By Michael Blaiss, M.D. for U.S. News©
Have you ever seen the word “hypoallergenic” in front of a product or animal, and wondered what it really meant? For example: Does the label mean it’s safe to put on your skin, come in contact with or be able to pet?
Let’s take a deeper dive and find out what this word means and why it’s important to your health.
If we break down the word, we first get the prefix “hypo,” which means under, beneath or less than normal. The word “allergenic” means “other, different, strange.” This word was coined by the Austrian pediatrician Clemens Von Pirquet to describe what we now know as an immunologic reaction that can include hives, swelling of the skin, sneezing, asthma and life-threatening anaphylaxis. Putting the prefix “hypo” with “allergenic” implies a less-than-normal (or below average) allergic reaction.
Does this imply that objects labeled “hypoallergenic” are safe and less likely to trigger a reaction? One of the most common products for which we see the term “hypoallergenic” on the label is cosmetics. The implication is that these beauty aids will produce fewer allergic reactions in people with hypersensitive or even normal skin. The label makes it sound like these are “gentler” for your skin. Is this absolutely true? In one word, no.
In the U.S., there is no standard from the Food and Drug Administration that requires a cosmetic to prove it’s hypoallergenic. It’s up to the manufacturer to use the term if they want to, but they don’t have to perform any clinical studies to validate their claim. In the 1970s, there was a court case initiated by manufacturers to reverse an FDA regulation mandating companies that make cosmetics to prove their claim of “hypoallergenic” on the label. The FDA lost the case in the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia. The ruling, which still stands today, allows manufacturers to continue to advertise their cosmetics as being hypoallergenic. But we as consumers have no way of knowing if that’s true. If you purchase one of these products, you need to carefully read the label to make sure there’s no ingredient to which you’re allergic before buying.
This isn’t just an issue with cosmetics. You may see “hypoallergenic” applied to other items such as toys, baby products and clothing. Just like cosmetics, there is no federal government standard for the term when applied to these items. Buyer beware!
So what about pets? You might have heard someone say, “I’m allergic to dogs, but I got a hypoallergenic one, so I won’t have a reaction.” You see advertisements boasting that a particular breed of cat or dog is hypoallergenic. You may have heard that if a dog doesn’t shed, it’s hypoallergenic.
However, the bottom line is that there is no such thing as a hypoallergenic cat or dog. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, the proteins from pets that cause people to develop allergies are found not only on the hair, but also in the animal’s saliva and urine. Even though you may think an Egyptian hairless cat can’t trigger allergies, that’s not true.
Depending on the seriousness of the person’s allergy to an animal, they could suffer a life-threatening reaction around a “hypoallergenic” pet. It’s very important to know this if you have cat or dog allergy, as there is no truly safe cat or dog. An allergist can test you to find out what your level of allergy is, and offer advice on what you should do to avoid symptoms.
Of course, there are many wonderful products that have the label “hypoallergenic.” But it doesn’t mean that they’ve met rigorous scientific studies to prove their claim. Remember the famous quote from the movie “The Princess Bride.”
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
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