The harsh reality and betrayal of allergy free cosmetics


Makeup was my life. From fashion shows, film, to personal requests, I loved being a makeup artist. Some of my happiest moments were during my schooling at the School of Makeup Art in Toronto. I could bring a smile to the saddest person with just some simple blush and mascara to bring out their eyes. I thought I was helping and making people feel beautiful. Little did I know, I could have been poisoning them instead.


Exactly one week before my wedding, I broke out in hives, couldn’t breathe and went into anaphylactic shock. My whole life turned upside down…because of a bagel. I was allergic to gluten.


After the crying and the tears I remembered in seven days time I would be getting married. So I went on with my wedding, with a plan to figure out the allergy mess later.


Later came faster then I thought. My wedding day came and went. On my first night of wedding bliss I noticed something after taking off my makeup. I was splotchy and red. My face looked like I had some form of the chicken pox. I thought maybe it was just the stress. Maybe, it was just the long day and my skin needed a break.


But it kept happening. Something was wrong. The lie was in the lipstick.



For blogger and owner of the website Gluten Free Makeup Gal, Afton Jones, from Austin, Texas, this was also true.


“Way back in early 2011, I was trying to figure out why every time I went out I felt ‘glutened’. I stopped eating meals out and only plain water to drink. Didn’t go in any bakeries or any place gluten would be in the air,” said Jones. “I was stumped. Then I had a thought…my new lipstick.”


After calling the company Jones found out her lipstick had wheat in it.


“Gluten in my body is pure torture,” said Jones. “So, I ditched it.”


Lipstick wasn’t the only thing that tortured Jones.


“Not long later, I put on some pencil eyeliner and reached for the eyelash curler. Before I could even bring the curler to my eye, my eyelid felt like fire was eating across it. I grabbed the makeup remover and scrubbed it off instantly,” she said. “To my dismay, there was a bright red mark where the eyeliner had been.”


This time the betrayal was wheat germ oil.


Jones isn’t the only one being heartbroken by cosmetics. My chickenpox like complexion wasn’t because I was tired or because my skin needed some air.


My skin was begging and pleading for me to stop using the one thing I loved – my makeup. After going through my hundreds of dollars worth of professional and department store makeup, I found my culprits. When I was finished I was left with about one-quarter of what I started with. My makeup was spread out on the living room floor all around me while I sobbed thinking, why me?


According to a study by The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 1 in 13 Canadians have a serious food allergy. Those allergies can go anywhere from peanuts and soy to milk and gluten. So I wasn’t alone but that didn’t make the heartache go away.


As she gets to the bottom of her morning coffee the average woman, “has spritzed, sprayed and lathered with 126 different chemicals in nine different products, everything from shampoo and hair gel to skin toner, foundation and perfume,” according to the Allergy/Asthma Information Association (AAIA). Some teenagers and “heavy-handed glamour queens” have even more.


According to the AAIA, multiple studies, tested and reported incidents have shown some of the chemical ingredients used in cosmetics contribute to allergic disease, including asthma and allergic contact dermatitis.


Most people have makeup bags filled with lipstick, blush, eyeliners and mascaras but have no idea what is in the products.


“All cosmetics must disclose ingredients on the product label, which let consumers identify and avoid cosmetics with ingredients are of concern to them,” according to Health Canada.


And there are many ingredients to be concerned with. The makeup aisle is exploding with colours and as many choices as a person could dream of. The search for a gluten or soy free makeup should be simple with all of the choices. But while looking at the label of a favourite red lipstick, the ingredient names are so long you lose track of where one starts and the other begins.


Who knows what squalane, polyhyroxystearuc acid or sodium peanuate is and yet these are actual ingredients in lip-gloss.


According to Health Canada and the Food and Drug Act, Cosmetic Regulations and the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act and Regulations the ingredients all have to be named using their INCI name. INCI stands for the International Nomenclature for Cosmetic Ingredients, it’s an internationally known system for technical names based on the Latin language. This means a simple word such as gluten turns into hordeum vulgare flour or Secale cereale extract. Gluten also has many names that can be derived from anything from atta, bulgur, couscous, durum, fu and many more that also have their own INCI names.


Now, to find a gluten free lipstick, first, not only do all the different names need to be identified for gluten, but now the Latin versions come into play too. If only cosmetics had the same regulations as food. All food requires the priority allergens to be labeled clearly even if there may be a chance of it coming in contact. The labeling regulations of cosmetics haven’t changed since 2007 when Health Canada added the need for an ingredients list on packaging.


So before 2007, it was a complete guessing game. But now, when walking down the cosmetic aisle words such as “allergy free” and “hypoallergenic” is all over labels and advertisements. Logically, someone such as Jones or myself could just use those products, right?




After coming to terms with getting rid of three-quarters of my makeup collection I thought I would try “hypoallergenic” makeup. Thinking it was safe, I tried a new foundation but, once again, I broke out in a rash and my face felt like it was on fire. Once again instead of happiness, confidence and relief I ended up crying and heartbroken in front of my bathroom mirror.


According to the federal government hypoallergenic is neither a legal nor scientific term. All it means is there is less of a chance for a reaction to happen. This means companies that use “hypoallergenic” and “allergy free” aren’t being transparent. They aren’t fully allergy free. They are just less likely to cause a reaction. If there is a slight chance the allergen is in the product even though it is less likely to cause a reaction doesn’t mean it won’t.


“Some makeup has active ingredients in it that are meant to have an effect of the skin, for instance, sunscreens,” said Jennifer Salsberg, medical, cosmetic and surgical dermatologist at the Bay Dermatology Centre in Toronto. “Makeup can also effect the skin in unintentional ways. If makeup is oil based it can clog pores and lead to acne, it can also cause an irritant reaction which can occur in anyone but is more common in individuals prone to eczema, or an allergic reaction which occurs only in certain predisposed individuals.”


The reactions people can have vary depending on the person.


“The reactions are localized to the skin at the site of application and vary from mild redness and itching to more severe redness, swelling and scaling,” Salsberg said.


With marketing words such as “allergy free” and chemical names of allergens such as triticum vulgare bran, it’s hard to find out what’s safe and what isn’t, but it isn’t impossible.


“There were no answers. I found a few people asking questions on forums, but most of the replies consisted of ‘Are you nuts? There’s no gluten in makeup’ or things like ‘Well, call the company. I’m sure they can tell you,’” said Jones. “This frustrated me. I needed answers. I needed facts. I needed details. And apparently, so did other people.”


After emailing Sephora’s customer service about allergies and makeup the company sent information about cruelty-free makeup and makeup that didn’t test on animals – and avoided the question.


Other companies such as Younique gave detailed answers, even if it didn’t offer someone to speak to.


“Younique uses high-quality ingredients in our products at concentration levels we believe to be safe for consumer use, but this does not guarantee that allergy or skin conditions will not be aggravated with use of our makeup,” it said in a statement. “If you have an allergy or skin condition – especially one that a physician or dermatologist is treating you for – please consult with your doctor or skin care specialist prior to shopping for cosmetics.”


Hard Candy and Makeup Forever refused to comment on the subject. In fact, there was no response.


So some companies aren’t helpful, and online forums weren’t informative, but this didn’t stop Jones from using makeup. She found her own way.


“Since there were no resources for me, I created my own,” she said. “Thus was born Gluten Free Makeup Gal.”


Not only did Jones learn what makeup which makeup was gluten free, she also learned she wasn’t alone in her search.


“Well, the first thing I learned, is that the number of people who need gluten free makeup is far higher than I expected,” she said. “I imagined a tiny percentage would need it, but as awareness grows, people keep coming to me saying ‘Oooooh that’s why I’ve been having so much trouble!’” now reaches thousands of people and is a part of The Gluten-Free Global Community with reviews, tips and a gluten free mailing list with up to date information about gluten free makeup brands. Some of those gluten free brands are EOS, Gluten-Free Savonnerie and Red Apple Lipstick.


Helping people is Jones’ favourite part.


“The sweet emails I get from people who have been helped by my site. It makes my day to hear when someone is no longer in pain, or has found their new favorite product, or now have gift ideas for their loved ones who suffer from gluten sensitivity,” she said. “I love them all. That’s the whole purpose of my site, and getting feedback saying it’s been achieved makes it all worth it.”


Even though Jones has made her site and dedicated her life to making sure her website is detailed and has the most reliable information, nothing is perfect.


“Companies loudly proclaim their products as “gluten free,” when in fact they are not. When my gluten sensitive readers come to me saying ‘They said it was safe, but I got sick! What’s wrong!?’ and I have to tell them that company is being misleading. Telling people something is safe for them when it’s not kindles my wrath,” said Jones.


Companies that mislead consumers can be reported. Health Canada and the Cosmetics Regulations have a Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist. This hotlist is an administrative tool for Health Canada to communicate to manufacturers and others about substances present in cosmetics that may be harmful and are prohibited or restricted for use. It is a science-based document reviewed as data becomes available.


Anyone can have an ingredient researched and potentially placed on the Hotlist. A proposal is the only thing between an ingredient and it being on the Hotlist.

After the new ingredient has been added all cosmetic companies will have to conform to the new regulations.


For instance until April 2014 when it was added to the Hotlist, formaldehyde (50-00-0) was still permitted in topical non-aerosol cosmetics such as hair mouse or antiperspirant over 0.01 per cent. Someone put in a proposal and they found it was harmful in those concentrations and amended the list so it couldn’t be over the 0.01 per centile.


But this only happens if people put in the proposal. One proposal could change the face of makeup forever. Until the proposal changes how main allergens are used in makeup, there are websites such as Gluten Free Makeup Gal to help.


“I never expected to have so many people reading my articles. It’s gratifying for sure, especially considering how passionate and involved my audience is. But when I started, I half-way thought my blog would be an online journal just for me to reference. Ha! It’s much more fun to know that it’s helping other people too,” said Jones.


Don’t be discouraged if you have been betrayed by your favourite eyeliner or lipstick. There is hope.


Even though I now have a beautiful colour palette of makeup to choose from there is still a fear of something going wrong. I used to wear makeup everyday and now I wear it sparingly because the memory of hives haunts my nightmares. The colourful pallet I am able to use means more to me then my first gluten free bagel did.


The fear will always be there but now I can breathe a little better knowing there are people out there trying to relieve the stress and take the guesswork out of the labels.


Take back the relaxation and kick up your feet in the makeup chair and tune out the chaos and lies of “allergy free” makeup.





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