What’s Inside My Non-Food Products?
Peanut ingredients and the other top 8 allergens (group of the most common major food allergens in the U.S.) are often used in products outside of the food that you consume. I’ve touched on this in some of my previous posts, and also in my article for the March edition of Free-From Magazine from the Food Equality Initiative, and it can be difficult since the labeling requirements are different for products you aren’t meant to be ingesting. My article on the Free-From Magazine on DIY allergen-friendly household products starts on page 17.
Quick note: If you aren’t familiar with the non-profit FEI, check them out, they have an amazing mission of getting safe allergen-free foods to families in need, as well as a lot of other work they’re doing across the food allergy space. I feel lucky to be able to be a contributing writer.
I also want to point out that in my Resources tab I have a document I put together on ‘Non-Food Peanut Products’, which covers frequently used items I’ve discovered ‘may contain’ or do contain peanut ingredients and common allergens. It isn’t extremely comprehensive and is not meant to remain up-to-date forever, but it is a resource I put together for others to get an idea of what types of products to be on the lookout for. It’s important to note that not all food allergy folks will react to these items, since every food allergy is different, but definitely proceed with caution.
Not too long ago, I got my hair colored and felt very itchy around the back of my neck afterwards. The salon took it upon themselves to check the Redken product labels beforehand for anything with peanut oil since I told them about my food allergy, so afterwards I called to let them know about my slight reaction and asked about if there may be any snacks around with peanuts. It turned out they did have Reese’s cups out that they put away before I came in, so I wondered if cross-contact could be the culprit.
While the Redken products didn’t list any peanut ingredients, they couldn’t be sure if it was truly peanut-free or not, and they mentioned that with hair dye it isn’t unheard of to have some type of a skin allergic reaction. I completely understood. I agreed that all of this wasn’t surprising to hear. I’ve e-mailed and called companies asking direct questions about if they use any peanut ingredients in their products and received vague, non-specific answers, essentially encouraging me that there may always be a chance so it’s an at-your-own-risk type of thing. This clears them of any potential liability, which is great for them, and not helpful for someone like me who wants to use the products but ideally needs a full ingredient list. This doesn’t happen only with hair or cosmetic products, it is a common issue with household cleaning products, lotions and body moisturizers, dryer sheets, sunscreen, and even store-bought or prescription medications, the list goes on and on.
When you’re looking at the ingredient list of a product, it may list naturally sourced ingredients or oils such as, “natural essences” “naturally derived dyes” or “natural scents”, giving no context as to what the natural source is. I often run into cleaning product labels where it doesn’t even have a full ingredient list, and isn’t required to, as I learned from an article on ewg.org, “Cleaning products, unlike foods, beverages, cosmetics and other personal care products, are not required by federal law to carry a list of ingredients. … They rarely provide these details on the product labels, where consumers can see them in the store.” So there you have it, the ewg article goes on to say, “consumers are in the dark”… I’ll say! Since non-food labeling requirements vary, and are often able to be left off the package, especially if it’s a small bottle or box. The rules surrounding non-food products aren’t as strict since it isn’t being eaten through the mouth, however, it’s completely possible that topically these products it can still cause a reaction, the skin is our largest organ after all!
To reiterate, there’s no requirement in the United States that requires if a non-food product contains an allergen or allergen derivative that it has to be fully disclosed to the consumer. Unless the item is meant for human consumption, the ingredients list can be much more relaxed and there’s no requirement for them to release the full ingredients list to the public.
Due to this, I inquired before getting my first tattoo on the dye and had a hard time nailing down if it was risky for a peanut allergy or not, luckily it didn’t appear to be afterwards, because we couldn’t determine anything super conclusive. This led me to learning that often tattoo dye is a risk for metal allergies, which I do have an allergy to metal, but isn’t as serious as peanuts are to me, it results in a rash and I avoid most metals coming into contact with my skin and avoid any metal in medications like colloidal silver cream. In fact, there seems to be a link between peanut allergies and metal allergies. I haven’t found specific sources to back this up here, but I have been told by multiple allergists, and it holds true based on others with food and peanut allergies I know.
Often companies will make the argument that if an oil is highly refined, it often is considered as not containing any allergen components. I’ve personally found this to not be true– I’ve reacted mildly to highly refined peanut oil cooked kettle chips before, and more severely to highly refined peanut oil used in a prepared meal. I tried these many, many years ago before my allergy worsened to the point it is now, and before I knew about cross-contact and trace amounts of allergens. I had no interest in eating peanut oil containing products, but was told it was perfectly safe by multiple doctors, so I tried more out of curiosity back when I was still in High School and then once unknowingly I ate peanut oil in a stir fry while out at a restaurant which caused a severe response. I suggest looking up the process of how they refine oils, and the exact definition of a refined oil. It is a fascinating and often a very toxic process, as they’re deodorizing, neutralizing, and bleaching the oil. There’s a SnackSafely article I like on the process, and it explains that the FDA exempts highly refined peanut oil from being labeled as an allergen. You can read more about this food allergy exemption from the FDA’s site from this rule put into place in 2004. Studies show that most individuals with peanut allergy can safely eat peanut oil as long as it is not cold-pressed, expelled or extruded peanut oil – sometimes represented as gourmet oils. This seems awfully complicated to have to look into, and in my opinion, I don’t feel comfortable now knowing what I know, to take risks eating the oil of the very thing I’m deadly allergic to trace amounts of.
In my experience, obtaining any full ingredient list or ‘may contain’ statement for a food product or non-food product can often be very tricky. It’s unfortunate that the majority of U.S. companies are this way. After my mild reaction the to the Redken hair product/hair dye, I contacted their company which is owned by L’Oréal, and got a lengthy templated/standardized e-mail back stating,
“most ingredients derived from these sources are highly refined and retain no traces of allergenic proteins, for less refined ingredients L’Oreal Group has established strict levels on the potentially allergenic proteins. We believe that this policy minimizes the likelihood of reactions to these proteins in the majority of sensitive individuals.”
This vague response is often what I get when inquiring on non-food products, and it later goes on to recommend you reach out to your medical care provider for questions, as per usual.
On that topic, I’ve asked my fair share of medical professionals and/or pharmacists about this, and most doctors aren’t aware that companies often use peanut oil and allergens in medications and topical solutions. I once asked an allergist about a nasal spray and some eye drops that I’d seen on forums can contain peanut oil, and he said confidently, “they wouldn’t put an allergen in products that are supposed to combat allergies… Ah-ha-ha!” I pulled up the ingredient lists for products I was looking into that ACTUALLY CONTAINED “arachis oil” – the latin name for peanut oil- and he was shocked. I only knew this after having joined the peanut allergy awareness groups online, where people will post about certain lotions and products they’ve discovered contain their allergen.
For people with egg, milk, and dairy allergies medications and non-food products are something to look into, as I have seen egg and milk as ingredients commonly while checking for my peanut allergy. I’m certain people with tree nut allergies reading this are all too familiar, because those definitely are even more common to contain nut oil, and still, the ingredients do not have to be disclosed. I do personally use sweet almond oil and sesame oil on my body as a moisturizer, and I know walnut shells in skin exfoliators and hand soaps, or even “all natural” cleaning sponges are common.
Latin Terms and Alternative Names for Allergens
Checking the latin name and alternative names of your allergen is an important starting point, since often that is what is listed on non-food products. I’ve listed out common examples here and links to more resources below:
- Almond (sweet) – Prunus amygdalus dulcis
- Almond (bitter) — Prunus amygdalus amara
- Brazil nut – Bertholletia excelsa
- Cashew – Anacardium occidentale
- Coconut – Cocos nucifera
- Egg – Ovo (means egg), for example, ovalbumin, ovomucin, ovotransferrin
- Hazelnut/Filbert – Corylus avellana
- Milk – lac (cow’s milk – Bos taurus)
- Pecan (Hickory) – Carya illinoinensis
- Peanut – Arachis hypogea
- Soybean – Glycine soja Sieb
- Walnut – Juglans regia and other Juglan species
This Allergic Living resource I have used often when looking for alternative names and latin names of allergens. The Nut Free Wok food allergy blog I use often for managing my own allergy, and they have a sheet of common latin names for allergens as well. Here is an egg allergy specific avoidance list which I highly suggest looking at if you have or manage an egg allergy.
Medications Containing Peanut Oil [Examples]
Since I am peanut-reactive and mostly aware of that allergen in my day-to-day, I’ve attached a few eye-opening examples from the peanut allergy forum below of products that contain peanut oil, one being an asthma inhaler:
Moral of the story — beware of anything you’re putting in or on your body! Please feel free to let me know if you find any food products or non-food products that surprisingly contain allergen ingredients!