Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, and ingesting it can cause severe damage to the small intestine in people who have celiac disease, an autoimmune condition. Simply put, for people with celiac disease, anything you eat or put on your body that you could end up ingesting (like lip balm) must be gluten-free.
There is a common misconception that gluten can be absorbed through the skin. Both the Celiac Disease Foundation and Beyond Celiac, both advocacy organizations for people with celiac disease, say scientific research indicates gluten cannot be absorbed through the skin or scalp unless you have a deep open wound. The Mayo Clinic agrees, noting some people with celiac disease develop an itchy blistering rash called dermatitis herpetiformis (DH), though this is still caused by ingesting gluten, not by skin contact.
That said, many people with celiac disease are often advised by their physicians to avoid personal-care and beauty products that contain gluten because of the high potential for accidental ingestion. Of course, deciding which gluten-containing products to give up is a personal decision everyone with celiac disease needs to make after consulting with a doctor.
No matter what, being aware of all the potential sources of gluten can help you make informed choices. Here are eight common household products where gluten could be hiding.
Medications & supplements
According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, prescription and over-the-counter medicines, supplements and vitamins can sometimes contain gluten, most commonly in the form of wheat starch, an inactive ingredient in capsules. (Cornstarch is more frequently used than wheat starch.) For more information on how to identify sources of gluten in medications and supplements, check out the Celiac Disease Foundation’s helpful guide. Many large drug manufacturers also list gluten information under the FAQ section on their websites.
Using lotion or hand cream that contains gluten can pose a risk if you apply it to your body and then touch food or your mouth without washing your hands first. Face lotions, in particular, could find their way into your mouth as you sweat or lick your lips. Look for wheat, barley, rye and oats (a common source of gluten cross-contamination) on ingredient labels, including their scientific names, Triticum vulgare, Hordeum vulgare, Secale cereal and Avena sativa. Company FAQ pages can be helpful here, too.
Shampoo & conditioner
No one sets out to eat shampoo or conditioner, but who among us hasn’t accidentally gotten some suds in their mouth or up their nose from time to time? As with lotion, extracts from gluten-containing grains or oats are sometimes used in hair products, so check the ingredients labels or contact the manufacturer for more information if necessary.
Ditto for makeup! Lipstick and lip balm, of course, should always be gluten-free if you have celiac disease since you apply those directly to your lips and can’t avoid consuming traces of them. Some people prefer to play it safe and use only gluten-free products for eyes and face as well.
Toothpaste & mouthwash
It’s impossible to avoid swallowing trace amounts of toothpaste and mouthwash, so gluten-free oral-care products are a must for people with celiac disease. Luckily, most major toothpaste and mouthwash makers have stopped using gluten-containing ingredients, so you should be able to find plenty of options. The Celiac Disease Foundation advises making sure your dentist is aware you have celiac disease so they can make sure the pastes and polishes used in the office are also gluten-free.
Wheat flour is one of the main ingredients in brand-name Play-Doh and other modeling doughs, so avoid giving it to kids with celiac. (Fingers end up in mouths, dough ends up in mouths...you get the idea.) Instead, make homemade playdough with gluten-free flours—you can find a bunch of easy recipes with a quick online search.
We’re not suggesting you like to munch on kibble for an afternoon snack, but it is a good idea to check the ingredients on your go-to brand of pet food. Many wet and dry foods for cats and dogs contain wheat. If your pet’s food does contain gluten and you aren’t ready to switch to another brand, always wash your hands thoroughly after feeding Spot and make sure you’re using a designated sponge for cleaning his bowl.