Lanolin: Debunking the allergen myth

Lanolin is widely recognised as a well-tolerated emollient and extensive research conducted by laboratories and clinics worldwide consistently concludes that lanolin is not a significant allergen. Despite its extensive usage in commercial and pharmaceutical skin-care products, the incidence of skin irritation attributed to lanolin has not increased in over a century. Nevertheless, the misconception of lanolin as an allergen continues to persist, particularly in public discussion forums where certain authorities mistakenly label it as a leading sensitiser. Therefore, we want to delve into the origins of this fallacy and to shed light on the true nature of lanolin’s skin compatibility.

The misinterpretation of the Sulzberger Study

The persistence of the myth surrounding lanolin as an allergen can be traced back to a misinterpretation of a dermatological study conducted by Marion Sulzberger from New York University Hospital in 1953. Sulzberger’s study involved patch testing 1,048 patients suspected of contact allergy, of which 12 individuals exhibited positive reactions to lanolin treatment, resulting in a reaction rate of 1.15%. However, the crucial point often overlooked is that Sulzberger’s test patients were specifically chosen from a group ‘predisposed to acquire multiple specific sensitisations of the skin to eczematous allergens’. In essence, his test group had a preexisting susceptibility to skin allergies, whereas a control group of 120 healthy individuals showed no adverse reactions to lanolin.

Lanolin's hypoallergenic potential

Research conducted by numerous experts in the field overwhelmingly indicates that the incidence of lanolin allergy in the general population is remarkably low, ranging from approximately 10 to 1 per million individuals. This incidence can be practically reduced to near-zero levels by ensuring that the content of free lanolin alcohols is minimised to 3% or less. Purified lanolin not only causes even fewer reactions but also satisfies the criteria for use in hypoallergenic formulations. Scientists have posited that certain components within the alcoholic fraction of lanolin may be responsible for the rare instances of sensitisation.

Renowned skin researcher Albert M. Kligman, from the Philadelphia School of Medicine, states: ‘It is time to stop denigrating a wonderful natural substance, which has been used for thousands of years as a luscious emollient and an all-purpose vehicle for a great variety of skin-care products‘.

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Chris Kommerowski

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