If you see a moisturizer or other personal care product labeled “fragrance-free,” “hypoallergenic,” or “dermatologist-recommended,” keep in mind that these are just marketing terms. There are no official standards or definitions for them, and they can mean whatever companies want them to mean (or nothing at all). In the 1970s the FDA tried to require substantiation for hypoallergenic claims, but cosmetic companies successfully challenged this in court. So buyer beware, especially if you have a skin condition or just sensitive skin that’s worsened by fragrances or other potential allergens or irritants.
This was made clear by a study in JAMA Dermatology in November 2017, which analyzed 174 best-selling whole-body moisturizers. It found that 18 of the 40 products labeled fragrance-free contained at least one fragrance or botanical ingredient that can cause a reaction. And 15 of the 18 products labeled hypoallergenic contained at least one potentially allergenic chemical. Overall, 88 percent of all moisturizers contained potential allergens (based on a list from the North American Contact Dermatitis Group).
What’s more, the claim “dermatologist-recommended” is no guarantee of safety for people with skin disorders, the researchers concluded. Companies don’t have to provide evidence for this claim, which can simply mean that one or two dermatologists (who may be paid by the companies) recommend the product. Of the 40 moisturizers claiming to be “dermatologist-recommended” in the study, 38 contained at least one allergen. But this claim does usually mean one thing—a higher price.
By the way, prices of products in this study ranged from 10 cents to more than $2 an ounce. Some of the moisturizers found to be allergen-free, such as petroleum jelly and unrefined shea butter, are also relatively inexpensive.
“Dermatologists should remind patients that most of these claims, including 'dermatologist recommended,' 'noncomedogenic,' and 'hypoallergenic,' are marketing tools with minimal to no regulatory oversight or substantiation,” the researchers concluded.
It’s very hard for the general public to evaluate the safety of personal care products since there are thousands of them (often with multiple or changing formulations) as well as thousands of ingredients (usually with long chemical names, many not listed on the labels)—and no easy-to-use one-stop resource to consult. One place to start is the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database (plus smartphone app), which lets you search more than 70,000 products, though its focus is broader than just potential allergens. But you are largely left with trial and error—and advice from your dermatologist.
Also see Dry Skin: Causes and Treatments.