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Common Allergens

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  1. Preservatives are probably the most common ingredient category responsible for allergic reactions in hair care products.  Among these are the formaldehyde donor antimicrobials, which include diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin, and quaternium-15, to name a few.  These ingredients are notorious with dermatologists for causing skin irritation. Another preservative family notorious for being sensitizers is the isothiazolinones.
  2. Fragrances are also a notorious allergen for many people.  The manufacturers of these products do not usually disclose what is in their proprietary formulas, and they often contain many common allergens in addition to whatever compound(s) are responsible for their characteristic scents.  For this reason, many consumers attempt to avoid fragrances, but most products contain at least a masking scent to cover up unpleasant odors from some of the other ingredients. This can present a genuine challenge to the sensitive person.
  3. Ingredients derived from food allergens. People with extremely strong food allergies may also find themselves predisposed to having allergic reactions when exposed to ingredients derived from their food allergens.  This seems to be especially true for those with corn, nut, and wheat or gluten intolerances. Nut oils, wheat germ oil, wheat proteins, hydrolyzed wheat proteins and wheat amino acids should be avoided by those with the relevant allergies.  However, there are other ingredients derived from wheat and corn that are not labeled as such, and can truly be problematic for some people.  Vitamins E and A can be wheat-derived, while Vitamin C may be corn derived.  Propylene glycol and the ethylene glycol used to ethoxylate (PEG-modify) materials can be corn-derived. While the science does not necessarily explain why these derivative products should elicit an allergic response, there are no few accounts of them doing so.  Therefore, it bears consideration.  One problem is that product labels are not required to denote the source of any given ingredient.
  4. Botanical and animal-derived oils such as coconut oil, argan oil, castor oil, avocado oil, canola oil, and lanolin have also all been found to produce allergic responses in a small percentage of people.  Others find their skin intolerant of mineral oil or petrolatum, which are petroleum-derived products.

The ingredient about which we were contacted was propylene glycol, which is generally recognized as safe, but is definitely also recognized as an occasional allergen. It is possible that allergy to this is more widespread than previously realized as well, or it may be becoming more common due to greater exposure to materials sharing the chemical features of the glycols. These include compounds modified by ethylene glycol to increase water solubility, such as sodium laureth sulfate, PEG-modified silicones, and other surfactants, and they are very prevalent in foods, medicines and cosmetics.

Typically allergies to these types of materials are accompanied by existing cofactors that seem to predispose a person to a reaction. These co-factors include pre-existing eczema, exposure to large areas of propylene glycol-based products such as cortisone, food allergies, as well as yeast and hormonal issues.  Also, some populations seem to be missing the necessary enzyme for the metabolism of these glycols.


MORE: Learn to Decipher Your Product Labels

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