Walk into any drug store and confront the aisles of skincare products: cosmetics, conditioners, lubricants, lotions, potions, and creams. If you’re looking for the safest, least allergenic product for your particular skin—good luck.
You walk up to a counter and how do you begin? How do you interpret the labels; how do you cross-reference which products might have been the irritant? It’s an impossible task to do as an individual.
You could read the teensy print on dozens of bottles and attempt to identify which unpronounceable ingredient might be causing your itchy rash. You could try to find products without parabens or Methyldibromo Glutaronitrile (yeah, that’s a thing). You could buy something expensive because the label says it’s “dermatologist tested” or “hypoallergenic.”
Or, you could go to the SkinSAFE website, where that analysis has already been done on tens of thousands of products that touch your skin, from shampoo to cosmetics to lubricants. There you can find products with the “TOP Allergen Free” designation, meaning that they contain none of the ingredients that have been identified as highly allergenic. You could also scan your favorite product into the SkinSAFE app on your smartphone to find out how that product ranks on the TOP Free scale and what allergens it might contain. Both the app and the website are intuitive, easy to use, and give you information that was impossible to find before.
This gargantuan effort is the result of decades of patient data painstakingly collected by dermatologists at Mayo Clinic and compiled in a user-friendly internet platform by Michelle Robson, creator of EmpowHER, a website dedicated to providing credible health information for women.
According to its clinicians, the number one complaint that brings patients to Mayo Clinic is skin conditions. Research also suggests that up to 45 percent of contact skin allergies could be avoided by using allergen-free products like those with the TOP Free designation on the SkinSAFE website. This kind of scientifically sound, third-party ranking of everyday products according to their allergenic properties is a huge public service, not to mention one that could avoid many trips to the dermatologist.
SkinSAFE is a significant tool empowering consumers to make informed buying choices in an industry that’s been confusing at best and misleading at worst. It creates a meaningful designation—Top Allergen Free— based on science rather than marketing hype; it eliminates price from the equation. Neither price nor labels like “organic” or “hypoallergenic” are indicators of a product’s allergenic properties. Maybelline products, for example, are just as likely to receive the TOP Free designation as more exclusive brands.
“There are a lot of myths about skin-care products,” says Dr. James Yiannias, a dermatologist at Mayo Clinic and co-developer of SkinSAFE, “so if you choose a product that says ‘hypoallergenic’ or ‘dermatologist-tested,’ unfortunately, it doesn’t really mean a whole lot.”
For example, we often think of botanical ingredients as “natural” and thus harmless. We’d rather put something natural on our skin than a product laced with unpronounceable chemicals, right? But botanicals can be just as allergenic as synthetic ingredients. One of the major allergy-causing ingredients in skin-care products is fragrance. And “fragrance” can include natural botanicals, such as balsam of Peru, which is highly allergenic.
For most of us, this information just helps us make better choices in skincare products. But for those of us who truly suffer from skin sensitivities or allergies (which often only become more severe with age), it’s critically important information. The SkinSAFE website has a special section for those with very sensitive skin that allows you, presumably along with your doctor, to create a “personal allergy code” (PAC) that filters out products with your specific allergens and only shows you products that are safe for you to use based on your individual profile.
The SkinSAFE app and website are a tremendous resource intended to empower consumers and clinicians alike with current, credible, and badly needed information. Look for manufacturers and websites that offer SkinSAFE ratings in their product descriptions. Because as Michelle Robson says, “You just need to know. Information is power.”