Concerned about the potential for allergic reactions after exposure to man-made chemicals, many consumers turn to natural beauty and skin care products. Others add natural and organic products to their beauty regimen to reap the purported benefits of their pure ingredients. But using natural beauty products doesn’t necessarily prevent allergic reactions. In fact, many people who make the switch—and even some who have used the same natural products for years—find that they develop reactions to certain natural ingredients.

coconut shampoo and allergens

Beauty products with coconut-based ingredients

Cleansers and moisturizers containing coconut-based ingredients are among the most sought-after natural beauty products. Touted as the perfect solution for weak, dry, flaky or dull hair, shampoos that include coconut oil and coconut milk have become especially popular in recent years. In addition, many natural-based shampoos include coconut-derived surfactant ingredients. For patients with allergies, though, using coconut shampoos can be problematic.

Fragrances, preservatives, dyes, thickening agents and antibacterial compounds are common beauty product allergens. And because many manufacturers have replaced parabens in their formulas with other preservatives (including the commonly used methylisothiazolinone, or MI), patients are developing new reactions to a growing list of ingredients. With the increased use of natural products, allergies to many common natural ingredients, including coconut, lavender, chamomile and shea butter, are also on the rise.

Sensitization and allergies

This connection between more widespread use of natural beauty products and an uptick in allergic reactions to them is in part related to a process called sensitization: put simply, after repeated exposure to a substance, like the coconut in the shampoo you use every day, you may be more likely to develop an allergy to it. Once you become allergic to a beauty product ingredient, you may also experience a reaction when you consume it as food, and vice versa; if you have a food allergy to coconut, you might react to beauty products that contain it.

An allergic skin reaction to a beauty product ingredient, which occurs when your body’s immune system flags that ingredient as an invader, is called allergic contact dermatitis. A reaction that goes only skin-deep, on the other hand, is known as irritant contact dermatitis—not a true allergy. Both types of reactions can cause a range of symptoms, including burning, stinging, itching and redness, and allergic responses often cause swelling, hives and rashes, too. Symptoms may begin immediately after contact with an ingredient or as long as a week later, and many people develop an allergy to a beauty product only after long-term use.

Since it can be difficult to determine whether a reaction is due to an allergy or an irritation (or both), it’s a good idea to see your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms. Tell your doctor about your symptoms (and when you have them), as well as which beauty and skin products you use. You may be referred to an allergist who can uncover the culprit(s) behind your reaction using a skin test. It’s important to determine which ingredients cause your skin allergy or irritation in order to avoid contact with them and prevent reactions.

Be careful with “unscented” beauty products

Armed with a list of the offending substances, it’ll be much easier to stay away from products that contain them. But be aware that reading labels can be tricky. “Unscented” products often contain fragrances, for example, and terms like “hypoallergenic” aren’t regulated. And if you have a coconut allergy, you’ll need to be especially vigilant. While some shampoos contain obvious coconut ingredients, like coconut milk or coconut oil, many include compounds that are often derived from coconut, including caprylic acid, cetyl alcohol and sodium laureth sulfate, just to name a few. If you’re prone to reactions, opt for products with a short list of ingredients; these contain fewer potential irritants and make narrowing down the list of suspects much simpler.

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