Sensitive Skin Product Series – Understanding Hypoallergenic

Testing Hypoallergenic (picture from vmvhypoallergenics.com)

This is a 13-part series focused on understanding and using products for sensitive skin, an important topic given the generous amount of moisturizers that go onto the skin of a child with eczema. Marcie Mom met Laura Verallo Rowell Bertotto, the CEO of VMVGroup, on twitter and learnt that her company is the only hypoallergenic brand that validates its hypoallergenicity. VMV Hypoallergenics is founded in 1979 by Dr. Vermén Verallo-Rowell who is a world renowned dermatologist. Dr. Vermén created the VH Rating System which is the only validated hypoallergenic rating system in the world and is used across all the products at VMV. In this interview, Laura answers Marcie Mom’s questions on understanding the product label.

Terms on Product Label – “Hypoallergenic”, “Natural”, “100% Organic” – What They Really Mean and Do They Mean Well?

Common terms that the average consumer may look out for will be ‘hypoallergenic’, ‘natural’ and ‘100% organic’. Hypoallergenic refers to less likely to cause allergies while the definition of ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ is vague.

Marcie Mom: Laura, thanks for helping to answer these questions that confuse me and so many parents looking for a suitable moisturizer for their eczema child. Let’s tackle them one by one.

Hypoallergenic – I’m looking at my baby’s moisturizers and one brand says hypoallergenic while the other does not. I read that at VMV, you rate a product using the VH Rating System that grades a product safety based on how many allergens it does not contain (i.e. higher score means less allergens). However, I don’t see such rating system in other brands. How do I then know how hypoallergenic it is? Or in other words, is there a regulatory body that ensures the product meet at least some criteria before it can be labeled as ‘hypoallergenic’? And, is some country stricter in the use of the term?

Laura: Actually, the “hypoallergenic” claim is one of the biggest problems with cosmetics — different FDAs regulate the term differently and some don’t at all. Even when there are regulations, these are minimal or are poorly defined. This applies to the United States as well where a judicial ruling in the 1970s for the FDA to regulate the term was overturned by the Court of Appeals. http://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/CosmeticLabelingLabelClaims/LabelClaimsandExpirationDating/ucm2005203.htm

As a result of this decision many U.S. manufacturers can label and advertise their cosmetics as “hypoallergenic” without being required to provide supporting evidence. Consequently, neither consumers nor doctors have much assurance that such claims are valid. One recent ruling by the US-FDA requires that ingredients used in cosmetics be listed in the product label — which is definitely an improvement but unless one is extremely familiar with ingredient names, it may not be of much help regarding the hypoallergenic claim.

This lack of definite regulatory criteria for the “hypoallergenic” label is a problem for those who really need hypoallergenicity or who want skin-safer care. Dermatologists tend to not respect the claim and consumers, as you mention in your blog, are at a loss about how to interpret it.

VH-Number Rating System

It’s precisely because of this lack of regulation that our founder, a dermatologist-dermatopathologist who specializes in several diseases like chronic and recurring contact dermatitis and atopic dermatoses, created the VH-Number Rating System. She wanted an objective way to prove hypoallergenicity — one whose criteria are clear, reliable, repeatable, easy for the consumer to follow, and whose basis is respectably peer-reviewed and published.

The VH-Number Rating System is based on a list of allergens. This list is collated from the assessment by independent groups from Europe, the United States, Canada and other countries of contact dermatitis experts who regularly do patch tests and publish the ranking of these allergens. Altogether, these doctors now test over 20,000 people yearly. Because the patch tests are done on so many people across many countries, and are updated every few years, this list is the most reliable reference for the top allergens that produce allergic reactions in people.

In our products, we use this list to know what to OMIT from our formulations. And the VH-Rating System is the only system to show how many of these allergens are NOT in a product. It works a little like an SPF in that it’s a simple numerical guide as to the hypoallergenicity of a product. As with an SPF, the higher the VH Number the better (the more allergens are omitted).

This VH system was recently published in Dermatitis, the journal of the American Contact Dermatitis Society and a leading publication on contact and atopic dermatitis. The article states that the VH-Number Rating System is “shown to objectively validate the hypoallergenic cosmetics claim”. So finally, yes, there is a way to objectively measure a product’s hypoallergenicity.

When Products are Not Rated

If a brand does not use the VH-Rating System (it is proprietary to VMV), you have to be a bit of a contact derm AND chemistry expert. Why?

First, you have to have access to or memorize the list of allergens. Right now, there are 76 allergens…quite a lot to memorize. As well, the list changes every few years, so you’d have to keep up-to-date…not easy if you’re not a dermatologist who specializes in this.

As well, you’d need to know your chemistry well enough to be able to recognize the different names that ingredients can sometimes have. For example:

1.   Fragrances are always top allergens…but you may not know that cinnamic alcohol is actually a type of fragrance.

2.   “Preservative-free” product may be using fragrances to preserve the product but unless you recognize the chemical or “INCI” (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) name, you may not realize it.

3.   Cross-Interaction – You may also not know which ingredients cross react with each other. For example, beeswax is an allergen…but propolis is related to it.

4.   Similar Names – More mind-boggling examples are things like SLS and SLES. Neither are on the allergen lists. Both have had some irritations reported (not so much allergic reactions) but far more with SLS and in both cases, reactions seem highly concentration-related. BUT both ingredients actually have the initials SLS…you would have to know that SLS is Sodium LauRYL Sulfate (to avoid) and SLES is Sodium LaurETH Sulfate (relatively ok).

Marcie Mom: Thanks! I’ve certainly learnt lots about what’s hypoallergenic and look forward to learning about the other common terms used in product label!

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