We talk about makeup quite often on this blog, and for good reason! There are lots of people who are concerned about the potential gluten content in their makeup, lotion, shampoo, etc. Anecdotally, I’ve come across the full spectrum of attitudes towards this potential gluten content, from people who are sure that they react instantly to people who are sure that they’re completely safe. And, of course, many people simply never bothered to consider the question until it came up in conversation.

Interestingly, some new, casual research published online by the Gluten-Free Dietitian indicates that just because a cosmetic contains an inherently gluten-full ingredient doesn’t mean the cosmetic has gluten in it.

Although no brand names are indicated, the site discusses tests done on lip balms containing wheat germ oil, barley extract, and/or wheat germ extract, lip gloss with both wheat germ and barley extract, lipstick with wheat bran extract, and lotion with wheat germ oil. An accredited lab performed tests with the R5 antibody, both ELISA Sandwich and ELISA Competitive (which is better-suited to highly processed items). And they found….nothing.

That’s right. Not a single item of the six tested tested positive for gluten (the Sandwich ELISA can detect down to 5ppm and the Competitive ELISA down to 10ppm).

Now, this is far from a comprehensive study, as the conclusions in the original post make clear – it is preliminary information about a very small sample. Happily, anyone who is concerned about gluten in their makeup and personal care products has an ever-increasing number of options: there are lots of companies making gluten-free cosmetics and lots of people who love them (we talk about some of our favorites here).

Let’s talk about some possible reasons why these six items may have come up negative, though.

Occam’s Razor indicates that they are coming up negative because there is no detectable gluten in them. Many — but not all — researchers and gluten experts agree that with sufficient processing, the toxic parts of gluten-containing grains can be rendered non-toxic. Remember that the phrase gluten-free doesn’t mean zero gluten (we can’t test for that). Instead, it generally means so little gluten that even if somewhat above-average amounts of the item were consumed, the total amount of gluten would not trigger a response in someone with celiac disease.

The tests performed here checked for 5ppm and 10ppm; certainly there are people with celiac disease who find themselves reacting to foods that test in this range (ie, who are sensitive to gluten below the FDA’s proposed threshold of 20ppm). However, the best research we have to date indicates that even if these items have a few ppm of gluten in them, they would still be safe for the overwhelming majority of people with celiac disease.

Now it’s also important that we look at the tests used in the study. Both the R5 Competitive and Sandwich ELISAs were used, which means that even very small fragments (of the part of the gluten molecule that R5 looks for) should be detected. However, cosmetics are tricky and it’s possible that those fragments somehow slipped through the antibody’s clutches.

It’s also possible that the gluten fragments that R5 looks for were not there / had been broken apart and rendered harmless – but that other bits of gluten were in some of the cosmetics. And since the parts of the gluten molecule the R5 antibody looks for aren’t necessarily the exact fragments that trigger a response in people with celiac disease, there is a bit of a window there. It’s probably not a very big window, but for someone who is very sensitive it might be enough. Any researchers who were interested in picking up the baton and continuing to investigate the matter would presumably want to not only test a larger variety of items, but use tests with a variety of antibodies.

At the end of the day, we continue to learn more and more about detecting gluten – but there is still a lot to learn! This preliminary data does seem to indicate that just because a cosmetic contains an ingredient derived from wheat or barley does not mean the cosmetic is automatically highly toxic for people with celiac disease. Still the bottom line remains: if you are concerned about gluten in your skincare regimen, you should continue to follow the practices that you feel best keep you safe.