Gluten-Free Shampoo Helps Itchy Scalp and Rashes

Not All "Gluten-Free" Products are Really Gluten Free

If you've been diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, your physician or dietician might have told you not to eat gluten, but did they tell you about the gluten in shampoo, conditioner, personal care products, makeup, household products, business products, or the environment?

Many celiacs experience mystery glutenings or continue to have symptoms because of the gluten in non-food products. The body behaves and reacts as if you’ve been glutened or aren't healing, yet you haven’t eaten anything off plan. Your head or skin itches, you break out in a rash, or your hair starts falling out. If so, you might be wondering, "Do I need to switch to a gluten-free shampoo?"

Gluten-Free Shampoo Helps Itchy ScalpCredit:

A Gluten-Free Diet Isn't a Gluten-Free Lifestyle

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder. Although one-third of the population carries the genes necessary to experience the immune system malfunction, Dr. Alessio Fasano, celiac disease expert, lead celiac researcher, and pediatric gastroenterologist, revealed in an August 2012 podcast interview that you have to also ingest gluten during a time when there's some form of breach in the intestinal wall for for celiac disease to activate. 

Once activated, the immune system attacks the villi in the small intestine whenever gluten is ingested. That results in damage to the villi. This damage is what sets the criteria for a celiac disease diagnosis. It's also what distinguishes celiac disease from gluten sensitivity or a gluten allergy.

While all three conditions consist of immune system dyfunction and improve on a gluten-free diet, despite Alessio Fasano's recent research studies and announcements, many continue to believe that gluten has to be eaten in order to cause problems.

A gluten-free diet can heal the damage to the villi in the small intestine, but a diet alone is not a gluten-free lifestyle. A lifestyle removes gluten from your environment, as well as your diet. If there is gluten in your home, your car, and at work, you may be following the rules of a gluten-free diet, but you are not totally gluten free.

For that reason, many people experience severe itching, head sores, rashes, dandruff, extremely dry hair, and other personal issues even though they are following a strict gluten-free diet.  That's because celiac disease is not the only damage that gluten causes.

"We've moved gluten sensitivity, also called gluten intolerance, from a nebulous condition to a distinct entity," Fasano told Living Without magazine editor, Alicia Woodward, in an interview for their August/September 2011 issue. "And one that's very distinct from celiac disease." So it's no longer true that celiac disease is the only form of gluten intolerance.

In fact, Dr. Fasano now considers gluten problems to be a spectrum that embraces celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and gluten allergies. If you or someone you love is eating gluten free but still having gluten intolerance symptoms, you might need to switch to a gluten-free shampoo and conditioner.

The Controversy Over Gluten-Free Hair Products

Not everyone believes that those with celiac disease should switch to gluten-free hair products. This belief is based on how celiac disease is diagnosed. Since the villi inside the small intestine are always damaged or flattened when you are initially diagnosed with celiac disease, specialists such as Dr. Peter Green insist that shampoo has to be swallowed to create problems.

"Unless you are ingesting your shampoo, skin lotions, creams or makeup, they do not have to be gluten-free," he writes in Celiac Disease: A Hidden Epidemic. The only exception would be lipstick, dermatitis herpetiformis, or cracked skin.

Gluten Can Contaminate Hands if You Touch Your HairCredit:

Many celiac individuals who agree with these specialists feel that the answer to the problem is to learn how to keep your mouth shut while showering instead of switching to expensive hair products, but that viewpoint doesn't address the potential for getting gluten on your hands whenever you touch your hair.

In addition, health authorities also state that the gluten molecule is too large to pass through the skin, but that opinion originally came from Dr. Green in 2006. There is currently no substantial scientific evidence for or against that claim.

Another favorite argument is that if gluten-free shampoo improves your symptoms, then you have an allergy to gluten or a skin problem in addition to celiac disease. Such arguments only cloud the issue of gluten sensitivity, it's existence, and the damage it causes. They don’t really help those on the gluten spectrum who are suffering. 

For some reason, many people who agree with these views are disturbed by the personal experience stories shared by hundreds of celiacs who believe that gluten-free products are essential to healing. They even go so far as to accuse those who reveal these personal anecdotes of spreading misinformation about celiac disease.

Those leading the fight against gluten-free products are generally asymptomatic. They don’t experience any negative symptoms when they accidentally ingest gluten, so they have no way of knowing if they are reacting to a particular product with gluten in it, or not.

Some Believe Shampoo Must Be Swallowed For Gluten to HarmCredit:

Authorities Who Support a Completely Gluten-Free Lifestyle

For those who have actually switched to gluten-free shampoos and experienced positive results, the anti-gluten-free shampoo movement can be quite frustrating. Many of these people, including myself, were suffering terribly before making the switch. It seems counter-productive to fight against people who are taking steps to gain better health – regardless of the exact reason why going completely gluten free works.

Scientific evidence is always slow in coming because it’s dependent on those willing to fund such studies. When it does come forward, such as the study published in 2011 that made gluten sensitivity a reality, outdated information continues to be preached as if it were still true. It seems to take a while for everyone to become informed.

Several authoritative sources believe that many hair care products can be problematic for celiacs:

  • Celiac Sprue Association
  • The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse
  • The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA)

Despite the lack of specific scientific evidence, these celiac-disease organizations all agree that body-care, cosmetic, makeup, and hair-care products with gluten need to be avoided by celiacs as well as those who are sensitive to gluten.

At a conference held in April of 2008, the NFCA’s concern centered on inactive ingredients found in beauty aids, medications, cosmetics, and other health care products that could possibly contain unknown gluten and set off gluten sensitivities.

Gluten Sensitivity Exists

While no one is arguing that celiac disease is a result of the immune system attacking and damaging the villi inside of the small intestine, Dr. Fasana estimates that, "Gluten sesitivity affects 6 to 7 times more people than celiac disease so the impact is tremendous." That’s because gluten sensitivity affects more body systems and organs than just gastrointestinal issues.

In addition, gluten sensitivity isn’t as easily diagnosed as celiac disease is. When editor Alicia Woodward asked Dr. Fasano if there was a test for gluten sensitivity, he said, "No. So far, the only way to determine sensitivity is an exclusion diagnosis." You have to rule out celiac disease and allergies, and then participate in an elimination diet.

By extension, doing personal, trial-and-error experiments on one's self, such as switching to gluten-free shampoo, is the only way to know if you're sensitive to the gluten in your personal care products. However, not all shampoos that claim to be gluten free actually are.

Problems with Some Gluten-Free Shampoo Brands

The advice that came out of the NFCA’s meeting was a warning to celiacs and those with gluten sensitivity about the terms “starch,” “flavors,” “natural ingredients,” and “fragrance” on product labels. Because of current FDA labeling laws, these generic terms are used when a company is not required to disclose the specific ingredients.

The FDA also allows complete trade secret status to all fragrances and incidental ingredients when those incidentals are less than one percent of the product’s total formula. Gluten can hide in dyes, colorings, and processing aids as well as under generic terms and fragrances.

 If you call up a company and ask their representative if their shampoo or conditioner contains gluten, that representative can legally tell you “no” – even if the hair product does contain gluten. They do not have to tell you if their fragrances contain gluten. Generally, they can’t because they don’t know either.

An even bigger problem is that many hair-care products are represented by the manufacturer to be gluten free, even though no one but the fragrance manufacturer knows for sure.

Problem With Over-The-Counter Shampoos 

Most shampoos and hair product brands that you can pick up at your local grocery or drug store contain:

  • wheat protein
  • wheat germ oil
  • wheat-derived Vitamin E
  • gluten-contaminated oats
  • fragrances

For the brands that do not contain wheat or oats, you can ask phone representatives directly about the gluten in the fragrance they use, but they will all fall back onto the same claim. Representatives are trained to tell you that their products do not contain gluten because "they" do not add gluten to their product.

If you specifically ask about the fragrance in the shampoo, they cannot guarantee what is in the fragrance because they purchase it ready-made from someone else and those ingredients are a trade secret.

Shampoos That Might Contain Gluten in Their Fragrances

Store Shelf Full of ShampoosCredit:

Many individuals with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity can use these types of hair products safely, while others cannot. The problem has to do with how sensitive to gluten you are, but it can also be a reflection of your personal habits.

The amount of gluten it takes to set off an immune system response differs from individual to individual. However, all fragrances also contain corn derivatives, so it isn’t always easy to tell which ingredient (corn or gluten) you might be reacting to.

The following shampoo brands are often claimed to be gluten free by a number of those with celiac disease, as well as the manufacturer:

  • Aussie
  • Clairol
  • Dove 
  • Garnier Fructis
  • Herbal Essences
  • John Frieda
  • L’oreal
  • Neutragena Triple Moisture
  • Nizoral A-D
  • Organix Hair Products
  • Pantene Pro V Shampoo (does have gluten in their fragrances) 
  • Salon Selectives
  • Shikai Daily 
  • Surface Hair Care
  • Suave 
  • VO5

While Kirkland Signature’s gluten-free shampoo and conditioner is gluten free, their gluten-free products are run on the same equipment as other gluten products.

If a company thoroughly cleans the equipment in between gluten and non-gluten products as Trader Joe’s does, there isn’t a problem, but phone representatives for Kirkland Signature won’t guarantee that the line was thoroughly cleaned before switching to their gluten-free shampoo.

Using these shampoo products with potential gluten may or may not work for you. Many celiacs who use products with gluten report severe itching, hair loss, blisters, and other types of sores. When they’ve switched to completely gluten-free shampoo, these skin and head issues went away.

Sometimes, it’s easier and less costly to just avoid all shampoos and conditioners that contain fragrances. If you’ve already tried a couple of these brands and are still reacting in some way, fragrance-free shampoo might be the safer way to go, but figuring out which shampoos have gluten and which do not isn’t always easy.

Scientific Names for Wheat, Oats, Barley and Rye

On many shampoos and conditioners, you can simply read through the label’s ingredients and find wheat, oats, barley or rye clearly marked on the label, but that isn’t always true even for brands that present themselves as all-natural or organic. Wheat, barley, rye, and oats are natural ingredients.

While you might be able to decipher something simple like hydrolyzed wheat protein or wheat germ oil because of the use of the word “wheat,” scientific names are more difficult to spot:

  • triticum vulgare (wheat)
  • avena sativa (oats)
  • hordeum vulgare (barley)
  • secale cereale (rye)
  • tocopherols (Vitamin E)
  • tocopherl acetate (Vitamin E)
  • Vitamin E (often Wheat Germ Oil)
  • beta glucan
  • dextrin
  • Ethyldimonium Ethosulfate
  • yeast extract
  • phytospingosine extract
  • dextrin palmitate
  • hydrolyzed malt extract
  • hydrolyzed vegetable protein
  • fermented grain extract
  • AMP-Isostearoyl
  • PG-Propyl Silanetriol
  • PVP Crosspolymer
  • amino peptide complex
  • maltodextrin (can be from barley, but usually from corn)
  • stearyldimoniumhydroxypropyl (hydrolyzed wheat protein)
  • hydroxypropyltrimonium (hydrolyzed wheat protein)
  • phytosphingosine extract
  • samino peptide complex
  • cyclodextrin
  • prolamine

Gluten helps to hold the ingredients in your shampoo together. They keep the product from separating. Think of gluten as you would glue. Since gluten is sticky, it binds the ingredients in your hair-care products together.

For that reason, conditioners do not work very well without wheat, oats, or barley extract. Soft hair requires a fatty substance that glues itself to your hair. Hair products also need some form of protein to repair daily damage. Wheat seems to work best.

Fragrance-Free Shampoo and Conditioner List

Gluten-Free Shampoo and ConditionerCredit: Lavender Rose

Just as eating out is always risky, using shampoos and conditioners that contain fragrances or masking ingredients is risky too.

Don’t forget that what you can get away with today, you might not be able to get away with tomorrow. Many individuals who remove gluten from their diets find they grow more sensitive to gluten the longer they are off it. As the body heals, it begins to react to a smaller amount of gluten than before.

The following gluten-free shampoos and conditioners do not have fragrances, so they are completely gluten free:

  • Alba Botanica Leave-in Conditioner, Fragrance Free
  • Baby Aquaphor Wash & Shampoo (from Eucerin)
  • Burt’s Bees Super Shiny Grapefruit & Sugar Beet Conditioner (contains citrus oils)
  • By the River Shampoo and Conditioner
  • Clean & Natural, Gluten Free, Fragrance Free (Walgreen’s Brand)
  • DHS Clear Shampoo Fragrance Free, and Conditioning Rinse
  • Desert Essence Organics Fragrance Free Shampoo and Conditioner
  • Earth Science Pure Essentials Fragrance-free Conditioner
  • Free & Clear Shampoo for Sensitive Skin
  • Gluten-Free Savonnerie Shampoo and Conditioner (dairy free, corn free, soy free)
  • Head Organics Clearly Head Shampoo and Revitalizing Conditioner (botanicals)
  • Jason Fragrance Free Shampoo
  • Lavera Baby & Kinder Neutral Shampoo
  • Lavera Neutral Hair & Body Shampoo
  • Logona Free Shampoo & Shower Gel
  • Magick Botannicals Baby Bubble Bath, Soap and Shampoo
  • Magick Botanicals Conditioner for Thinning Hair
  • Magick Botannicals Oil Free Shampoo
  • Magick Botanicals Oil-free Fragrance-free Conditioner
  • Magick Botanicals Spray-on Detangler and Conditioner
  • Magick Botanicals Travel Set
  • Miessence Organics Desert Flower Shampoo (normal to dry hair)
  • Miessence Organics Lemon Myrtle Shampoo (normal to oily hair; essential oils)
  • Nature Clean Pure Sensitive Shampoo
  • Naturelle Hypo-Allergenic Shampoo (contains fruit oils)
  • Neutragena T/Sal Therapeutic Shampoo
  • Stony Brook Botanicals Conditioner
  • Synergy Silk Shampoo
  • Tate’s Natural Miracle Odorless Shampoo
  • Tate’s Natural Miracle Conditioner (leave in or wash out)

Beware of Scent-Free Products

Scent-free beauty products are not the same thing as fragrance free. According to the FDA Cosmetic Labeling Guide, manufacturers who label their products as "scent free" have added masking agents to the formula in order to cover up the smell of any off-odors or proprietary ingredients. This added chemical agent is then hidden under the generic term “fragrance,” but the actual word “fragrance” doesn’t have to be listed on the label.

If it is, you want to definitely stay away from the product because it contains gluten. If it doesn’t, you’ll have to call the company and verify whether they used a masking agent or not. While calling the company is essential, don’t be too quick to believe their claims. You have to ask the right questions. Simply asking whether the shampoo product is gluten free may or may not give you the right answer.

Nature’s Topicals, for example, puts out a shampoo that’s marked "gluten free" on the bottle, but it contains a synthetic fragrance according to their website. Despite the gluten-free labeling, there is no way to know if their shampoo is actually gluten free.

Gluten Also Hides in the Products that Others Use

Gluten Hides in Products Others Wear and UseCredit:

Do you need to use only gluten-free products? Sometimes, the answer has to do with your personal habits rather than gluten sensitivity. Pay particular attention to what you touch and then what you do with those objects. Anything that is on your hands such as shampoo, conditioner, cosmetics, soaps, and lotions can find its way into your mouth and get accidentally swallowed. Any residue left over from laundry soaps or fabric softeners can transfer from dishtowel, to dishes, to you.

If gluten is on your hands when you pick up something to eat, put your fingers in your mouth, or pick up something else that you put in your mouth, you can easily become glutened. Many people chew on the end of a pen or pencil, a toothpick, or even their hair without realizing it.

In addition, anything that comes in contact with your mucus membranes (nose or eyes) can also set off an immune system reaction in some people. That includes the fumes from hair spray and perfumes as well as the fragrances that come from the personal care products that other people use.

In my own experience, reactions to gluten do not have to come from something you put on yourself. Hugging someone who uses shampoo that contains wheat or gluten hidden in the fragrance or scent contains enough air-borne gluten to set off the immune system in some people. While many people do not believe that, those who experience such reactions can honestly tell you differently.

It all depends on how sensitive to gluten you are.

We live in a gluten-saturated world. It’s all around us in the form of fragrances, smells, and scents. It’s in almost every product on the market today. In fact, it’s extremely difficult to even find fragrance-free shampoo, but with more and more people being diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, that task is getting easier.