It seems like people are so much more sensitive today than they were in the past. From food allergies and food sensitivities to skin reactivity, we are seeing far more allergy issues than ever before. While many savvy consumers take the time to educate themselves on what ingredients may be the culprit and choose to buy products that seem “clean” and “safe,” why do we sometimes react to even the cleanest of formulations?

The answer typically lies in the gut. One of my favorite sayings is, “The skin is a reflection of the gut.” When you are compromised in your digestive system, it will show up on your skin. There are many things that cause changes in gut health—an overgrowth of yeast or bacteria, use of antibiotics, and poor diet to name a few. When your gut is inflamed, the digestive track allows proteins to pass through without being properly broken down. Your body then marks these whole proteins, which it doesn’t recognize, as invaders and launches an immune response. This sets the stage for later reactions that show up on our skin.

As the gut junctions become more aggravated and inflamed, we can become highly reactive to things that didn’t bother us in the past. A fragrance, for example—even a naturally derived one—can cause our skin to flame up and react. Essential oils are a great example of this. They are natural, plant-derived ingredients, yet many people have allergic skin reactions to essential oils. Again—it’s not that the components in essential oils are similar to those in the foods we eat, but when you have leaky gut syndrome, you become uber-sensitive to many things, even nonproteins.

Monthly fluctuations in hormones can also trigger an inflammatory response to skincare products. The skin contains estrogen and progesterone receptors, two hormones that rise and fall during the menstrual cycle and also during the phases of menopause. When estrogen rises it can trigger mast cells, the cells that release histamine during an allergic reaction. Therefore, you are more likely to have allergic reactions to skincare products during the times of your menstrual cycle when estrogen is higher.

Those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity need to pay close attention to the ingredient lists on their skincare products. If any of the ingredients contain gluten, the skin can absorb it and cause a reaction. The list to watch out for is extensive—you can read a detailed version here—but, in general, look for things like: avena sativa (oats), barley, wheat, samino peptide, triticum, xanthan gum and dextrins.

One lesson that I have learned during my years as a skincare formulator and nutritionist is that there is no one-size-fits-all list. No matter how clean or safe I think a product or diet is, there will be those outliers who react to it. We are each unique in our biochemical makeup, so it is impossible to make a product that is non-reactive for everyone.

The best advice I can give is to keep your gut healthy by eating a diet rich in organic whole foods and plants and to avoid chemical-laden processed foods. Pass on skincare products that contain a long list of harsh chemical preservatives and fragrances, as they are notorious for causing reactions. When the occasional allergic reaction occurs, pay close attention to figure out what may have been the cause so you can avoid that ingredient in the future, and then take a look at what might be impacting you at the time. Nine times out of 10, there will be a connection to either your gut or your hormones.

Click here to read Ginger Hodulik Downey’s book The Esthetician’s Guide to Outstanding Esthetics.

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