Are gluten-free skin care products necessary if you are gluten sensitive - like I am? If you are trying hard to cut gluten out of your diet, can you absorb it through your skin care products? This is an important question for me. I've been diagnosed with celiac and I have eliminated gluten from my diet. What about skin care? Read on, this is a complete answer.
Ask the Dermatologist: Do you need to use Gluten-Free Skin Care if you have celiac or are gluten sensitive?
I want to share an interesting question that was sent in by a reader.
Hello Dr. Bailey,
I started using the Calming Zinc Soap to help with my dermatitis. It has also helped clear up my acne. But after going gluten free to see if that also helps to keep dermatitis at bay, I realized that this soap has oats in it. What is your professional opinion on this? If gluten is a factor in causing dermatitis, then is using gluten containing products to treat the dermatitis a problem? Devon
The topic of gluten in skin care is a great question. Thank you for bringing it up! I dug into the current scientific research on the subject, and the recommendations from gluten medical experts. I combined this with my experience as a dermatologist and skin care expert. Here is my answer:
What is gluten?
Gluten is a group of proteins present in certain cereals and grains.
Gluten containing grains include:
- Wheat berries
- Khorasan wheat
Oats are naturally gluten-free but are often contaminated with gluten during processing.
Gluten protein is present in seitan, a vegan high protein food. It is also present in monosodium glutamate (MSG), soy sauce, lecithin, modified food starch, and some medicines and vitamins. I personally avoid gluten in my diet and find this list helpful.
The Latin term "gluten" means "glue," and gluten protein acts as a binder to create the elastic properties that allow these grains to be formed into a ball of dough and then shaped into breads and other baked goods.
Gluten is an important nutritional protein in a traditional Western diet. Whole grains have many proven health benefits and gluten is also known to be a prebiotic that benefits the intestinal microbiome meaning it “feeds” the good bacteria in the gut.
When is gluten a problem?
Gluten protein can be toxic to some people, triggering an immune attack and inflammation. Symptoms can include bloating, constipation and/or diarrhea and fatigue. More severe problems are seen in people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity including intestinal damage, malnutrition, malabsorption of key nutrients such as calcium and iron, and weight loss. People with celiac can develop osteoporosis, anemia, neurologic problems and some types of cancer because of the chronic inflammation and intestinal damage.
Gluten protein can also be an allergen, causing hives, itching and anaphylaxis.
Can gluten be absorbed through your skin?
Healthy skin should not absorb gluten (2). Gluten-containing skin care, hair care and cosmetic products will only expose you to gluten if you swallow them. That’s because skin is an excellent barrier and waterproofing layer covering our bodies. Only small molecules penetrate into skin and gluten is a relatively large protein. The 500 Dalton Rule defines skin penetration.
What is the 500 Dalton Rule and how does it relate to gluten and other ingredients in your skin care products?
Substances larger than 500 Daltons in size don’t readily penetrate skin. They are simply too large. This is why other large molecules, such as collagen added to creams, don’t get into your skin. Understanding the 500 Dalton Rule will help you answer many questions about product claims or risks for skin penetration of ingredients. (1)
3 situations where gluten may be absorbed from your skin care products:
- Gluten-containing products applied to the lips may result in gluten absorption from licking and ingesting. This is similar to eating gluten containing foods. Avoid lip care products that contain gluten. Face care products that contain gluten should be carefully rinsed off of your lips.
- Hand care products that contain gluten may be licked and ingested, posing a potential, gluten exposure risk.
- Skin care products containing gluten should not be applied to damaged or wounded skin. Damaged skin barrier may allow gluten to bypass the 500 Dalton Rule that applies to healthy skin barrier properties. Damaged skin includes rashes, open lesions and wounds. When absorptive deeper skin layers are unprotected by intact stratum corneum and epidermis (the dead skin cell layer and living skin care layer that form your protective skin barrier), gluten may be absorbed. The risk of absorption will vary depending on the degree of barrier compromise. A subtle rash may not pose a significant risk compared to a large wound or significant rash. The exact extent and range of skin injuries have not been studied in this context, and one must use their judgement.
Is there gluten in skin care products?
There are 5 names of gluten containing grains that you need to know.
- Wheat (Triticum vulgare)
- Barley (Hordeum vulgare)
- Rye (Secale cereal)
- Oat (Avena sativa), which can be contaminated with gluten.
Malt is not a grain but is another word to look for. It is often made from barley or other gluten-containing grains, and it is not gluten-free.
Oats are more complex than the other grains. Some cultivars don’t actually contain gluten. Oats can, however, be contaminated with gluten during processing in facilities that also process gluten-containing grains.
Ingredients derived from these grains may contain gluten and may show up on the ingredient list of products. Look for these terms in the ingredient list. Other derivatives of these grains that may be listed in skin care include (3):
- Wheat and gluten containing skin care ingredients to avoid:
- AMP-isostearoyl hydrolyzed wheat protein
- hydrolyzed wheat protein (HWP)
- hydrolyzed wheat gluten
- triticum lipids
- triticum vulgare
- wheat bran extract
- wheat germ extract
- wheat germ glyceride|
Barley and malt skin care ingredients that may contain gluten to avoid:
- barley extract
- hordeum vulgare extract
- malt extract
Oat-based skin care ingredients that may be cross-contaminated with gluten to avoid:
- sodium lauroyl oat amino acid
- avena sativa extract
But, is gluten always present in skin care products that contain gluten containing ingredients?
No. In a scientific study testing for gluten protein in skin care products that contained at least one ingredient derived from gluten containing grains, it was found that none of the products contain gluten. It does not mean that this applies to all skin care products formulated with gluten containing grains, but it tells you how complex the topic of gluten in skin care can be.
Do you need to use skin care products labeled "gluten free" if you have celiac or are gluten sensitive?
The FDA does not regulate the term "gluten free" on skin care products. The FDA also does not require companies to declare whether a product contains gluten or not. Because of consumer concerns over gluten, some companies are choosing to label their products gluten-free to help consumers more accurately select gluten-free products. Expect to see this trend grow. As mentioned above, healthy skin is a good gluten barrier and you need to use your judgement to decide if gluten-free skin care is important for you.
In my professional opinion as a skin care expert, I know that natural skin care ingredients are growing in popularity. People are also exploring gluten as a cause of their health problems and skin problems. Gluten-free skin care products will continue to be of interest and the topic is complicated.
What are the 4 most important things you need to know about gluten in skin care:
- Gluten protein is not absorbed through healthy skin.
- Gluten is often not present in skin care products that are formulated with gluten-containing ingredients are used in the formulation of the product.
- Gluten-containing ingredients are most likely to be of concern when applied to lips or other skin that is licked, and when it is applied to open skin wounds or active rashes.
- Reading ingredient labels and looking for the 5 potentially gluten-containing grains, or their derivatives, may help you sort through your product choices while waiting for more skin care product to provide gluten free labeling.
Almost all of my products at Dr. Bailey Skin Care are gluten-free, with the exception of the Calming Zinc. Calming Zinc may contain gluten as the oats are not certified gluten-free. That said, this soap may also not contain gluten. I know that people who are gluten sensitive are wanting gluten information and we will start working through our product pages to add this information. It’s a great idea!
Devon, thank you for sending me this intriguing question, and congratulations on noting that your dermatitis is better with a gluten-free diet. I have exactly the same correlation with my own seborrheic dermatitis and rosacea. I too, am on a gluten-free diet and, at this point, I don't even miss gluten. In fact, many gluten-rich foods are also high-glycemic load foods and very pro-inflammatory. At my age, this creates the perfect set-up for inflammation of all sorts including the rashes I am predisposed to and arthritis. Gluten in skin care, however, is a much more complex subject.
Cynthia Bailey MD
- Bos JD, Meinardi MM, The 500 Dalton rule for the skin penetration of chemical compounds and drugs., Exp Dermatol. 2000 Jun;9(3):165-9.
- Michael F. Picco, M.D., Celiac disease: Can gluten be absorbed through the skin? Mayo Clinic https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/celiac-disease/expert-answers/celiac-disease/faq-20057879