It's safe to say that gluten has a controversial reputation in the food world. One in 10 people in the UK now actively avoid gluten in their diet and in recent years this mounting statistic has paved the way for a boom in the gluten-free food industry. Restaurants, cafes and supermarkets now dedicate entire menus and aisles to gluten-free meals and produce. At the time of writing, the gluten-free market is estimated to be worth £835 million per year (and growing), proving that the movement shows no sign of slowing down.
Countless individuals claim to see positive results after eliminating gluten from their diet but according to registered associate nutritionist (ANutr) Kelly Light, not all gluten conditions are created equal. "Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease as opposed to an allergy and it affects roughly 1% of the population. On the other hand, some people experience similar symptoms to coeliac disease but without any antibodies being produced or any damage to the gut lining." Kelly continues: "This is referred to as gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance and is estimated to affect around 6% of the population."
For those who suffer from varying degrees of gluten intolerance, the symptoms can be unpleasant. They include constipation, cramps and vomiting, among other side effects. For many people, though, one of the most frustrating markers on the list can be skin problems, such as rashes and more serious bumps and even blisters known as dermatitis herpetiformis. While this condition is linked to ingesting gluten, there is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that skincare products containing gluten-derived ingredients can also cause problems when applied topically.
According to some coeliacs, using creams, soaps, shower gels and other beauty and wellness products containing gluten has resulted in mild to severe skin reactions. This was the case for actress and TV presenter Alex Gray, who recently spoke to R29 about the reaction she experienced after using a cream which contained barley, wheat and whey protein. All three carry traces of gluten. "It happened near instantaneously," Alex told R29. "I used a new face moisturiser and an eye cream under my makeup before an event, and as the night progressed, I could feel my skin burning — the texture changing as the rash developed."
Alex was diagnosed with coeliac disease in 2020 and says she was never warned by doctors to check skincare products for gluten, which she believes led to her inflamed, rough skin, alongside pus patches and swollen eyelids. After taking to Instagram to share her experience, Alex says she received messages from other coeliacs who'd had similar symptoms when using skincare products containing gluten. In particular, she found others who were similarly frustrated with brands not clearly listing the component on their allergen labels. Skincare ingredients lists can be confusing in general but Alex's followers discussed how gluten is often disguised under less well-known names, such as triticum (another word for wheat). Food labels are required to emphasise the use of gluten through methods such as bold lettering and GF symbols but on cosmetics labels the presence of gluten appears to be less obvious.
"There are often so many ingredients, and the text is always written so obscurely and minutely that it's very easy to miss key allergenic ingredients," adds Alex. "I feel so strongly that just like the food industry, the skincare industry should also be legally required to clearly display allergens in their products." A handful of Alex's followers detailed their "extremely unpleasant reactions" to products containing gluten, which she says is worrying. "Shopping for skincare shouldn't have to be part of the battle that people with gluten allergies face every day, especially when it comes to their health and wellbeing," she concludes.
Gluten-free skincare seems to be gaining traction in other corners of the internet, too, with gluten-free creators on TikTok sharing their love for skincare brands like CeraVe, The Ordinary and Glossier — all of which offer gluten-free products. TikTok content creator Allie Wixom says: "I know that from my experience with the gluten-free community, many people react to just touching baked goods, or experience adverse reactions to gluten in hair products, so I don't think it's much of a reach to move toward a fully gluten-free lifestyle, which includes skincare." Allie, who was diagnosed with coeliac disease six years ago, says that cutting gluten from her skincare routine has massively improved her symptoms. "I used to have the 'butterfly effect' rash on my face before removing gluten from my diet and skincare routine," she says. "The rash lessened when I removed gluten from my diet but it didn't really go away until I completely removed gluten from my skin routine. Since opting for gluten-free products, my skin has less texture and is more supple. It heals faster, too," she explains.
Fellow TikTok creator and coeliac Gabrielle Hammond claims that she also suffered skin reactions before moving to an entirely gluten-free routine. "I have extremely sensitive skin and a lot of products were giving me rashes, acne and drying my skin out," she says. "I had no idea what ingredient I was allergic to until I talked with my doctor and we came up with a solution of cutting gluten out of my topical products as well." Gabrielle maintains that things have improved tenfold. "I only cut out gluten from my skincare routine about nine months ago and I'm so happy with how my skin looks already. I finally have a skincare routine that works and leaves my skin happy and not irritated, which is the best feeling ever."
Although a handful of people in the coeliac community stress the importance of avoiding gluten in skincare, it seems the evidence is mainly anecdotal. Consultant dermatologist Dr Nava Greenfield of Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City says that gluten is usually only an issue when ingested. "Generally, gluten is processed when entered through the gut and identified by our immune system in the mucosa of the digestive tract," she explains. "But certainly our skin can become sensitised to many types of allergens that we introduce to our skin." Dr Greenfield stresses that a food allergy is very different from a skin allergy but suggests that certain areas may be affected by topical products. "It might be best to avoid gluten in lip products because it may accidentally be swallowed. But otherwise, gluten on the skin is safe for those with coeliac disease."
As to why those with gluten issues may have experienced adverse skin reactions, GP Dr Ahmed El Muntasar suggests that it may be down to several ingredients causing problems, rather than gluten in isolation. "Often, someone may think that one ingredient is causing all their problems when, actually, their allergies are multifactorial," he says. In this case, Dr Ahmed recommends a process of elimination to figure out which ingredients may be causing the issues. "If you feel like you might be sensitive or allergic to an ingredient or product, then I'd suggest keeping your skincare routine as it is, taking out that one product and seeing how your skin reacts."
Anecdotal evidence may suggest that removing gluten from your skincare routine could have positive results but without clinical evidence to confirm that gluten-containing skincare is dangerous, it's best to look at things on a case-by-case basis. "Although gluten in skincare is unlikely to cause a rash, it doesn't mean that it won't," says consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson Dr Emma Wedgeworth. "There may be reasons why some people absorb certain ingredients more than you would imagine from a mechanistic point of view," says Dr Wedgeworth. "I think if someone with coeliac disease is reacting to skincare, it would obviously make sense to remove any gluten-containing products from their skincare routine. But I suspect it is the minority of patients."
When it comes to skin safety, taking precautions is never a bad thing and to echo the aforementioned experts, it's important to stay vigilant about what may be causing flare-ups. That said, visiting a professional is highly recommended in order to receive a proper diagnosis for any skin issues you may be experiencing, whether it's taking a trip to your GP or, as Dr Greenfield suggests, bringing the product you think you might be allergic to along to a dermatologist for a patch test. Where skin sensitivities are concerned, it's always wise to get an expert opinion.