People with sensitive skin expect to find protection in products labeled hypoallergenic, but increasingly they are scratching their heads about what that means – particularly in the area of lotions and creams for the skin.

In a recent study in the journal Dermatology Research and Practice, experts at Baylor College of Medicine found two chemicals often associated with allergic reactions in many over-the-counter pediatric skin care products, including some labeled “hypoallergenic.”

“The FDA does not regulate or define the term hypoallergenic,” said Dr. Rajani Katta, professor of dermatology at Baylor and director of Baylor’s Contact Dermatitis Clinic. “Also concerning is that these ‘hypoallergenic’ products for infants and children have no further regulations regarding formulation than those that all skin care products must abide by.”

As part of the study, Katta surveyed children and infant skin care products at local retailers, specifically looking for two allergens, methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone. These two were studied because of the rising rate of allergic reactions to them.

Both preservatives have led to allergic skin reactions on the face, hands and perianal region, said Katta. She noted that repeated exposure can result in allergic contact dermatitis or a persistent, sometimes painful rash, in some susceptible individuals.

“Our survey included facial or body wipes, hair products, soaps, antibacterial hand wipes, bubble baths, moisturizers and sunscreens,” Katta explained. “We found that hair products and face and body wipes contained the largest amount of these preservatives.”

She noted that multiple products marked as “hypoallergenic,” “dermatologist tested,” “gentle,” “organic” and “sensitive” contained these preservatives associated with allergic reactions.

Katta said that in most cases, discontinuing the use of products that cause a reaction is all the treatment that is needed.  If the rash continues, or the source of the rash is unknown, she recommends seeing a dermatologist for testing.