. While there are no studies, Dr. Lapa said, "If topical application of gluten can cause skin reactions in [people with] celiac disease, it is possible that it may do the same in nonceliac GRD."
However, "there is no scientific evidence to suggest that you need to go gluten-free in your skin care." Dr. Lapa said that sometimes brands may be using "gluten-free" as a marketing ploy to appear more clean and holistic, but if you think you have a reaction to the ingredients, be sure to avoid and look out for that gluten-free label.