You Might Seriously Be Misunderstanding Cosmetics Ingredients — and Allergens!

Marcie Mom from EczemaBlues.com interviews Laura, CEO of VMV Hypoallergenics, to find out more about product claims and why they’re important when choosing your skin care…particularly if you or your child has eczema.

Q:  Many ingredients in cosmetics look similar. Is there a way to identify what type of ingredient a certain name suggests? For instance, are ‘glycerin’, ‘capric triglyceride’, ‘palm glycerides’, ‘caprylyl glycol’, ‘glycerylstearate SE’, ‘glyceryl laurate’, ‘glycol distearate’, ‘butylene glycol’, ‘glycerylcocoate’ related?

A: Unfortunately, unless you’re a chemist or decide to devote yourself to the pharmacological sciences, this is almost impossible to master for most consumers. There are some word roots that imply certain things. “Gly”, for example, implies a fat; “ose” implies a sugar. But the other roots in each word also mean different things and can signify important differences.

Cocamidoproplyl Betaine

For example: cocamidoproplyl betaine is a surfactant and a top contact allergen. Coconut oil (cocas nucifera) is an oil and is not an allergen. Both have “coca” in the name. In the former, it is not the coconut element that is the allergen but the substances used to process the coconut extracts (the “amines”) that make the ingredient allergenic. It’s the same case for cocamide dea.

Butylene Glycol

Another example: butylene glycol and propylene glycol both say “glycol.” But butylene glycol is a humectant and antioxidant and not an allergen…while propylene glycol is a formaldehyde-releasing preservative and an allergen.


Sodium LauRYL Sulfate and Sodium LaurETH Sulfate share lots of elements in their nomenclature. But SLS (lauRYL) is far more irritating than the SLES (laurETH), which is actually quite safe. Neither is an allergen but SLS is an irritant, with more irritant reactions reported with higher concentrations.


Some ingredients can be even more confusing, like alcohol. The word alcohol doesn’t appear in many ingredients that are alcohols, such as sperm oil, jojoba, rapeseed, mustard, tallow, beeswax, and many other plant ingredients. “Alcohol” is a categorization of a substance based on its atoms. There are many alcohols that aren’t drying, and many aren’t even liquid. Most alcohols are waxes (and waxes aren’t drying). Stearyl alcohol and cetyl stearyl (also called cetearyl alcohol) are both emulsifying waxes that creams need in order for oil- and water-based ingredients to mix. Still other alcohols are beneficial (like, moisturizing!) to skin, like those from coconut and palm oils.


In addition to understanding (and memorizing!) all the possible combinations of different chemical roots, one would need to memorize which are on the current contact allergen lists. The current lists now specify 109 common contact allergens (and the lists change every so often). Mastering the complexity of cosmetic ingredients isn’t something for the faint of heart. Dermatologists may not recognize an ingredient as a cross reactant of an allergen, and chemists may not realize that an otherwise fantastic ingredient (like vitamin E) is a top contact allergen.

This complexity is one of the main reasons why our founding dermatologist-dermatopathologist (my mom) created the VH-Number Rating System. If a patient gets a patch test, great: at least they’d know what to avoid. But even then, it’s not so clear. A common inclusion in patch tests is “fragrance mix,” which isn’t an ingredient. One would have to know what is in that mix and look for those specific ingredients in a label. Or one would have to know that benzyl alcohol, while a common ingredient in unscented products, is actually related to fragrance. With a VH-Number, consumers can immediately see if any common contact allergens are included in the formulation and — because the allergen is highlighted in the ingredients list for easy identification — if it’s one of your allergens or not.

This article was originally published in eczemablues.com as one of a multi-part series focused on understanding and using products for sensitive skin. Inspired by her daughter Marcie who had eczema from two weeks old, Mei (aka MarcieMom) started EczemaBlues.com with the mission to turn eczema blues to bliss. In this series of interviews, MarcieMom interviews Laura, CEO of VMV Hypoallergenics, to learn more about product claims when choosing products to care for skin with eczema.


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