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Originally published Friday, April 29, 2011 at 7:30 AM

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Organic skincare and hair products can trigger allergies

Skin Deep: Allergies can be natural, too. Organic ingredients don't guarantee an absence of allergic reactions.

The New York Times

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Wenonah Madison-Sauer, 36, co-owner of a farm and take-out restaurant on Martha's Vineyard, tries to be eco-conscious about not just food but also cosmetics. For her firstborn son, Waylon, she used biodynamic calendula-based products anointed by NaTrue, an international third-party certifier of natural and organic skincare and cosmetics. But her second, Amos, now 2 ½, is gooped up with Hydrolatum, a creamy petroleum-derived, non-organic cream that comes in a large plastic tub. Amos has food allergies, which have resulted in atopic dermatitis and eczema. Much of what he is allergic to (tree nuts, peanuts, seeds and coconut) is found — in oil form as emollients — in organic products.

"I didn't want to use Hydrolatum," Madison-Sauer said, but "it's the only thing that locks in moisture and protects him against certain things touching his skin. It seals him."

While most skincare and hair care is filled with potential allergy triggers, it turns out that organic versions are, to green parents' dismay, among the worst offenders. "Generally the more expensive organic products have more allergens; they're in their purest form," said Lisa Borden, 39, a Toronto-based mother whose 8-year-old daughter is allergic to peanuts, nuts and kiwi. Dr. Hauschka, one popular certified natural line celebrated for its purity, is chockablock with potential irritants: Its products contain organic almond, sunflower, peanut, macadamia and argan oils.

This could be worrisome (however needlessly) in a lip balm. "Allergy from ingested tree nuts is a Type I anaphylaxis-type allergy, which can be life threatening," said Dr. Maryann Mikhail, an attending dermatologist at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York. More common is a Type IV, contact allergy — not "life-threatening," Mikhail said, though it can cause "horrible eczema."

Getting advice on what cosmetics are safe can be a game of hot potato: Brands from Dr. Hauschka to the dermatologist's office staple Cetaphil all urge consumers to talk to their health care providers, while many doctors tell their patients to check with manufacturers. Dr. Amy Wechsler, a dermatologist in New York whose daughter is allergic to salmon (and formerly to eggs), has called companies herself and suggests patients read all labels, since allergens pop up in unexpected places.

But labels with long chemical names can be hard to decipher. Labeling laws in the United States are more relaxed than those in Europe and Canada, which mandate clearer warnings of potential allergens. Online message boards like the Allergic Living Talking Allergies Forum (www.allergicliving.com/forum) offer commiseration and the latest news on companies that have reformulated products with no warning (the newish fragrance-free version of Burt's Bees baby shampoo contains sweet almond oil, the perfumed one does not), but there's no go-to database of safe cosmetics for people with food allergies. "You cannot begin to provide that list; everyone has different allergens," said Robyn McCord O'Brien, author, with Rachel Kranz, of "The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick — and What We Can Do About It" (Crown Archetype, 2009).

Since most products have multiple ingredients, tracking down a culprit can be tough. The red bumps covering Amos might be caused by nut oil, or fragrance — natural or synthetic — or even laundry detergent enzymes; all are proven irritants. "People are always touching him with an allergen," Madison-Sauer said. "He has a rash every day and I don't always necessarily know what caused it."

More confusing, someone with a nut allergy won't necessarily be allergic to a nut oil in a product. It's the protein in the nut that causes an allergic response, and some manufacturers say they remove the protein from the oil. This can involve chemicals or heat — an important distinction for a consumer interested in a natural product.

Cetaphil's spokeswoman called the method it uses to process the sweet almond and macadamia nut oils in its moisturizing cream and lotion "proprietary information."

Weleda, maker of Madison-Sauer's preferred calendula baby-care line, says its oils are heated above 400 degrees and filtered, making them risk-free. "That said, we suggest that if you have a severe reaction to almonds, it may be best to not use the products for your utmost mental, emotional and physical well-being," said Jennifer Barckley, Weleda North America's director of corporate communications and education.

Wechsler, who is also a psychiatrist, said that "there is a big psychological thing to being someone who is tree-nut allergic rubbing almond oil on their skin," adding: "I have not had any patients who have anaphylaxed from a topical cream. I think we can make ourselves a little bit crazy. The goal is not to pass on the craziness to the kid."

But Dr. Xiu-Min Li, a professor of pediatrics, allergy and immunobiology at Mount Sinai Medical Center, who sells carefully blended herbal creams, tea and bath products, said, "Paranoia on the parents' part is understandable," adding, "There is a potential problem if the product contains nonrefined nut oil or isn't reliable."

Wary of steroids to treat reactions, some organic-minded families throw up their hands and use nothing at all or rely on one-ingredient food-grade certified organic oils (though Madison-Sauer said olive oil wasn't moisturizing enough). Borden praises coconut and sesame oils.

Wechsler suggests safflower oil. "If you couldn't eat it, don't rub it on your skin," O'Brien said. "Skin is your largest organ. If you wouldn't rub it on your heart, kidney or lungs, then you might not want it on your largest organ either."

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