A very common term that people see in a broad spectrum of product marketing is the term “hypoallergenic.” While the term notably came into existence in the 1950s, and has grown in popularity ever since, very few of us stop to learn the exact meaning of the word until we are diagnosed with allergies. So, what does hypoallergenic mean?
Hypoallergenic: What It Means -
A Working Definition
While the term hypoallergenic has no official medical definition, it’s widely accepted to mean causing fewer or a below-normal number of allergies. So, if you’re talking about a type of pet, fabric, cosmetics, or a different kind of product marketed as hypoallergenic, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it never provokes allergies. It does mean that the object in question can be described as having little likelihood of causing an allergic response (Miriam-Webster Dictionary).
Let’s step back and understand allergies. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the United States, with more than 50 million Americans suffering from allergies each year. Asthma sufferers alone number more than 24 million. Common allergies include allergic rhinitis, also known as hay fever, as well as atopic dermatitis (eczema), and food allergy (eggs, nuts, and many more).
Allergies don’t just plague the adult population. According to the CDC, allergic conditions are among the most common medical conditions affecting children in the United States. Respiratory allergies (such as hay fever) are among the most common allergies among children and they can affect a child’s physical and emotional health, interfere with daily activities, such as sleep, play, and attending school, and once they exist, studies show the prevalence of respiratory allergies increased with age.
Patients show symptoms of allergic reactions in a variety of places, such as the nose, eyes, and skin. Some allergic reactions may come in the form of milder skin rashes. Most respiratory allergies show chronic symptoms in the form of runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, cough due to post nasal drip, itchy eyes and nose, sore throat, watery eyes, and dry, scaly skin. When diagnosed with respiratory allergies, we begin searching for causes and preventative measures.
Allergens: The Culprits
Allergens, best understood as triggering agents of allergic reactions, can come from a wide variety of sources like pollen, mold spores, pet dander, dust mites, clothing, and chemicals used in a wide array of products to increase certain performance characteristics of the fabric (colorfastness, stain resistance, etc.).
In every category, there are alternatives to help reduce the symptoms of respiratory allergies. Certain pet breeds can be hypoallergenic, enabling those with severe allergic reactions to dogs and cats to enjoy animals in the home again. Several makeup brands offer hypoallergenic applications that won’t cause inflammatory skin response in most of those who suffer from makeup-triggered eczema.
Certain natural fabrics, like cotton, linen, sheepskin, and silk, are hypoallergenic and known for being soft and easy on the skin. What these fabrics have in common with each other, as well as highly engineered, technical fabrics used in apparel and bedding, is a much tighter weave, commonly known in industry circles as micronaire. The term micronaire technically expresses the degree of air permeability in a fabric. High-performance fabrics contain microscopic pores that are considerably smaller than allergens like dust mites, effectively forming a barrier to allergen penetration—and subsequent irritation by immuno-response—while still allowing air and moisture flow. This technical attribute is typically marketed as a fabric’s ability to “wick.”
Going Hypoallergenic: Diet, Clothing, Home Environment
There are many ways that people are “going hypoallergenic.” For some, that means a change in diet to avoid foods that trigger an allergic response, whether it’s avoiding dairy products, eggs, or various kinds of nuts. For others, that means a change of wardrobe to hypoallergenic clothing made from silk, linen, and other non-irritating fabrics.
Many of us, however, deal with persistent allergic conditions like asthma and chronic rhinitis that result from a wide mix of environmental exposures. While it’s difficult to control our environments wherever we must go in our daily living and working, we need to focus on minimizing allergy triggers in the environment where most of us spend most of our time: our homes. There are a number of actions you can take to make your home hypoallergenic.
First, start in your bedroom, specifically with your bedding. Due to the body heat and perspiration generated during our sleep, our bedrooms are the most attractive places for breeding allergens like dust mites, which feed on dead human skin. Perhaps the best way to battle these bedroom allergens is to encase your bedding—pillows, mattresses, and even comforters, with high-performance fabrics, both engineered and all-natural cotton—that will wick away your body moisture while denying entry into your bedding by dust mites and bed bugs.
Next, you’ll want to follow an intense cleaning ritual that begins with your bedding. Wash everything in hot water and, do it weekly. Wipe down all surfaces regularly, and vacuum all flooring and upholstered furniture every few days with a machine that’s certified as allergy and asthma-friendly.
You’ll also want to look into air purification—this is another great way to achieve a hypoallergenic home. As with your vacuum cleaner, you’ll need to buy air purifiers that are certified allergy and asthma-friendly. If your home has an open floor plan, you’ll probably want to invest in larger models that provide purification coverage for up to several hundred square feet of space. With smaller bedrooms, you can use a small unit up to 150-200 square feet, while many average-sized rooms in the 200-400 square foot range require medium-sized air purifiers.
If your allergies become severe or you find chronic conditions like asthma exacerbated when you’re at home, you’ll want to remove fiber-based furnishings whenever possible. That means getting rid of wall-to-wall carpet and area rugs, as well as heavy drapes and even overstuffed upholstered furniture.
The unfortunate reality for the nearly 50 million Americans suffering from allergies is that there’s no way to avoid allergens completely. However, with good hygiene, environmental awareness, and willingness to invest in the right products, we can live our lives in a hypoallergenic way, reducing our exposure to allergens and limiting our allergic reactions in the process. As these conditions become less persistent, we can all live much healthier lives.