Can Your Eczema Cream Kill You? Maybe…

Creams with OatmealLike most kids her age, my toddler hates having cream put on her several times a day. I have a policy of ‘abate and placate’ so I offer a few creams and oils of different consistencies and types of packaging to try and get her cooperation. If that doesn’t work, well, I have to slather it on anyway, working as fast as I can, and then offer her a reward.

So when I received a set of Aveeno Eczema Care products at a recent eczema event, I added it to the carousel.

Having used it along with many, many other creams in the past however, I was skeptical that Baby would take to it. Boy was I surprised when, not only did she allow me to put some on her, but she started squeezing the tube and slathering it on herself!

But the good news ends right there. Within 10 minutes, Baby started scratching like her skin was on fire and sure enough, she was covered in hives.

It clicked immediately what the issue was because it had happened once before after using a different cream by Eucerin, but at the time we were near the beginning of our eczema and allergy journey and so I didn’t have enough experience to figure it out. And when I mentioned it to our paediatric allergist, she brushed it off as yet another question from a sleep-deprived over-concerned first-time mom. We’ve all been there and know that great feeling…

So ‘what was it??’ I hear you scream: Oats.

Oats are used very widely in skincare products, especially eczema care creams, for their moisturising and itch-relief properties. But my LO is allergic to wheat, and oats are often cross-contaminated with wheat because the fields they are grown on alternate cultivating the two grains. So with wheat being a priority allergen, these products should carry a warning that they could cause serious allergic reactions, and should be banned from branding themselves as ‘hypoallergenic’.


Oats: Not so innocent after all

Furthermore, if you consider the research that shows that allergies can develop if foods are introduced through the skin versus the gastrointestinal tract (i.e. the dual-allergen-exposure hypothesis), not only are these products triggering allergies, they might actually be causing them!

Of the different credible eczema websites, the National Eczema Association is the only one that mentions that use of products containing oats, including Aveeno, on babies has the potential for causing allergies in the future although it doesn’t explain why.

It’s interesting that it tends to be the less expensive eczema creams (they all cost more than I would want) that contain oats. Wheat-free oats are available but several times more expensive than the regular variety because they have to be grown on dedicated fields. So although it’s possible for companies to use it,  it would raise costs and prices too much when most people who use the products are not allergic to wheat.

 The simple solution then is for labelling to be changed and, hey presto, they company makes its profits and non-allergic consumers get an affordable product.

Back to my story.

Luckily I realised what it was immediately and so washed her down as fast as I could – poor kid didn’t see that coming! – before she put herself in even more danger by rubbing her eyes or putting her perfectly-moisturised hand in her mouth.

Aveeno’s not-so-hypoallergenic baby lotion

But now imagine this common scenario: Mum and dad give baby his nighttime bath, moisturise him with the special hypoallergenic cream that’s advertised everywhere, and put Junior to bed. Baby sucks his thumb, as usual, as he drifts off to sleep. Mum hears Junior is fussing on the baby monitor but she’s trying to sleep train him so she waits to go into his room. The rustling settles down after a while… Having seen anaphylaxis in action, the thought makes me shake (literally, I’m having a hard time typing right now because my hands are shaking!) and makes me feel sick to my stomach.

This is exactly what I said when I spoke to Jonathan at Johnson & Johnson’s Aveeno team.  Being a father, he sympathised completely but he was not able to offer me much more than that.

From the questions I asked (once a journalist, always a journalist) I was able to glean that the company is aware of allergic reactions to Aveeno products. When I asked whether the oats used were wheat-free, Jonathan searched through all the information he had but was only able to tell me that the oats were “from plants and used as a skin protectant”.

“The company tells us what information they want us to give out,” he apologised, adding that they don’t want to give out “proprietary information as they want to make sure no one can replicate it.”

I asked for our call to be recorded, played back for the management teams, including CEO Alex Gorsky, and then for a response. I will let you know what, if any reply I get. As I mentioned to poor Jonathan, no reply is a response too. And in this case, silence will say much more about the company than any words they can cobble together.

Bad behaviour costs big companies as we saw from the near $1bn loss suffered by United Airlines recently. The outrage that follows stories of injured or, God forbid, dead children, has even brought down governments and started wars (see ‘Churnalism’ by Nick Davies) so J&J, which markets its oat-containing eczema line for babies, would be foolish to ignore this issue.

As for what criteria a product needs to meet to be able to claim it is hypoallergenic, I have spoken to the Eczema Society of Canada. They are as baffled by this event as I am, and advised that I report it to Health Canada. I will now follow up to see what the authorities have to say.

Watch this space.


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