Summertime Gluten-Free Topicals and First Aid

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When you are living gluten-free, summertime can bring new challenges. Being active or outdoors often means adding an array of skin care products to your daily routine to protect yourself from the elements or alleviate everything from sunburn to bug bites to muscle aches.

What kind of topical products might contain gluten? You might find gluten-derived ingredients in certain sunscreen brands; after sun-care; bug spray; muscle and joint pain relief balms or ointments; moisturizers; hair care; makeup; and lip balm.

Gluten can be present in skin care products as a thickener, emollient, volumizer, moisturizer, or exfoliator. There are many ways gluten might be listed on the packaging for these products such as Triticum Vulgare (wheat bran), Secale cereale (rye seed extract), and Hordeum vulgare (barley). If you are concerned about gluten in any form, look out for specific mention of gluten, wheat, barley, rye, or their derivatives.


What are the Risks of Gluten in a Topical?

Should you be worried if there is gluten in any products you apply externally? Here are some facts:

  1. Gluten reactions related to celiac disease occur when gluten is ingested. For reactions to occur, the digestive tract needs to be exposed to it.
  2. Gluten is a protein that is too large to be absorbed through the skin.
  3. Substances absorbed through the skin do not have direct access to the bloodstream or gastrointestinal system.
  4. Skin reactions to gluten-containing products are more likely allergic reactions to certain ingredients and are not related to celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

What about Dermatitis Herpetiformis (DH), the skin condition related to celiac disease? DH is a dermatological external reaction that is caused by ingestion of gluten and not topical contact.

Accidentally getting any gluten-containing product into your mouth would be the way to potentially ingest gluten. Keep in mind the amount of gluten added to a topical product is usually small. The amount of that product you might use would be even smaller.

The risk of getting a topical product with gluten in your mouth would vary depending on the product and how and where it is applied. Here are some things to know to help minimize accidentally ingesting gluten while you’re having fun in the sun!

Sunscreen/After Sun-Care

While you can choose to use lotion or cream-based sunscreen or an easy-to-apply spray, if you are concerned about ingesting any amount of gluten, opt for the type you spread on. A spray sunscreen or after-care relief product will be more likely to create airborne particles of the ingredients that have more potential of getting into your mouth than carefully applied topicals. If you use zinc oxide, it is gluten-free, however, it could be in a product with other ingredients that may not be. Even if you think you’re just getting zinc oxide, read the ingredient label for added ingredients.

If you have a child who requires sunscreen at daycare or summer school for outdoor activities, send extra containers of your preferred brand of gluten-free sunscreen with instructions on minimizing ingestion with extra care when applying to the face, especially relevant if some other brand of sunscreen must be used. Emphasize that no other brand of sunscreen should be used on your child, if possible. Provide copies of the instructions to all responsible parties such as teachers, school nurses, and other administrators.


Bug Spray

Many popular bug spray brands are labeled gluten-free, but if you have concerns, there are bug deterrents in balms, oils, and lotions or creams that can be more carefully applied, particularly on one’s face. You can use the spray version to spray clothing before dressing. You can choose to spray clothing—and even your backpack—outside to minimize the concentration of airborne ingredients.

If you have a child who requires the use of bug spray at daycare or summer school for outdoor activities, send both options with instructions on how you would like each to be used. Provide copies of the instructions to all responsible parties.


Moisturizers and Lip Balm

Like other topical products, moisturizers could contain gluten as an ingredient. For moisturizers, use care when applying to your face and wash your hands after applying moisturizer. For lip balm, the amount of gluten that could be in the smaller tube of lip balm will already be minimal, and even less is present when you apply it to your lips. Still, opting for a labeled or certified gluten-free lip balm can reduce risks.


Muscle and joint cream, ointment, or balm

One main difference between a moisturizing product and pain relief topicals is that the latter is not used all over the body. Because pain relief topicals are not formulated or recommended for the face, the chances of ingestion are reduced. After applying these products to specific muscles or joints, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water. As with any topical product that you use your hands to apply, you could then ingest a small amount if you put your finger in your mouth, such as to bite a hangnail or fingernail.

Most pain relief topicals are not recommended for young children, not because of potential gluten ingredients but because of other ingredients such as aspirin or the more volatile ingredients like eucalyptus or menthol that could cause eye irritation and pain. Check the label for the brand’s instructions regarding children. They often recommend not using those types of products on children under 12.

Hair Care Products

When you’re washing and conditioning your hair after a swim, shampoo and conditioner can run down your face and get into your mouth, not to mention your eyes and nose. Eliminate the risk of gluten exposure by using products free of gluten-containing additives.

Leave-in conditioner, hair gel, and hair mousse are much easier to control. If you get it on your hands, wash them with soap and water after applying. Hair spray or spray-on conditioner can be a little trickier because of the airborne particles, but if you are not ingesting it—or accidentally spraying it on your face—the amount of gluten in the air will be small. Still, sticking with labeled gluten-free products will eliminate that risk. Using GFCO-certified products provides you with extra peace of mind that they are safely gluten-free.

These days, many products you apply externally tout that they are “gluten-free” to suggest they are not adding any gluten or gluten-containing ingredients into their formulas. Just like on food products, some may have an added disclaimer that the facilities where the products are made cannot be guaranteed to be free of gluten, allowing for the possibility of cross-contact with gluten. Choosing a GFCO-certified topical product can give you the peace of mind that what you’re applying to your body is safely gluten-free.

The information on this website is for educational purposes only. Consult your healthcare team when considering this information.

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