One of the biggest reasons people switch to natural skincare and personal care products is because they experienced some sort of allergic or irritant reaction from synthetic chemically-based products. What’s important to understand, though, is that even natural products can cause allergies, and because many plant-derived ingredients are called something other than the plant they were actually derived from, it’s not always possible to identify common allergens in skincare just by reading the label.
As I mentioned in my article about gluten-free skincare, it’s not always necessary for people with food intolerances and sensitivities to avoid the ingredients topically–however, it only takes exposure to a single molecule of an allergen to trigger an allergic reaction.
To be clear, the most common allergens in skincare are synthetic chemical ingredients–NOT natural ingredients.
I’ve seen many articles lately claiming that natural products cause allergies, and while it’s possible for anyone to be allergic to anything, synthetics are more likely to cause problems. According to WebMD, the most common skin allergens are preservatives such as?parabens, imidazolidinyl urea, Quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, phenoxyethanol, methylchloroisothiazolinone, and formaldehyde. Synthetic fragrances and perfumes are also known as one of the most common causes of skin and respiratory allergic and irritant reactions. Unfortunately, the labeling terms “hypoallergenic” and “non-allergenic” are not strongly regulated, and are often meaningless.
It is absolutely true that a natural product does not mean an allergy-free product, because the term “natural” is also not strongly regulated; and while “organic” does have some oversight, they often contain synthetics which, while they might be approved for use in a natural or organic product by organizations like ECOCERT, NaTrue, or have Made Safe’s non-toxic certification; they might still contain potential allergens.
It’s not possible to list out every single potential skin allergen, because, again–anyone can be allergic to anything, even if they do not have a history of allergies, and even if they have been using the ingredient for years. Instead, I’m going to give you a list of common allergens in skincare that I’ve come across in my own experience as a custom formulator and educator, and share with you what alternatives I use instead.
My caveat, again, is that unless you are making your products yourself, you might not be able to find out the source of certain synthetics in your products-even your natural ones. And if you are making products for other people, it is your responsibility to make sure you are disclosing your ingredients ethically, and clearly stating if your products contain common allergens either as whole plant ingredients, or as a source of your naturally derived ingredients.
Also, the alternatives I suggest are not the full range of potential alternatives–they are just some of the most easily accessible ones. And it goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway, if you have an allergy, are allergy prone, suspect you have an allergy, or want to know if you should use a specific product or ingredient, always consult with your licensed medical practitioner–preferably a holistic or naturopathic one!
Here are 5+ most common allergens in skincare, and what you can use instead:
1. Tree nuts
Many, many whole plant skincare ingredients are pressed or expelled from nuts. Coconut oil, hazelnut oil, macadamia oil, palm oil, peanut oil, and sweet almond oil are common examples. Instead, look for butters and oils pressed from seeds or pits, such as olive oil, argan oil, jojoba oil, apricot kernel oil, or rosehip seed oil. If you want a firmer consistency than a liquid oil, you can try adding beeswax or candelilla wax to mimic a butter-like texture. A note about shea butter: though it technically is a tree nut, “recent research indicates that shea nut butter does not contain any detectable protein residues and does not contain detectable residues of proteins from peanut or various known allergenic tree nuts (walnut, almond, pecan, hazelnut). Since allergens are proteins, this research indicates the absence of detectable allergens in shea nut butter.”
In addition to whole plant ingredients, people with tree nut allergies may potentially react to ingredients derived from them. Many naturally derived surfactants, antimicrobials, emollients, and emulsifiers are sourced from coconuts, palm nuts, or peanuts. These include, but are not limited to coco glucoside, decyl glucoside, cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine, sodium laurylglucosides, sodium methyl cocoyl taurate, caprylic/capric triglycerides, stearic acid,?cetearyl alcohol, glyceryl stearate,?arachidyl behenate,?Cocamidopropyl betaine,?and sodium lauryl sulfate (though, if you’re reading this, you probably know to avoid this ingredient anyway!). I’m going to be dead honest and tell you that it is VERY difficult and potentially expensive to make natural emulsions (creams and lotions) that are completely coconut or palm-free. It is much easier to do so with anhydrous products such as oil serums, butters, and balms (learn to make these free HERE). Which emulsifiers, preservatives, and surfactants are required vary depending on each individual formulation. If you are interested in exploring these alternatives for your range, I would be happy to advise you personally in the Create Your Skincare Mastermind, or Create Your Skincare Live online courses.
Soy is another ingredient that is used both as a whole food skin ingredient–soya or soybean oil or wax, primarily; but?may show up on your skincare labels or ingredient descriptions in products marketed as vegetarian or vegan, such as soy amino acids, peptides, and keratin blends containing hydrolyzed soy proteins. Soy is?also a common source for many other ingredients such as lecithin, Vitamin E, and vegetable emulsifying wax. Instead, look for lecithin and Vitamin E sourced from sunflower oil, and use a different plant-derived emulsifier such as Phytomulse, or Olivem-1000.
3. Wheat and other gluten-containing grains
See my blog post about gluten-free skincare for specific ingredients to look for on labels that are sourced from these grains.
4. Vitamin E
Though it’s noted for its multiple skin benefits, Vitamin E is a common skin allergen. There are several different sources of the tocopherols used to create Vitamin E, such as soy and sunflower oil. However not all are created equal, and not all are used at the same percentage in products because Vitamin E can be used solely for its antioxidant function, but also as a performance ingredient. Many of my students prefer bioidentical Vitamin E, because it is known to be less allergenic (though there are other considerations that make it not a good choice for all formulators); but others choose alternative antioxidants such as rosemary oleoresin or alpha lipoic acid to keep oils and other anhydrous products from going rancid.
While it’s rare to see actual milk used in natural products, because, let’s face it–it is a perishable food, and foods must be STRONGLY preserved (with preservatives that are stronger than the natural antimicrobials we currently have available), in order to be safe for use in a cream or lotion. You will, however, see it made into soaps and milk powder used in bath soaks, face scrubs, and face masks. Why would milk be in a product? It’s a whole food, bioavailable form of lactic acid (an alpha hydroxy acid) known for its gentle exfoliating, softening, and naturally hydrating properties. However, many, many people are allergic to milk. Some alternatives that also deliver softening, gentle exfoliating, and hydrating properties are fruit enzyme extracts, colloidal oatmeal, raw honey, certain algae extracts and bioferments, and rice water. You can also make milk-like consistencies with your emulsions–one of my students’ favorites is our Micellar Cleansing Fluid that I teach in Level 3 of Create Your Skincare.
Other common skin allergens to be aware of:
Others you might consider avoiding are extracts or seed oils from tomatoes, and strawberries. Also, herbs from the Asteracea family, as helpful and full of benefits as they can be, are common allergens. If you do use them in your products, make sure you let your customers know that if they have seasonal allergies, or known allergies to asters, they should not use your products that contain them. Here are a few:
- Arnica (Arnica montana)?
- Burdock (Arctium lappa)?
- Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
- Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis?or?Matricaria chamomilla)?
- Chicory (Cichorium intybus)?
- Dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis)?
- Echinacea (Echinacea augustifolia)?
- Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare)?
- Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)?
Overwhelmed by this information?
Don’t be! There are so many alternatives, and in my course Create Your Skincare Personal Edition, I am dedicated to helping you make products that are ideal for your unique skin and your own needs. If you’re making products for your clients or as part of your skincare brand, I can help you choose the best ingredients to suit your ideal customer’s needs–AND I will teach you what you need to know about how to label them properly and compliantly in Create Your Skincare Professional Edition. Learn more and register today!
*Macadamia nut image by Malcolm Manners. Asteraceae image by Alvesgaspar, Tony Wills (10) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,