On a surface level, the word ‘hypoallergenic’ can be taken to mean many different things. It’s so commonly used these days to describe personal care products, makeup, jewelry and even pets!
The disturbing thing is, that even though this term has been used in advertising and on products since the 1950s, there are no regulations or scientific evidence that lead to a reliable measure of its definition.
We’ve crossed the threshold into 2020 and there is still a great deal of confusion about what this word actually means.
If you, or anyone in your family, is an allergy sufferer, the risks can be high if you trust labels blindly. Stay informed to stay safe and reduce the risk of allergy attacks in your household.
That’s why we wrote this article.
We’ll take you on the journey of truly understanding what the word ‘hypoallergenic’ means and its differences to ‘non-allergenic’. From common, widespread definitions among the public, to the history of the term and also what the FDA and leading scientists have to say about it.
We have a super in-depth piece here so feel free to jump to any section of the article using the quick links in the table of contents above.
What Does Hypoallergenic Mean?
At Hypoallergenic Homes, this is our definition. We take the approach that anything labelled as ‘hypoallergenic’ may have little or reduced likelihood of triggering an allergic reaction but it is not guaranteed to do so.
Talk about an edgy term!
Some products may be specifically designed to reduce allergic responses when compared with other products in that category. In relation to single ingredients or substances, these may naturally be less likely to irritate or aggravate.
Gosh, it can be really hard to tell!
Especially since there is no single definition of ‘hypoallergenic’ that is supported either legally or medically. This is the definition that is most commonly included in dictionaries and by which most suppliers of hypoallergenic products base their claims.
Hypoallergenic vs Non-allergenic: What’s the Difference?
Find yourself asking: “is hypoallergenic the same as non-allergenic”?
In short, no. There is a distinct difference between these terms.
Nonallergenic is a definitive term indicating that something does not trigger an allergic reaction. Hypoallergenic simply means a reduced likelihood of an allergic response though it has no legal or medical grounds.
Not only is there a difference in the meaning, but also in who uses these terms. Hypoallergenic is largely a term used by advertisers and product manufacturers who want to sell a perceived benefit.
Non-allergenic is a term used in medical literature to indicate a substance is safe for use in medical procedures.
If you come across either of these terms on the label of a product, be sceptical and dig a little deeper to ensure it will really be safe. Look into ingredients and compare them with things you know you are allergic to.
What Makes Something Hypoallergenic?
In relation to a product, like makeup or jewelry, all you have to go on is the word of the manufacturer. There are no legal or medical conclusions about how to define something as hypoallergenic.
And, since there is no definitive or conclusive way to measure a ‘reduced likelihood’ to cause allergic responses, you’ll likely have to do a dermatological or allergy test to be absolutely sure. You can also dig deep into research about the ingredients used and which ones might trigger your allergies.
So, how do you really know if something is hypoallergenic?
Either test it safely, or research the heck out of it!
Historical Background and Use of ‘Hypoallergenic’
The earliest known use of the word ‘hypoallergenic’ stems back to advertising campaigns originating between 1950 and 1955.
It’s basically another thing advertisers made up and that the FDA and scientists are still trying to prove it’s a real thing.
The term has been widely used on labels of products, from makeup to jewelry and also in relation to breeds of pets. It exists in dictionaries only because it is so widely used.
But, it has been widely disputed since it first appeared on the market and there still continues to be a lack of regulation or scientific measure of what makes something hypoallergenic.
In 1974, some 20 years after the term first appeared, the FDA attempted to issue a regulation on the use of the term on cosmetic product labels.
This attempt at regulation was challenged by Almay and Clinique, two leading manufacturers of hypoallergenic makeup, and was ultimately ruled invalid by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
In 2000, scientific literature still had not adopted the term to mean anything conclusive and the term was distinctly missing from top medical dictionaries.
Today, we still use the term and see it all over the packaging of many different types of products. We still don’t have a way of conclusively measuring how hypoallergenic a product is.
Most of all, there is no guarantee that anything labelled hypoallergenic won’t lead to an allergic reaction.
It is now appearing in medical dictionaries of some disciplines, such as dentistry. In the medical sense, it is used to refer to substances that do not trigger allergic responses and is treated as a synonym to ‘non-allergenic’ in these instances.
FDA Regulations for Hypoallergenic Products
The US Food and Drug Administration says, “There are no federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term hypoallergenic. The term hypoallergenic means whatever a particular company wants it to mean.”
In the 1970s, the FDA made attempts to regulate the use of the term ‘hypoallergenic’ to describe products such as cosmetics.
While the regulations didn’t pass, these attempts were the reason that product manufacturers must now show the ingredients in their products on their labels. To this day, there are no regulations or legal requirements needed for the use of ‘hypoallergenic’ or similar claims on product labels.
Like us, you might be wondering about testing requirements.
It makes sense that manufacturers should at least test their products before they make a claim, right?
Sadly, there are no testing requirements enforced by the FDA either. It’s like the wild west out there and manufacturers are free to use the word however they please!
That’s not to say the FDA didn’t make attempts. They did.
In an April 1978 issue of it’s consumer magazine, the FDA explained its attempts to clear up confusion around the use of ‘hypoallergenic’ on cosmetic product labels.
They tried to implement testing requirements that would show if the products were really hypoallergenic like advertisers claimed. Their requirements would allow the use of ‘hypoallergenic’ on labels only if human studies showed a product triggered less allergic responses than other similar products.
Over 4 years, these attempts at regulation were challenged by leading hypoallergenic cosmetics manufacturers, Almay and Clinique, who claimed that the testing requirements enforced would be too costly and pose an “undue economic burden” on them.
Ultimately, the companies won the battle.
But the FDA did achieve a major milestone – companies could use the term how they wished but they must include all ingredients in their products on the label so consumers could make informed decisions.
Outside the US, there are still no other public authorities that provide an official certification or regulation that an item must undergo before being described as hypoallergenic. However, some countries have allergy interest groups that offer certification if manufacturers meet criteria of certain tests.
Medical & Scientific Views on ‘Hypoallergenic’ Products
‘Hypoallergenic’ sounds like a medical term, it looks like a medical term but does it mean anything medically?
Dermatologist Dr. Kevin Smith mentions:
“It’s not a word I’ve ever seen in the medical literature…except if someone is writing a critique on the subject, making fun of the concept.”
To clarify, given that most product manufacturers use the term to indicate a decreased likelihood of causing an allergic reaction, there is no conclusive evidence that could hold up for medical practitioners.
In other words, there’s no conclusive way to measure how something can be less likely to cause an allergy.
While the term is now used in medical and scientific literature (with over 35,000 mentions in the academic research literature we have found so far), it is mostly used as a synonym to ‘non-allergenic’.
Let’s examine the below definition from the Medical Dictionary for Dental Professions, 2012:
There is no vagueness or doubt in this definition. It is conclusive and can be easily measured by the complete absence of an allergic response.
And this is how most scientific and medical literature interprets the use of ‘hypoallergenic’.
While advertisers may not see the harm in using the term as they have been, doctors who’ve been consulted about the topic think otherwise.
It’s because there is no medical basis or standard for what it is that there’s no way to measure whatever ‘hypoallergenic’ is supposed to indicate.
Since it means different things to different people, can you blame the public who have no idea what to make of this term?
What Does it All Mean for Consumers?
The consumers we quizzed thought the word ‘hypoallergenic’ meant that a product wouldn’t irritate their allergies. Some even thought that it meant there was no risk of an allergic reaction.
We think this is a big issue given that the manufacturers using the term have different motives and are bound by no regulations when using it in their advertising and labelling.
If you’re a consumer concerned about allergic reactions from different products, here’s the simple truth:
Anything labelled as ‘hypoallergenic’, or similar, may still cause allergic reactions. Yes, even if it has been ‘dermatologically tested’, or proven to be ‘allergy friendly’, ‘allergy free’ etc.
You’re better off doing your own research of the ingredients and safely testing the product as you would one that wasn’t marked as hypoallergenic. You could also consult a dermatologist or allergist to confirm specific ingredients you are allergic to.
Knowing What Info to Trust
It doesn’t mean all companies using ‘hypoallergenic’ are out to trick you. Some might voluntarily put their products to the test by running high-quality allergy testing. If you’re browsing products on a store shelf, it can be really hard to know if this is the case though.
If you see two different products each claiming to be ‘hypoallergenic’ this can mean two totally different things depending on how the manufacturers define the word.
If you see a company using the term in their marketing or on their product labels, dig deeper. Check out their website or take the extra step and contact them. Ask them for additional info on what makes their products hypoallergenic. If they claim to test their products, ask for the results of the tests and more information on how these tests are conducted.
Know Your Sensitivities
In the battle against allergies, knowledge is power.
You might already know the top ingredients that cause your allergies, if so, jump straight to the ingredients list of a product.
If you’re not sure why you might still be getting allergic reactions, you can ask your doctor or dermatologist about getting patch testing. This type of test exposes your skin to common allergens found in cosmetics and personal care products so you’ll know which ingredients to avoid in future.
At the end of the day, what makes something hypoallergenic to you is whether it shows a reduced likelihood (or better yet, has no chance) of overloading your immune system. It all starts and ends with you!