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Can cleaning products trigger allergic reactions?

Most allergies are to natural substances, not cleaning products All kinds of things can trigger symptoms in people who suffer from allergies, but it is very rare for this to be a reaction specifically to a cleaning product or what it contains.

Most things people react to are natural in origin, such as pollen, dust mites, mould spores and pet dander, as well as foods such as peanuts, eggs and milk and insect stings.

Allergic reaction or irritation?

When people have skin inflammation or respiratory symptoms after using cleaning products, in most cases this arises from irritation rather being a true allergic reaction produced by the immune system.

Skin irritation during or after using cleaning products may arise from friction against a harsh fabric, or from repeated wetting and drying of the skin. Sometimes, irritation may arise from an irritant ingredient in a product, though normally this only occurs on contact with neat product where the product is labeled as an irritant.

Atopic allergies

About one in five of us suffer from conditions known as ‘atopic’ allergies, including hay fever and much childhood eczema and asthma. ‘Atopic’ literally means the allergic reaction doesn’t occur at some point of contact; it’s a more widespread allergic response of the immune system. This is most frequently a reaction to naturally-occurring triggers such as pollen, dust mites, mould spores and pet dander, or to certain foods.

Atopic allergies have a range of triggers

People with atopic allergies often find they have a wide range of ‘triggers’ that can also make symptoms appear or worsen, not through an allergic reaction but simply by mild irritation or stress. Atopic eczema, for example, can be inflamed by dust, cold dry weather, dampness or friction from fabrics, as well as repeated washing and drying. People who suffer from asthma can also find that dust, cold air and even particular smells can trigger symptoms. 

It’s not surprising that many sufferers find certain cleaning products can sometimes trigger symptoms or make them worse.

Allergic contact dermatitis

In a few percent of cases, allergic skin reactions can be found to arise from contact with a specific substance to which a person has become sensitized. This is known as allergic contact dermatitis and occurs at the point of contact. One example of a contact allergen is nickel, but being sensitised to one substance, such as nickel, does not mean you will react to other sensitising allergens. 

Natural sensitisers

Many chemicals in plants and trees, flowers and fruit can act as ‘sensitisers’ – not just poison ivy but plants from common families such as the primrose, daisy and euphorbia (spurge). Lanolin from wool can also be a sensitiser.

Some ingredients in perfumes - which contain many different substances, often derived from flowers and plants – can also be ‘contact allergens’ to which some people can become sensitized and subsequently react. 

Regulations on listing contact allergens

Twenty six of the most common contact allergens in perfumes must be listed on the label if they are present at more than a very low level (0.01%) in a cleaning product. These are not especially powerful allergens, just common ones. The presence of one of these allergens has no significance for people not sensitized to it nor for any other kind of allergy.

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