HYPOALLERGENIC: What is it Really?

One letter can spell a world of difference. HypO means less. HypER means more. And hype means noise — in this case lots of it. We applaud the growing interest in hypoallergenicity. It’s consistent with the increase in consumer demand for safer, healthier products and who doesn’t want that? But as with all hot, “new” trends — just think of all the misleading information about natural and organic — the hullabaloo can make it difficult to separate hype from hypoallergenic.

Where Can I Get Information I Can Trust?

Getting your information from legitimate, reputable sources is always your best bet. But what complicates matters is that in hypoallergenicity, at least one reputable source — your dermatologist — may not necessarily be a specialist in contact dermatitis or patch testing and may have no knowledge about cosmetic ingredients or your countrys FDA regulations concerning hypoallergenicity. This does not make them less qualified as dermatologists in any way shape or form, but this expertise is a sub-specialty and there are many sub-specialties. Your doctor may be an expert in pediatric dermatology, for example, or dermatological surgery. This hardly makes them “inadequate” — these sub-specialties are demanding and necessary, and your physician could be the best in the world — but it could also mean he or she may be less able to answer specific questions about hypoallergenicity, allergens, contact dermatitis, cosmetic ingredients and FDA regulations. Of course, if your doctor happens to be an expert in these areas — is a member of your country’s contact dermatitis society or, even better, of one of the highly specialized research groups devoted to these issues like the North American Contact Dermatitis Group or European Surveillance System on Contact Allergies — you won’t find a better resource!

Another reputable source, your local FDA, may not settle the issue either. Different countries regulate the term “hypoallergenic” differently — some have stricter guidelines while others have none at all.

While you can’t turn yourself into an expert overnight, you can keep a few key concepts in mind that can help you identify which products are more hypoallergenic and which might be using the term loosely.


Here are 10 simple ways to spot what might be “hype” and what’s hypoallergenic:


Hypoallergenic means less likely to cause allergies. The best way to achieve this is to omit allergens (ingredients that are proven to cause reactions). The VH-Number Rating System shows how many allergens have been omitted from a product. The top resources for allergens? The NACDG, ESSCA and the many other groups of contact dermatitis specialists’ articles published each year.

Memorizing the list of allergens is impractical. There are many, chemical names are unwieldy, and allergen lists change regularly as they’re updated. The VH-Rating is your simplest, most immediate, visible and reliable measure of hypoallergenicity. Otherwise, read on for other fundamental musts and must-nots for hypoallergenic products.


Simple formulations with as few ingredients as possible minimize the risk of cross reactions. One of the quickest ways to spot a high-risk product? The longer the ingredients list, the higher the likelihood of reactions.

Since its inception, it is a policy at VMV HYPOALLERGENICS® to create formulations with as few ingredients as possible to achieve the best results with the minimum risk of cross reactions.


Fragrance is consistently ranked high on allergen lists. CAUTION: Even if you don’t see “perfume” in an ingredients list, the product could still have fragrances or masking fragrances (scents that don’t smell “perfume-y” but that cover up the odors of other ingredients). These ingredients could be written in their chemical names, for example: balsam of peru, geraniol or cinnamic alcohol.

TIP: In lieu of shopping with a chemist in tow, take a whiff. If the product smells nice it’s probably got a perfume. If it smells bland it’s probably got a masking fragrance. If it smells “lab-like”, it’s probably fragrance-free. VMV products are 100% All-Types-Of-Fragrance-Free.


Quaternium-15 is another allergen that’s ranked high on allergen lists. Parabens (methylparaben, propylparaben, etc.) are also top allergens. Lots of preservatives are allergens so try to steer clear of them altogether.

CAUTION: many products achieve “preservative-free” status by piling on fragrances which have preservative properties. Most VMV products are 100% Paraben + Preservative-Free.


Dyes are a rather complicated issue. They’re also ranked high on allergen lists, but these are the “azo”-dyes (derived from a particular source). Some dyes are not “azo” dyes and are not considered allergens. Iron oxide pigments tend to be the safest for skin. “Azo”-dyes are relatively easy to spot: first, it’s impossible to get a bright color (like a vivid red or pink or blue) from mineral pigments and second, they’re written as a color followed by a number, e.g. Yellow 6 Lake, Red 22 Lake or Blue 1 Lake.

If you can’t avoid dyes altogether, such as in makeup, try choosing makeup with the least amount of dyes or ask if the dyes used are “azo” dyes which are the ones that are proven allergens. Or, try to use completely dye-free products. VMV’s Skintelligent Beauty Makeup has several dye-free and azo-dye-free options.

Besides those identified above individually, other well-known red flags in cosmetics and personal care products are: Propylene Glycol, Rubber (in cosmetic sponges), Lanolin (except certain medical-grade lanolins), Propolis (from bees wax), Tea tree oil.

Because there are 76 common allergens, it is still best to look at a product’s VH-Rating. If you have a history of skin sensitivity, your best bet is to ask your doctor for a patch test.


Fragrances are allergenic. This is true even of the most natural and organic. Several tree barks, fruits and their peels, bee products and other natural extracts are highly allergenic as well. Think of it this way: if you’re allergic to peanuts or strawberries, you can’t eat them even if they’re as natural and organic as possible. Allergens are allergens, regardless of natural or organic origin. If you’ve got sensitive skin, hypoallergenic trumps natural all the time. For more on natural and hypoallergenic, click here.


That a product is patch tested is better, but it still may not mean much. Many brands accept reactions of 5-15% of patients tested. With rare exceptions (which the VH-Rating will clearly indicate to alert customers) VMV HYPOALLERGENICS® ingredients, applicators and formulations are approved only if they elicit 0% reactions.

Due in large part to this low tolerance for patch test reactions and to using the VH -Number Rating System consistently, in 30 years, VMV HYPOALLERGENICS® has averaged 0.008% (that’s less than zero point one percent) of reactions reported to products we produce — and those were mostly to ingredients not considered to be allergens (from customers who were sensitive to ingredients not considered allergens) or due to incorrect product usage. These results are published in a landmark article[1] on hypoallergenicity and the VH-Rating System in the Dermatitis journal of the American Contact Dermatitis Society.


A little known fact: many allergens are also photo-allergens — chemicals that can react with light (from the sun but also computer screens and office or house lights) to cause darkening. Common photo-allergens include: “azo”dyes, preservatives, and fragrances. If hyperpigmentation is a concern, use only dye-free Skintelligent Beauty Makeup.


Think you don’t need hypoallergenic products because you’ve never had a rash in your life and acne’s your big concern? Think again. Allergens can irritate pores. Irritated pores can become infected. Voilà : Zitastrophe! Inflammation is linked to many skin concerns, from acne to aging and more — hypoallergenicity helps prevent reactions and inflammation.

A hypoallergenic product should be able to help prevent acne and other skin concerns, from pigmentation to inflammations. Such claims might be indicative of a safer product. Hypoallergenicity’s ability to benefit almost all aspects of skin and its care is the main reason why at VMV, hypoallergenicity is a lifestyle. It’s why we produce so many products, from basic skin care to care for men, women, teens and children of all ages. Hypoallergenicity enhances our active treatment cosmeceutical products, enabling us to use higher concentrations of actives without irritating skin. Hypoallergenicity allows prevention to start early—from childbirth, even. And, prevention can be even more important than therapy, averting or lessening the severity of a whole slew of skin problems including inflammation (a common cause of acne, skin diseases, aging, etc.), dark spots (melasma as well as post-acne scars) and even infection. Hypoallergenicity can even help patients avoid the need for steroids and provide powerful support therapy for psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, herpes, burns, etc. Hypoallergenicity helps keep skin safer and healthier from head to toe, from diapers to dermabrasion.


A big concern about cosmetics is how reliable their claims are. Can you judge a brand’s honesty? One way is to find out if its clinical studies have been published in peer-reviewed medical journals. This is objective proof of legitimate science and can give you some peace of mind.

At VMV HYPOALLERGENICS®, one of our biggest points of pride is that we’ve had multiple clinical studies published in peer-reviewed medical journals and presented (even awarded) at dermatological conventions around the world (over 75, in fact).


Do I Really Need To Use Hypoallergenic Products?

Must I really walk on the “mild” side? According to data on growing skin sensitivity from around the world, you might. A 2009 study shows almost 22% or just a little more than one in every five people in the USA reacted to ingredients commonly found in cosmetics.[2] A review of studies[3] from 1979 to 2004 in Germany, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sweden, the UK, and the USA shows percentages of reactions from 5.4% to 26%. And these were just to fragrances; the total percentage of reactions to more allergens would likely be higher.

A 1997[4] study showed 44% of children reacting to several preservatives including formaldehyde and its releasers, parabens, other preservatives, and even an antioxidant. And another comparative study of patch tests between 2001 and 2004 showed 51.2% of children and 54.1% of adults reacted to at least one allergen.[5]

What’s more, it is reasonable to consider these percentages as conservative: experts acknowledge that most reactions go unreported because consumers won’t normally see a doctor for a reaction they feel is mild or passing. In other cases where a patient does see a physician for a reaction, patients and/or their doctors are often unaware that a cosmetic or skin care product was the cause of the dermatitis (in one study, more than half of the cases fell under this category).[6]

Contact allergy experts caution that the number of allergens or irritants will probably increase as ingredients become more popular (an ingredient can become an irritant as exposure to it increases). This is one of the main reasons why VMV HYPOALLERGENICS® continuously reviews multi-year studies and reformulates frequently. In order to be the most hypoallergenic option available, we have always reformulated even if just one of our ingredients becomes an allergen.


For more information, visit www.vmvhypoallergenics.com > skintelligencenter or ask your doctor about the Contact Allergen Reference Database (www.contactderm.org).


1: Verallo-Rowell VM. The validated hypoallergenic cosmetics rating system: its 30-year evolution and effect on the prevalence of cosmetic reactions. Dermatitis 2011 Apr; 22(2):80-97.

2: Warshaw, E et al. Allergic patch test reactions associated with cosmetics: Retrospective analysis of cross-sectional data from the North American Contact Dermatitis Group, 2001-2004. J AmAcadDermatol 2009;60:23-38.

3: Scheinman PL. The foul side of fragrance-free products: what every clinician should know about managing patients with fragrance allergy. J Am Acad Dermatol. 1999 Dec;41(6):1020-4.

4: Conti A et al. Contact sensitization to preservatives in children. Contact Dermatitis 1997: 37: 35-36.

5: Zug K et al. Contact Allergy in Children Referred for Patch Testing: North American Contact Dermatitis Group Data, 2001-2004. Arch Dermatol., 2008;144(10):1329-1336.

6. Adams RJ, Maibach HI. A five year study of cosmetic reactions. J Am Acad Dermatol 1985;13:1062-9.



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