Misleading Moisturizer Labels Potentially Harm Skin Disorder Patients

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Misleading Moisturizer Labels Potentially Harm Skin Disorder Patients

A new study, which found that 83% of the most popular brands claiming to be hypoallergenic actually contained potential allergens, said misleading and incorrect labels can be especially problematic for patients with skin disorders. Here is information on what pharmacists can safely recommend.

CHICAGO -- Many moisturizers on drugstore shelves are marked "fragrance free" or "hypoallergenic," even though they are not, according to a new study.

While the misleading or exaggerated claims might not be that serious an issue for most purchasers, they can cause problems for those with eczema and psoriasis to find appropriate moisturizers, points out the study in JAMA Dermatology.


At the same time, the Northwestern Medicine-led study found that products including the claim "dermatologist-recommended" often were substantially more expensive. The study team evaluated the ingredients and performance of the top 100 best-selling, whole-body moisturizers at Amazon, Target and Wal-Mart in order to determine which products had the best balance between affordability and a low risk of an allergic reaction.

Results indicate that 45% of the products in the study that claimed to be "fragrance free" actually had a fragrance cross reactor or botanical ingredient. Even worse, according to the researchers, is that 83% of products with "hypoallergenic" labels included a potentially allergenic chemical.

As for products that included a "dermatologist-recommended" label, their median price averaged $0.20 more per ounce than those that did not have the label.

"We looked into what it means to be 'dermatologist-recommended,' and it doesn't mean much because it could be three dermatologists recommending it or 1,000," said first author Steve Xu, MD, MSC, a resident physician in dermatology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

It might be useful for pharmacists to know that, based on the study's findings, products currently on the market that are free of typical skin allergens were:

  • white petroleum jelly,
  • certain coconut oils that are cold-pressed and not refined,
  • Vanicream's hypoallergenic products and
  • Aveeno Eczema Therapy moisturizing cream.

"If manufacturers did list all the ingredients, their labels would be 75 pages," Xu said. "As it stands now, patients have a challenging time making an informed decision by glancing at the back of the bottle. Our study highlights that and aims to make that search easier on consumers by informing dermatologists."

Overall, only 12% of the best-selling moisturizers were free of North American Contact Dermatitis Group (NACDG) allergens such as fragrance mix, parabens or tocopherol. The study found that the top three most affordable moisturizers free of NACDG ingredients were Ivory raw unrefined shea butter, Vaseline original petroleum jelly and Smellgood African shea butter.

"There's a huge loophole relating to fragrances, which is the number one cause of skin allergies related to cosmetics," Xu added. "The more we know about the science behind moisturizers, the better we can guide our patients to what they like, what is safe and what is affordable."

Lotions were the most popular moisturizers at 59%, followed by creams (13%), oils (12%%) and butters (8%) percent). Ointments, often preferred by dermatologists, were only preferred by 2% of purchasers.

"We could recommend a moisturizer that has no allergy risk and is affordable and effective, but if the patient doesn't like it, it's a wasted recommendation," Xu said.

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