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Hypoallergenic: What's in a word?
October 3, 2000

Hypoallergenic. It sounds like a medical term, it looks like a medical term - but does it actually mean anything medically or otherwise?

The word is used prominently used in sales pitches for everything from hand cream to jewelry to watch straps.

Consumers we quizzed thought the word meant the product wouldn’t irritate their allergies.

Marketplace wanted to find out where the word came from and exactly what hypoallergenic does and doesn't mean.

Our investigation took us to the offices of dermatologist Dr. Kevin Smith.

"It's not a word I've ever seen in the medical literature...except if someone is writing a critique on the subject, making fun of the concept," Smith told Marketplace.

Our quest to get to the origins of the word took us to the University of Toronto medical library. Two of the most used medical dictionaries there show no entry for hypoallergenic. The word does, however, appear in the Oxford English Dictionary. The venerable publication describes hypoallergenic as "a diminished potential for causing an allergic reaction."

U of T librarian Carla Hagstrom told us the word is in the OED for one simple reason: it's in common usage.

The word was invented by advertizers who used it in a cosmetics campaign in 1953.

Advertising consultant Marty Myers sees no harm in that. "I don't think it's a great harm. It's amusing, but it's not going to put anyone in a box. At least I hope not."

But the doctors we spoke to said because the word has no medical basis, there's no standard for what it is and no way to measure whatever it's supposed to do.

Health Canada has not set any standards that a "hypoallergenic" product is supposed to meet. The US Food and Drug Administration says, "There are no federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term hypoallergenic. The term hypoallergenic means whatever a particular company wants it to mean."

The cosmetics industry told us it has been trying for years to establish exactly what hypoallergenic means. But that would force companies to ensure that they meet such a standard. One company we talked to said that would lead to higher prices for cosmetics.

According to Dr. Smith, using the word "...distracts the public from more important issues like the effectiveness of the product, the price and other things that have true meaning."


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