At this point, we all know at least one person who is on a gluten-free diet. Maybe it’s your significant other, or your roommate, or your child. It might be you. It’s kind of strange, although gluten-free products and diets are so inescapable these days, most of us don’t fully understand the underlying condition, Celiac disease.
People who have Celiac disease (sometimes referred to as Celiacs) have an allergy to gluten that can be anything from mildly irritating to life-threatening! Gluten is found in food, as well as in certain drinks like beer and whiskey.
For Celiacs who are severely allergic to gluten, any product that contains gluten can be reason for concern. To be safe, they often avoid many non-food products that nonetheless contain gluten. Shampoos and body wash are examples of everyday products that can contain gluten, so, while not ingested directly, some people with Celiacs choose to avoid them.
There are those that say this is an unnecessary precaution, while others swear that any contact with gluten can be dangerous for Celiacs. So, who is right?
What is gluten?
To start, let me say that I am not a doctor or a medical expert. If you have or think you may have Celiac disease, you should set up an appointment with your doctor to have them conduct tests. For the purposes of this discussion today, I will be relying on the opinions of doctors and the medical researchers at the CDC.
To understand Celiac disease, we have to first understand what in the dickens gluten even is.
Gluten is a protein that grows in wheat, rye, and barley. Gluten is found in a lot of foods in which you would expect to find it – bread, cereals, pasta, baked goods – as well as in many foods that you might not think it would be found. Some sauces, dressings, candies, and soups have gluten in it. Also, barley or rye-based alcoholic drinks contain gluten. Yes, sadly, that means beer.
Even if a particular food doesn’t contain gluten itself, it could potentially be cooked in oil or grease with another food item that does. For instance, at many fast food restaurants, the same fryers that are used to cook French fries are used to cook breaded foods like chicken fingers. Even though potatoes don’t have gluten, the bread on the fingers do.
What causes Celiac disease?
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease, which is a disease in which the body’s own immune system attacks itself. In people with Celiac, the consumption of gluten causes the creation of tissue transglutaminase, an enzyme that causes inflammation in the small intestine.
For some people, this inflammation results in mild internal pain, similar to a stomach ache. It’s more of an inconvenience than a serious problem, and these people can live with the disease for years and never have it be diagnosed. However, continued inflammation of the intestine can damage its lining and prevent the absorption of vitamins and nutrients. This is where the disease becomes a more serious concern.
Much still needs to be learned about the disease, and currently, there is no cure. There is likely a genetic factor in its occurrence, but other unknown causes are also involved. Celiac disease has also been linked to some other conditions, including type 1 diabetes and thyroid diseases.
In addition to stomach pain, Celiac disease can lead to a wide range of symptoms in the digestive system and outside of it, as well. These symptoms include rashes, headaches, diarrhea or constipation, and anemia. Children, in particular, are at risk of experiencing weight loss, stunted growth, or neurological symptoms.
These can be debilitating symptoms, which is why Celiacs must be very careful to avoid gluten at all costs.
Is the gluten in bath products a risk?
Normally, when discussing gluten-free products, we think of food at the grocery store or your friend asking for a special menu at a restaurant. In truth, though, byproducts of wheat, barley, and rye appear in a lot of non-food items, including those used in the bathroom.
For those who have Celiac disease, it can seem like the entire world is made of gluten. Make-ups, shampoos, lotions, and other cosmetic products can potentially all have gluten. Does this mean that your daily routine could be making you sick?
The doctors at the Mayo Clinic say no. According to them, your body does not absorb gluten through the skin so it only poses a risk when it is swallowed. Lipsticks and face lotions that have gluten can be accidentally consumed orally, so Celiacs should look for gluten-free versions of those products (or just be extra careful). Otherwise, your bathroom routine is safe.
Having said that, based on anecdotal evidence, there are others who insist sensitivity to gluten can be so severe that external, physical contact will cause symptoms. Some people have said they get rashes or puffy skin where they have applied products with gluten.
If the Mayo Clinic is right, it’s possible that these reactions are the result of some non-Celiac allergy. Even if that is the case, it’s a reason to avoid gluten.
Gluten-free bath products
There’s still so much unknown about Celiac disease (and the controversial Non-Celiac Wheat Sensitivity) that most people with a gluten allergy will likely want to be cautious about what they put on their skin. For these consumers, there are gluten-free bath products and cosmetics on the market.
Both Desert Essence and the Body Shop are companies that make an entire line of gluten-free products that include hand and body lotions, deodorants, and soaps.
Similarly, for make-up, there is no shortage of brands that cater to the gluten-free market. Household names like L’Oreal and Maybelline don’t have gluten in any of their products, as well as more specialized companies like the vegan-friendly Zuzu Luxe. There are also cosmetic brands like Afterglow Cosmetics that have gluten-free makeup.
Just as it is in restaurants, cross-contamination is always a potential when products are made in a factory. Even if a product says it is gluten-free, if you’re especially sensitive, it’s wise to test it out first.
There is still a great deal of research that needs to be done before it can be said definitely whether or not external contact with gluten is a risk for Celiacs. Until that definitive answer has been found, maybe just play it safe and keep both your kitchen and bathroom gluten-free.