Does Your Beauty Routine Need to Go Gluten-Free?

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Grocery stores around America brim with "gluten-free!" labels on everything from pasta to frozen vegetables. Whether you’re celiac or just trying to observe an anti-inflammatory diet, there are more options than ever if you’re intent on keeping gluten out of your diet.

But what about keeping it out of your beauty routine? Gluten-containing ingredients like wheat germ oil and barley extract appear in many cosmetics, and some companies have started to label their gluten-free products as such. Just because there’s a market for gluten-free beauty products doesn’t make them healthier, though, experts say. (Just like that gluten-free pudding.) Is this a trend to applaud or to ignore?

"The gluten molecule is just too large to cross the skin barrier."

If you’re not celiac or seriously allergic to wheat, barley, rye, or oats (FYI oats themselves are gluten-free, but often processed in facilities alongside other grains that are not), you can skip this one, says Maura Henninger, ND, a Manhattan-based naturopath. “The gluten molecule is just too large to cross the skin barrier," she explains. “Topically, there’s no reason to worry about getting gluten through the skin unless you have a skin lesion.” 

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So why are so many products touting their wheat-free qualities? “The gluten-free industry is a billion-dollar industry," Henninger notes. "If we see gluten-free on our mascara, it’s going to appeal on some level, but I don’t think it’s necessary for the majority of people. For some people, it is.” People do accidentally ingest cosmetics all the time, she says, so for patients who have celiac disease, she recommends considering cosmetics on a case-by-case basis. (Lipstick, for instance, is worn on the mouth, so that's a good place to go gluten-free if you're sensitive.)

"There’s a small chance it might be helpful. But not a big chance."

Alan Dattner, MD, a holistic dermatologist in New York City, says that if you have celiac disease or are sensitive to gluten and experience symptoms despite being careful with your diet, it might make sense to kick gluten out of your beauty routine. Still, he says, few people will fall into this group. “If there’s not really a sensitization to gluten, but people are doing it as a lifestyle choice, there’s a small chance it might be helpful,” he says. "But not a big chance." 

He noted that another concern is increased sensitization to gluten and wheat from the use of cosmetics. “There is some data showing that people who are celiac can get stimulated by topical gluten,” he says. “So if you’re really celiac, those products make a difference.” (If not, Henninger says it's more important to rid your personal-care products of ingredients such as triclosan, parabens, and formaldehyde—all of which have been linked to possible health issues.)

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If you do have celiac disease or are otherwise sensitive to gluten, Dr. Dattner suggests switching to pure coconut, olive, or almond oil as a moisturizer, saying that pure oils work best as a moisturizer when applied to still-damp skin. In fact, you can replace half your bathroom cabinet, from conditioner to shaving cream to highlighter, with ultra-versatile coconut oil.  

Focus first on products like lipstick and toothpaste that are more easily ingested than, say, shampoo.

Focus first on products like lipstick and toothpaste that are more easily ingested than, say, shampoo. There are lots of lists online detailing which cosmetics companies are transparent about gluten-containing ingredients and which are not. The good news is that eliminating gluten from your beauty routine doesn’t have to be expensive. Affordable natural brands like Jason and Avalon have many gluten-free formulas.

Ready to take the gluten-free plunge? Give the experiment a month, Dr. Dattner suggests. “You’ve got to let changes occur in the gut mucosa [your intestinal barrier],” he says. “That may take a little time.” Before long, though, you should be feeling—and looking—your absolute best. And if there's no change? Feel free to ignore the "gluten-free" labels to focus your attention on checking the ingredient list for clean-beauty bona fides.

Become a beauty genius with this deep dive into sustainable ingredients. And don't miss how to get glowing skin without wearing makeup—it's surprisingly easy!

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