do you need gluten-free skincare

If you suffer from celiac disease or are simply gluten intolerant, should you switch to gluten-free skincare products? It’s a question that’s popping up all over Reddit now that gluten has gotten a bad rep. All supermarkets now have gluten-free aisles where you can safely shop for foods that don’t make those intolerant to it sick. So it was only a matter of time before the beauty industry jumped on this trend, too.

Makes sense: if you can’t eat it, you shouldn’t put it on your skin, right? Wrong. Eating gluten and putting it on your skin are two different things. And there’s no proof the latter affects celiac disease at all. Shocking, I know. Here’s what the science says…

What Is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein naturally found in foods containing wheat, barley or rye. It’s a big molecule and can’t penetrate the skin or get into the bloodstreams. Skincare brands use it because wheat protein has been linked to increased skin firmness. Firmer skin = fewer wrinkles. Plus, dermatologist Elaine Kung says it can also be used as a “thickener, emollient, volumizer, moisturizer, or exfoliator.

How Do I Know If My Skincare Products Include Gluten?

Hydrolysed Wheat Protein is the most common form of gluten used in skincare products, but there are many more. If you’re concerned, here’s what to look for on the ingredient list:

  • Amp-Isostearoyl Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein
  • Avena Sativa
  • Avena Sativa (Oat) Flour
  • Avena Sativa (Oat) Kernel Protein
  • Disodium Wheatgermamido PEG-2 Sulfosuccinate
  • Hordeum Vulgare (Barley) Extract
  • Hydrolyzed Wheat Gluten
  • Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein
  • Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein PG-Propyl Silanetriol
  • Hydrolyzed Wheat Starch
  • Hydroxypropyltrimonium Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein
  • Oat (Avena Sativa) Extract
  • Oat Beta-Glucan
  • Oat Flour
  • Phytosphingosine Extract
  • Rye and rye-based ingredients
  • Rye Flour
  • Samino Peptide Complex
  • Secale Cereale (Rye) Extract
  • Secale Cereale (Rye) Seed Extract
  • Secale Cereale (Rye) Seed Flour
  • Sodium Lauroyl Oat Amino Acids
  • Stearyldimoniumhydroxypropyl Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein
  • Triticum Vulgare (Wheat) Flour Lipids
  • Triticum Vulgare (Wheat) Germ Extract
  • Wheat Amino Acids
  • Wheat Bran Extract
  • Wheat Germ Extract
  • Wheat Germ Glycerides
  • Wheat Germamidopropyldimonium Hydroxypropyl Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein
  • Wheat Protein
  • Wheat (Triticum Vulgare) Bran Extract

I know, some of these are a mouthful! If you see anything with wheat, oat, and rye, it has gluten in it.

What Is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is a disorder that affects the small intestine. When it comes in contact with gliadin (a gluten protein found in cereals like wheat, barley, and rye), it triggers an inflammatory response that wreaks havoc on your body. Symptoms include abdominal pain, chronic diarrhoea, and ulcers. It ain’t pretty. Worse, there’s no cure. The only treatment is to follow a glute-free diet. Does that mean you need to follow a gluten-free skincare routine, too?

Do You Need Gluten-Free Products If You Have Celiac Disease?

Good news: most gliadin proteins are too big to penetrate the skin. You know what this means? Gluten can’t penetrate skin, so you can use a cream with wheat or barley on your face or body without affecting your celiac disease. Your body doesn’t react the same way it does when you’re eating them. Phew!

The catch? Be careful not to ingest it! I know you wouldn’t eat your moisturizer. But you may accidentally swallow a lip balm or even toothpaste that contains gluten. Even so, the risk of it causing a problem are minimal. According to Coeliac UK, “Even if toothpaste did contain gluten, it would be very unlikely that you would swallow enough of it to cause a reaction.”

Leading celiac disease specialist Alessio Fasano, MD, confirms this: “There is currently no scientific evidence that gluten used in cosmetics that are not ingested is harmful to individuals with celiac disease, including those with dermatitis herpetiformis (the skin form of celiac disease). If you have celiac disease, then the application of gluten-containing products to the skin should not be a problem, unless you have skin lesions that allow gluten to be absorbed systemically in great quantities. The reason why this should not be a problem is that, based on what we know right now, it is the oral ingestion of gluten that activates the immunological cascades leading to the autoimmune process typical of celiac disease.”

Bottom line: Gluten only causes problems when you eat it, not when you put it on your skin.

Which Skincare Products With Gluten Should You Avoid?

Skincare products with gluten don’t get absorb by the skin, so they won’t harm you. But, there’s a category of products you should be wary of: anything that touches your lips.

“The guidance for those who suffer from coeliac disease (which is true gluten intolerance) is to avoid swallowing any cosmetic that contains gluten – so toothpaste or lip balm might be the most likely sources in terms of personal care products,” says Dr Sam Bunting.

“The rash that is associated with coeliac disease is called dermatitis herpetiformis and arises from ingested gluten – not from skin contact with gluten (as it’s a big molecule and unlikely to penetrate), so eliminating gluten from the diet is the way to manage this, rather than from skincare.”

Even then though, it’s unlikely that you’ll be swallowing enough lipstick to cause problems. It’s the dose that makes the poison. Just saying…

Gluten Side Effects For Skin

Just like any other ingredient in your skincare products – including water and green tea -, wheat proteins and other gluten-rich actives can cause irritations and allergies. This has nothing to do with celiac disease. The ugly truth is that anyone can become allergic to something at any time – even after years of regular exposure!

Some experts think that people with celiac disease are more likely to experience contact dermatitis when using skincare products with gluten. According to a 2012 study, 5 out of 14 patients with Celiac disease experienced contact dermatitis after applying a gluten-containing emollient cream, bath, or face powder. As soon as they stopped, their contact dermatitis disappeared.

The catch? There was no control group. The gluten-containing cream was never tested on people not affected by Celiac disease. Could it be these 5 patients were reacting to something else?

P.S. It’s always a good idea to patch test every skincare product on a small area before using it all over your face. Just in case.

Related: How To Do A Skin Patch Test

Who Should Use Gluten-Free Products?

Babies and young toddlers with celiac disease should avoid gluten-free products. Here’s why: even though gluten can’t penetrate their delicate skin, young infants put everything in their mouth. If your child has a tendency to suck their hands often, they may be ingesting some of the cream you’ve just applied and that could cause some issues.

The Truth About Gluten-Free Products

What if you decide to avoid gluten-free products for your own peace of mind? Science says they’re safe, but you may want to play it safer and steer clear. That’s cool. Your skin, your choice. Just don’t be fooled into paying more for skincare products labelled “gluten-free.” The truth is most skincare products don’t contain a drop of gluten. Check the ingredients, not the marketing claims.

Related: Top 7 Misleading Cosmetic Claims

What Are The Best Gluten-Free Skincare Products?

Decided to stay away from gluten in your skincare? The truth is, most products don’t contain a drop of it, but here are some of my favourite picks:

  • EltaMD UV Pure Broad-Spectrum SPF 47 ($42.00): One of my fave sunscreens for oily skin, it provides broad-spectrum protection without turning your skin into a white, greasy mess. Available at Dermstore.
  • Epionce Purifying Spot Gel Blemish Clearing Tx ($42.00): If you have pimples, you need this. Loaded with sulfur, it gets rid of pimples faster than anything else I’ve ever tried. Available at Dermstore.
  • First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Niacinamide Dark Spot Serum ($42.00): A gentle treatment that works best for new dark spots than old ones. It also hydrates and soothes skin. Available at Dermstore, Look Fantastic, Selfridges, Sephora, Skin Store, and Ulta.
  • Paula’s Choice SKIN PERFECTING 2 BHA Liquid Exfoliant ($34.00): An exfoliant for acne-prone skin that unclogs pores and brightens skin. The texture is a little sticky, but it does a fab job at keeping acne and blackheads at bay. Available at Cult Beauty, Dermstore, Net-A-Porter, Paula’s Choice, Sephora, SpaceNK

The Bottom Line

You don’t need gluten-free skincare. Skincare products with gluten don’t harm people with celiac disease, unless accidentally swallowed.