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FOOD COLORING: Allergen or Not An Allergen?

Allergen

Food Coloring

While some foods that naturally have a beautiful coloring (like the purple yam ube or yellow turmeric) might be ok, many colorants added to foods are dyes and dyes are top contact allergens.

For the most part, food and skin allergies are not the same. They involve different cells and systems — but there is some crossover so make sure to work closely with your dermatologist and allergist. Food allergies tend to be IgE-mediated and involve antibodies while allergic contact dermatitis of the skin is mediated by T-cells and does not involve antibodies.

  • If you have both prick tested and patch tested positive to certain dyes, you should avoid ingesting them and touching them.
  • If you have prick tested positive to a dye but not patch tested positive to it, you might still be able to use it on your skin even if you can’t ingest it.
  • If you have patch tested positive to a dye but not prick tested positive to it, you might still be able to ingest it in foods and beverages even if you cannot touch it. BUT be careful: eating and drinking can involve more contact with the skin than we think. Contact can occur on our lips, on the skin around the mouth and on the chin, and on our hands during food prep and when slicing or picking up the food.

Reactions can start where contact was most direct such as around the mouth but can spread. In addition to redness, flaking, itching, and other symptoms that we normally associate with skin allergies, a sensitivity to colorants in foods and beverages can contribute to acne (the pore can become irritated then inflamed and develop acne) and hyperpigmentations (post-inflammatory but also from the colorant itself because many dyes are photo-allergens).

Some food colorants that are known food allergens and contact dermatitis allergens are carmine (pink and red candies, drinks and jams; sausages, strawberry/red fruit yogurts; syrups; medicines, etc.) and tartrazine (yellow mustard, horseradish; cereals; noodles and some rice; soup cubes; flavored chips; pastries, confectionary, cake mixes, cotton candy and other yellow candy; yellow drinks; lots of other foods that are “supposed” to have a yellow color like with a lemon or honey flavor or that are corn-based). Both are also in lots of skincare, hair products, makeup, medicines, antacids, and vitamins.

If you have patch and/or prick tested positive to food dyes, try avoiding junk foods and sticking to organic foods as much as possible. While you can have a skin allergy to something completely natural like mint, lemon, orange, honey, or mango, certified organic foods are regulated: to get certified they have to prove that they have not been grown with pesticides and do not contain preservatives or additives like dyes or flavors. Your doctor can help you learn the different names of your allergens. Study ingredient lists before making a purchase. Make sure to tell all your doctors about your skin and other allergies for guidance when selecting antacids, vitamins, and other medication. And opt for dye-free, validated hypoallergenic skincare and makeup.

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If you have a history of sensitive skin…

don’t guess! Random trial and error can cause more damage. Ask your dermatologist about a patch test.

To shop our selection of hypoallergenic products, visit vmvhypoallergenics.com. Need help? Ask us in the comments section below, or for more privacy (such as when asking us to customize recommendations for you based on your patch test results) contact us by email, or drop us a private message on Facebook.

For more:

Main References: 

Regularly published reports on the most common allergens by the North American Contact Dermatitis Group and European Surveillance System on Contact Allergies (based on over 28,000 patch test results, combined), plus other studies. Remember, we are all individuals — just because an ingredient is not on the most common allergen lists does not mean you cannot be sensitive to it, or that it will not become an allergen. These references, being based on so many patch test results, are a good basis but it is always best to get a patch test yourself.

  1. DeKoven JG, Silverberg JI, Warshaw EM, Atwater AR, et al. North American Contact Dermatitis Group Patch Test Results: 2017-2018. Dermatitis. 2021 Mar-Apr 01;32(2):111-123.
  2. DeKoven JG, Warshaw EM, Zug KA, et al. North American Contact Dermatitis Group Patch Test Results: 2015-2016. Dermatitis. 2018 Nov/Dec;29(6):297-309.
  3. DeKoven JG, Warshaw EM, Belsito DV, et al. North American Contact Dermatitis Group Patch Test Results 2013-2014. Dermatitis. 2017 Jan/Feb;28(1):33-46.
  4. Warshaw, E.M., Maibach, H.I., Taylor, J.S., et al. North American contact dermatitis group patch test results: 2011-2012. Dermatitis. 2015; 26: 49-59.
  5. W Uter et al. The European Baseline Series in 10 European Countries, 2005/2006–Results of the European Surveillance System on Contact Allergies (ESSCA). Contact Dermatitis 61 (1), 31-38.7 2009.
  6. Wetter, DA et al. Results of patch testing to personal care product allergens in a standard series and a supplemental cosmetic series: An analysis of 945 patients from the Mayo Clinic Contact Dermatitis Group, 2000-2007. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2010 Nov;63(5):789-98.
  7. Warshaw EM, Buonomo M, DeKoven JG, et al. Importance of Supplemental Patch Testing Beyond a Screening Series for Patients With Dermatitis: The North American Contact Dermatitis Group Experience. JAMA Dermatol. 2021 Dec 1;157(12):1456-1465.
  8. Verallo-Rowell VM. The validated hypoallergenic cosmetics rating system: its 30-year evolution and effect on the prevalence of cosmetic reactions. Dermatitis 2011 Apr; 22(2):80-97.
  9. Ruby Pawankar et al. World Health Organization. White Book on Allergy 2011-2012 Executive Summary.
  10. Misery L et al. Sensitive skin in the American population: prevalence, clinical data, and role of the dermatologist. Int J Dermatol. 2011 Aug;50(8):961-7.
  11. Warshaw EM1, Maibach HI, Taylor JS, Sasseville D, DeKoven JG, Zirwas MJ, Fransway AF, Mathias CG, Zug KA, DeLeo VA, Fowler JF Jr, Marks JG, Pratt MD, Storrs FJ, Belsito DV. North American contact dermatitis group patch test results: 2011-2012.Dermatitis. 2015 Jan-Feb;26(1):49-59.
  12. Warshaw, E et al. Allergic patch test reactions associated with cosmetics: Retrospective analysis of cross-sectional data from the North American Contact Dermatitis Group, 2001-2004. J AmAcadDermatol 2009;60:23-38.
  13. Foliaki S et al. Antibiotic use in infancy and symptoms of asthma, rhinoconjunctivitis, and eczema in children 6 and 7 years old: International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood Phase III. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2009 Nov;124(5):982-9.
  14. Kei EF et al. Role of the gut microbiota in defining human health. Expert Rev Anti Infect Ther. 2010 Apr; 8(4): 435–454.
  15. Thavagnanam S et al. A meta-analysis of the association between Caesarean section and childhood asthma. Clin Exp Allergy. 2008;38(4):629–633.
  16. Marks JG, Belsito DV, DeLeo VA, et al. North American Contact Dermatitis Group patch-test results, 1998 to 2000. Am J Contact Dermat. 2003;14(2):59-62.
  17. Warshaw EM, Belsito DV, Taylor JS, et al. North American Contact Dermatitis Group patch test results: 2009 to 2010. Dermatitis. 2013;24(2):50-99.
  18. Verallo-Rowell V. M, Katalbas S.S. & Pangasinan J. P. Natural (Mineral, Vegetable, Coconut, Essential) Oils and Contact Dermatitis. Curr Allergy Asthma Rep 16,51 (2016) . https://doi.org/10.1007/s11882-016-0630-9.
  19. Park G, Oh DS, Lee MG, Lee CE, Kim YU. 6-Shogaol, an active compound of ginger, alleviates allergic dermatitis-like skin lesions via cytokine inhibition by activating the Nrf2 pathway. Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 2016 Nov 1;310:51-59. doi: 10.1016/j.taap.2016.08.019. Epub 2016 Aug 22. PMID: 27562088.
  20. de Groot AC. Monographs in Contact Allergy, Volume II – Fragrances and Essential Oils. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press Taylor & Francis Group; 2019.
  21. De Groot AC. Monographs in Contact Allergy Volume I. Non-Fragrance Allergens in Cosmetics (Part I and Part 2). Boca Raton, Fl, USA: CRC Press Taylor and Francis Group, 2018.
  22. Zhu TH, Suresh R, Warshaw E, et al. The Medical Necessity of Comprehensive Patch Testing. Dermatitis. 2018 May/Jun;29(3):107-111.

Want more great information on contact dermatitis? Check out the American Contact Dermatitis SocietyDermnet New Zealand, the Contact Dermatitis Institute, and your country’s contact dermatitis association.


Laura is our “dew”-good CEO at VMV Hypoallergenics and eldest daughter of VMV’s founding dermatologist-dermatopathologist. She has two children, Madison and Gavin, and works at VMV with her sister CC and husband Juan Pablo (Madison and Gavin frequently volunteer their “usage testing” services). In addition to saving the world’s skin, Laura is passionate about health, inclusion, cultural theory, human rights, happiness, and spreading (like a VMV cream!) goodness!

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