Every time Afton Jones would wear eye makeup, her eyes would become swollen, heavy, and watery. One night, she sported a more natural look—and had no complaints. "Turns out, my mascara had gluten in it," says Jones, a Texas 20-something who has since founded glutenfreemakeupgal.com, which reviews gluten-free products. Jones has celiac disease, which is characterized by an overactive immune response to gluten. It leads to symptoms like stomach cramps, bloating, chronic diarrhea, and anemia, and can damage the small intestine, preventing proper nutrient absorption. "After that, it all fell into place and I went on a massive hunt for gluten-free cosmetics," she says. "A rash I'd had on my face went away, and my eyes didn't feel weighed down and exhausted anymore."
There's no cure for celiac disease—it's typically managed by eliminating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, as well as many common food additives. But sufferers, like Jones, are discovering there may be more to a gluten-free lifestyle than making dietary changes: Gluten is sneaky. As Jones found, it may also be lurking in the makeup and toiletries you count as daily staples. It's used as a binder to help ingredients stick together, and to add moisture to products through gluten-derived oils.
"Lipstick, lip-gloss, mouthwash, toothpaste—they can all trigger a reaction in people with celiac disease," says Alice Bast, founder and president of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA). "If you're sensitive to gluten, you should be using gluten-free cosmetics and toiletries. Even if you don't experience any symptoms, you could be doing damage on the inside." Her thinking, though accepted by many, is yet to become mainstream. Experts are split over whether sufferers should avoid cosmetics that contain gluten. Some are adamant that gluten-free cosmetics prevent flare-ups, while others suspect that the amount of gluten in makeup is too small to trigger real problems. There's no standard protocol yet—and the question will remain murky until more research exists.
Little is known about exactly how much gluten popular cosmetic products contain, and how much it takes to cause harmful side effects. Some people are so sensitive that they might experience symptoms after swallowing a bit of gluten-tainted lipstick, while others might not. (The average woman, by the way, is said to consume 4 pounds of lipstick over a lifetime.) Experts believe that gluten can't be absorbed directly through the skin. But if a gluten-containing product, such as lotion or sunscreen, touches the mouth or lips, it can be ingested that way. And some folks develop skin reactions to makeup because they also have an allergy to wheat or other grains.
At the annual meeting of the American College of Gastroenterology last year, researchers presented a case study on a 28-year-old woman who successfully managed her celiac disease through diet. After trying a new body lotion, however, she developed an itchy, blistering rash on her arms, along with stomach bloating and diarrhea. Once she stopped using the lotion, her symptoms disappeared. A recent study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, on the other hand, tested four mainstream lip products and two lotions made with gluten-containing ingredients. The researchers found that these had "below-quantifiable levels of gluten." While that suggests such products may not contain enough gluten to be problematic, the sample size wasn't large enough to draw definitive conclusions, says study author Tricia Thompson, a registered dietitian and author of The Gluten-Free Nutrition Guide.
Still, many experts agree that gluten-free cosmetics won't hurt—and they may help keep symptoms at bay. Whether or not they're necessary remains a question, and likely varies from person to person. Jones, for example, has discovered that for her, complete avoidance is essential. "Gluten on my skin has an almost instant reaction," she says, adding that she ditched her gluten-containing shampoo after deeming it responsible for the painful boils she developed on her scalp. "I can't even help clean up meals, because if I touch something that contains gluten, my hands break out into hives or a horrible, itchy rash. Gluten-free cosmetics have allowed my skin and body to behave normally again."