You might know that gluten is lurking in all kinds of foods, from sauces and condiments, to lunch meats, to alcohol. You may not be surprised it’s in clays like Play-Doh, or routinely tags along with gluten-free grains like oats, but did you know there can be gluten sources in beauty products, supplements and sometimes even your toothpaste?
Gluten is not absorbed through the skin, according to the Mayo Clinic (1). But just a quick peek at one of the online forums for celiac disease and gluten sensitivity shows that many people get relief from their symptoms, such as gastrointestinal issues, skin rashes and brain fog, by eliminating all gluten-containing products, including topical ones (2).
Unfortunately, there is no way other than trial and error to determine a person’s tolerance level for gluten in topical products, says Dr. Amy Burkhart, a board-certified physician and registered dietitian based in Napa, California. “The amount needed to elicit a reaction varies from person to person,” she says. “Most people with celiac disease will react to any exposure over 20 parts per million (less than the size of a crumb), but some will react to even less.”
The range of reactivity for people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity varies greatly, she adds. “It can be equivalent to that of a celiac, or they may be far less sensitive and be able to tolerate occasional exposures.”
5 Unexpected Sources of Gluten
If you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, it’s best to read all labels diligently. Here are a few items to watch out for that might contain hidden sources of gluten:
Where is gluten lurking in sunscreen, you ask? Tocopherols, vitamin E, and sometimes even the fragrances are derived from wheat. Thankfully, you can find sun protection that says “gluten-free” right on the label. But while some natural brands do not put any gluten-containing ingredients in their products and do their best to clean off the machinery in the manufacturing process, cross-contamination can happen, as some facilities are shared with products that contain gluten.
Toothpastes, dental floss, and mouthwash mostly do not contain gluten these days, but that doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. Problematic ingredients to watch out for include vitamin E (from wheat germ), amino peptide complex, Hordeum vulgare (a fancy term for barley), phytosphingosine extract, Triticum vulgare (wheat) germ oil, or any derivatives of wheat, barley or even oats that might have been cross-contaminated. If you do find you are sensitive to a product, see if it contains any of these ingredients. While you’re at it, you might also want to avoid additives like caramel coloring, which has been linked to increased cancer risk (3), or sodium laurel sulfate, a potential irritant.
If you find your symptoms go away when you’ve switched soaps, does that mean there was gluten in the products you were using? Perhaps indirectly. From commercial laundry detergents to shampoos, many soaps are gluten free. However, gluten-free ingredients, such as Avena sativa (common oats), can easily get wheat particles mixed in with them. (Oats and corn are often processed on the same equipment as wheat.) Other soaps may contain barley, rye, or wheat germ. Just don’t confuse lye with rye. Lye is a metal hydroxide and not related to grains.
Medications and Supplements
Unlike foodstuffs, medications and supplements do not fall under the same scrutiny when it comes to ingredient listings and processing guidelines. While the active compounds in pills, tablets, and liquid caps are often naturally gluten-free, the fillers and binders may contain gluten. Common additives include starches sourced from wheat and gluten-contaminated corn.
Look at the ingredients on a common bottle of Ibuprofen, and you’ll often see corn starch, pregelantinized starch, and pharmaceutical glaze, all which could contain gluten. You might find dextrins or dextrates in other over-the-counter medications, vitamins or supplements, where gluten can also be lurking. Other ingredients to avoid include hydrolyzed vegetable protein and textured plant protein. Fillers and binders that do not contain gluten include lactose, titanium dioxide, gelatin, mannitol, magnesium stearate, and xylitol.
If the label does not explicitly state “certified gluten-free,” it’s best to err on the side of caution and call the manufacturer. Keep in mind that if you switch from a name-brand prescription to a generic drug, the ingredients are not always the same. Assessing the new formulation is important to ensure you avoid getting “glutened.”
We’ve already said that some people are just more sensitive, but makeup can easily be ingested from being on your lips, around your mouth, or on your hands. As mentioned above, vitamin E is often derived from wheat germ, as are ingredients like tocopherol, glusol, and even something called pentacure, which can be found in anti-aging preparations (4). Again, if you’re unsure whether a product you love is gluten-free, you can check the company’s website or contact them to confirm their practices. You should also choose products that are free of added fragrance, because that too can have gluten particles in it.
Luckily, there are more and more compassionate companies that don’t include wheat, gluten or gluten sources in their products. We all want to feel fabulous. Get wise to the red flags, then fill your life with reaction-free items that will help you look and feel your best.