Every time Afton Jones would wear eye makeup, her eyes would become swollen, heavy, and watery. One night, she sported a more natural look—and had no complaints. “Turns out, my mascara had gluten in it,” says Jones, a Texas 20-something who has since founded glutenfreemakeupgal.com, which reviews gluten-free products. Jones has celiac disease, which is characterized by an overactive immune response to gluten. It leads to symptoms like stomach cramps, bloating, chronic diarrhea, and anemia, and can damage the small intestine, preventing proper nutrient absorption. “After that, it all fell into place and I went on a massive hunt for gluten-free cosmetics,” she says. “A rash I’d had on my face went away, and my eyes didn’t feel weighed down and exhausted anymore.”
There’s no cure for celiac disease—it’s typically managed by eliminating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, as well as many common food additives. But sufferers, like Jones, are discovering there may be more to a gluten-free lifestyle than making dietary changes: Gluten is sneaky. As Jones found, it may also be lurking in the makeup and toiletries you count as daily staples. It’s used as a binder to help ingredients stick together, and to add moisture to products through gluten-derived oils.
“Lipstick, lip-gloss, mouthwash, toothpaste—they can all trigger a reaction in people with celiac disease,” says Alice Bast, founder and president of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA). “If you’re sensitive to gluten, you should be using gluten-free cosmetics and toiletries. Even if you don’t experience any symptoms, you could be doing damage on the inside.” Her thinking, though accepted by many, is yet to become mainstream. Experts are split over whether sufferers should avoid cosmetics that contain gluten. Some are adamant that gluten-free cosmetics prevent flare-ups, while others suspect that the amount of gluten in makeup is too small to trigger real problems. There’s no standard protocol yet—and the question will remain murky until more research exists.