Here’s Why You Should Actually Consider Gluten-Free Beauty Products

Health-conscious cosmetics: a necessity or silly marketing gimmick? WH investigates...


Zinhlezonke Zikalala |

By Caroline Brein; additional reporting Zinhlezonke Zikalala; 

Health-conscious cosmetics: a necessity or silly marketing gimmick? WH investigates…

Gluten: a protein found in wheat, rye and barley (and the reason bread has that doughy, moreish texture). For years, it went under the radar, until Dr William Davis’ 2011 book Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health. Davis planted the seed that, perhaps, whole-grain wraps and sourdough sarmies weren’t good for us after all. Millions listened, blaming bloating, listlessness and headaches on an often self-diagnosed gluten intolerance. People started to cut it out of their diets and, surprise, surprise, lost weight. Gluten-free then began appearing in supermarkets and on restaurant menus. The result: it’s now a multi-billion-rand industry — and the beauty world, with its innate talent for tapping into the lifestyle, has latched on.

READ MORE: This Might Be The Most Severe Reaction To Gluten Ever!

The reality is there are only around one in 100 of us who should be wary of gluten. Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease triggered by an abnormal response to eating gluten. For those who suffer from it, the smallest brush with gluten can cause symptoms. “Every coeliac may suffer different symptoms, which makes it very difficult to diagnose,” explains Durban-based nutrition counsellor Lucille Cholerton, who specialises in gluten sensitivity and coeliac disease. “These range from a drippy nose and itchy eyes to mucus build-up, skin rashes, headaches and stomach pain. If you were to continue to eat gluten grains (wheat, rye and barley), you would develop the more serious symptoms,” says Cholerton, such as ulcers and liver damage.

So far, so clear. But where does the beauty industry come into this? Whole grains and the gluten protein aren’t used in cosmetics, but derivatives and modified versions of them are (on the labels, it’ll be any ingredient with “wheat” or “barley” in the name). For example: wheat germ oil (or triticum vulgare) can be used to enrich moisturisers; barley extract soothes itchy scalps and is used in hair masks; starch, extracted from grains, adds thickness to body creams and lotions. Even lipsticks have traditionally contained wheat to give them a creamy finish and to keep lips soft. The beauty industry has dabbled with gluten-free products since the Nineties, but rarely have the bigger brands taken note. Until now. A recent report noted that beauty products with gluten-free labels increased by 22 percent between 2012 and 2013, with big brands such as MAC, Revlon and Estée Lauder (almost all of the latter’s products are now gluten-free) now offering gluten-free options.

READ MORE: 8 Things That Can Happen To Your Body When You Stop Eating Carbs

Could It Possibly Be Marketing Ploy? 

Robyn Smith, director and founder of Faithful-to-Nature, a South African online organic shop, confesses that the idea was to create a haven for customers, and guarantees peace of mind and gluten-free items. “Our shop offers a large section of gluten-free products and we are constantly on the lookout. It’s a really big deal that we are empowered to make the best purchasing decisions that we can,” says Smith.

However, with adverse reactions reported in very few people, and gluten molecules being too large to be absorbed through the skin, is going gluten-free more marketing ploy than safety precaution? “I don’t believe gluten in cosmetics poses any health risk. If you are gluten-intolerant, you have to actually eat the product to get a reaction. Applying gluten to the skin should be safe,” says Dr Adrian Morris from the Allergy Clinic in Cape Town and Joburg. Some experts believe topical products containing gluten can’t penetrate deep enough to have any systemic effect in people who are gluten-intolerant or suffer from coeliac disease. Cholerton agrees: “If you’re not sensitive to gluten when you eat it, then it shouldn’t affect your outward appearance,” she says.

READ MORE: 5 Proven Health And Beauty Benefits Of Turmeric

So… What Are The Alternatives?

Gluten-free lip care and lipstick would then seem logical for anyone who might react, given that they come into contact with the mouth and can be ingested – the average woman is thought to consume around 1.8kg of lipstick in her lifetime. And, since we also touch our faces around 3.6 times per hour, perhaps gluten free make-up isn’t as crazy as it sounds. But here’s the thing – if you do decide to buy gluten-free products, what is being lost in terms of quality and efficacy?

Consider, for example, that some gluten-free foods contain greater levels of sugar and fat to compensate for removing the gluten. Many brands have actually turned to quinoa as a product enhancer. It’s an excellent replacement for wheat and even boosts some products. It’s composed of tiny fragments that are small enough to pass through the hair cuticle and penetrate the hair’s cortex, resulting in improved texture, equalised porosity and increased elasticity, so it’s actually superior to wheat. “Nutritionally, quinoa is an excellent grain choice and it’s a fantastic replacement. However, there is a high social cost to factor in – due to the surge in popularity and, hence, high prices across the world,” says Smith.

READ MORE: Should You Go Gluten-Free?

At the end of the day, if gluten doesn’t affect your meal choices, it shouldn’t have to affect your beauty ones. But the gluten alternatives are credible, safe and in many cases beneficial to your beauty regime. And if that’s not enough to seduce you, then its environmental credentials should. “There has been a massive increase in coeliac disease or sensitivities to gluten, which makes many believe it’s due to genetically modified ingredients,” says Smith. So some women prefer to stay free of any GMOs in their beauty products for healthier skin and a healthier planet. Better skin and a greater pay-off for Mother Earth? Maybe going gluten-free isn’t such a fad idea after all.

Tired of applying mascara every damn day? Before you decide to do something drastic, you might want to know a few things about permanent make-up first.

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