A New Trend in Health & Beauty Items

by Melissa Diane Smith

Consumer demand has led to the growth of gluten-free personal care products.

If you’re gluten intolerant, you’re well aware of the need to avoid ingesting this problematic protein. But what about topical applications? Nearly all doctors, researchers and organizations in the celiac community will tell you that external application of a product that contains gluten is completely harmless because gluten is not absorbed through the skin. But many everyday people are rejecting that information and seeking out gluten-free products for their face, skin and hair.

Seeing is Believing

As president of the Southern Arizona Celiac Support Group, a chapter of the Celiac Sprue Association, Kim Pebley knows the “only-avoid-ingesting-gluten” information well. But she also pays attention to her own body and her family’s, which has led her to conclude that that the conventional wisdom isn’t correct – at least for her and two of her kids.

Pebley was diagnosed with celiac disease three years ago, and she eliminated gluten and other foods that caused uncomfortable digestive symptoms. But she still had red blotches on her scalp that erupted every time she washed her hair. She figured that her scalp must be reacting to something in her shampoo. “When it started getting worse into big red hives, I just knew,” Pebley says. “I switched to a shampoo specifically labeled gluten-free, and within about a week, the hives went away.”

Pebley began using gluten-free soap, lotion and other products, and within a couple of weeks, she noticed that a rash she had had for years down the backs of her arms and fronts of her thighs – which had been diagnosed as a type of dermatitis – was gone. She also discovered that two of her children, Ciara, 9, and Colin, 4, who were already eating gluten free, developed red blotches on their skin when they took bubble baths with products that contained gluten. She switched her two kids and herself to gluten-free personal care products from head to toe and all are now free from skin breakouts. Colin’s eczema is even held in check as long as he doesn’t use products that contain gluten, says Pebley.

Finding the Connection

Numerous skin disorders are associated with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity and respond to a gluten-free diet with an eradication or reduction in symptoms. The most notable is dermatitis herpetiformis (DH), an autoimmune blistering skin disease, which usually accompanies the same damage in the gut that’s seen in celiac disease. Hives, rashes, itchiness, dermatitis, eczema, and a variety of other lesser-known skin conditions also have been associated with gluten intolerance.

Medical research suggests that these skin conditions, including DH, are set off by the oral consumption of gluten, not topical application. Therefore, gluten-intolerant people are routinely told that gluten-containing skin care products and cosmetics are only a problem if you accidentally swallow them. Those who are gluten intolerant should avoid using gluten-containing oral care products or skin care products on or around the lips because the gluten might inadvertently get into their mouth and digestive tract.

But not everyone think this advice goes far enough. Vikki Petersen, D.C., who founded HealthNOW Medical, a multidisciplinary clinic that specializes in gluten intolerance, is convinced skin conditions can develop from topical products with gluten because she and her doctor colleagues have seen it in their practice.

“There is a relationship between gut health and skin health that we are just starting to understand. It seems the leakier the gut that occurs in gluten intolerance, the more the integrity of the skin breaks down, setting the stage for skin conditions to develop in some people,” says Petersen, who is also the coauthor of The Gluten Effect.

Though the integrity of the skin appears to heal and skin conditions go away as the gut heals from eating gluten free, Petersen thinks it’s a good precaution to avoid using gluten-containing skin care products, even for those without skin problems.

Making the Switch

Many people appear to be doing just that. Consumer demand for gluten-free personal care products has been steadily growing, and companies have responded to that demand.

Some companies, such as Home Health and the Desert Essence Organics line, label their products gluten-free if they use no ingredients that contain gluten. Others, including The Gluten-Free Savonnerie, Eccobella, and Green Beaver by Flora, have products that were formulated in part because of important people in the company or family who had gluten intolerance. Still other companies go further by enrolling in certification programs, such as the Celiac Sprue Association (CSA) Recognition Seal, or the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO), a program of the Gluten Intolerance Group. Hugo Naturals skin care line has been gluten-free certified by CSA, and numerous products of EO, Zosia Organics, and the Tozai Group have been gluten-free certified by GFCO.

Copyright © 2011 Melissa Diane Smith

Selected References:

Abenavoli L, Proietti I, Leggio L, et al. Cutaneous manifestations in celiac disease. World Journal of Gastroenterology, 2006;12(6):843-852.

Humbert P, Pelletier F, Dreno B, et al. Gluten intolerance and skin diseases. European Journal of Dermatology, 2006;16(1):4-11.

Smith MD, Going Against the Grain. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002, p. 81.

Wangen S. Healthier Without Wheat. Seattle, WA: Innate Health Publishing, 2009, p. 39.

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