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What does hypoallergenic mean?

The term 'hypoallergenic' is used to describe a number of products, such as cosmetics and toiletries, baby milk formula, jewellery and bedding, but what does it really mean?

'Hypo' means 'decreased' or 'less than', and if you look up 'hypoallergenic' in a dictionary you'll find a definition saying that it's used to describe something that is 'relatively unlikely to cause an allergic reaction'. In marketing terms, hypoallergenic is used to sell different types of products, but for some of them the labelling is perhaps more ambiguous than others. Some products that are described as being hypoallergenic are listed below.

Baby milk formula

In the case of baby milk formula, hypoallergenic refers to a special formula designed for infants who have a cows’ milk allergy and who need formula in addition to breastfeeding, or who need a formula to replace breast milk. It should not be given to an infant without the recommendation of a qualified healthcare professional such as a GP, health visitor, paediatrician, allergist or dietitian.

Nickel-based products

Contact with nickel, a type of metal, can cause an allergic reaction such as red marks, a rash or itchiness. Nickel is often mixed with other metals to make an alloy. As well as jewellery such as earrings, nickel can also be found in watches, belt buckles, spectacle frames, studs on jeans and even orthopaedic pins and plates. Hypoallergenic jewellery and other metal components that come into contact with the body should not contain any nickel but instead be made of pure metals. These include:

  • 18k gold or higher
  • Platinum
  • Solid silver
  • Stainless steel
  • Titanium.

Bedding and other household products

One supplier that specialises in selling bedding and other products for people with allergies states that if a duvet or pillow they sell is labelled as 'hypoallergenic', it will be less likely to trigger allergies, but an 'anti-allergy' label indicates the product has been 'treated in some way' to combat dust mites or protect against their allergen. If you have an allergy or sensitivity, you may want to look for an Allergy UK logo that indicates the product does perform as the manufacturer claims.

Cosmetics and toiletries

There is much controversy about using the term 'hypoallergenic' for cosmetics and toiletries, including make-up, skin-care products and hair-care products. There are many hundreds of different chemicals that can be used in these products and knowing which one might cause a reaction can be difficult.

The Cosmetic, Toiletry & Perfumery Association says when hypoallergenic is used to describe a cosmetic product, the manufacturer will have: "made special efforts in the selection of ingredients and by product testing to reduce further the already low incidence of adverse reactions to cosmetic products. These products may still contain fragrance, identified in the ingredients list as 'parfum'".

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