Gluten-free food products have inundated the marketplace in recent years as the food industry has responded to greater awareness of celiac sprue disease and wheat sensitivity. Gluten is the primary form of wheat protein.
Wheat is a versatile and globally popular member of the Poaceae or Gramineae family known as grasses; it is of the Triticum species with Triticum aestivum and Triticum vulgare being particularly pervasive.1 In traditional Iranian medicine, the topical application of wheat germ oil has been used to treat psoriasis.2
In 2008, N. Akhtar and Y. Yazan investigated the effects of a stable emulsion containing two ingredients included to exert anti-aging effects: vitamin C and wheat protein. The antioxidant vitamin C was entrapped in the inner aqueous phase of the water-in-oil-in-water emulsion while wheat protein was incorporated in the oily phase. The investigators prepared and applied stable emulsions to the cheeks of 11 volunteers over 4 weeks, finding that the formulation increased skin moisture.7
Melanoma and wheat supplementation
Demidov et al. reported in 2008 on a randomized, pilot, phase II clinical trial to assess the impact of the adjuvant use of a fermented wheat germ extract nutraceutical (Avemar) in high-risk cutaneous melanoma patients. Investigators compared the efficacy of dacarbazine-based adjuvant chemotherapy on survival parameters of melanoma patients to that of the identical treatment supplemented with a 1-year administration of fermented wheat germ extract nutraceutical (FWGE), which is generally recognized as safe. They reported that after a 7-year follow-up, significant differences favoring the nutraceutical group were observed in progression-free and overall survival. Including nutraceutical as an adjuvant treatment for such patients was recommended by the authors.8
Telekes et al. noted that nutraceutical is registered as a special nutriment for cancer patients in Hungary that has exhibited potent anticancer activity on cell lines and immunomodulatory activity in vivo.9 In 2005, Boros et al. reported that orally administered FWGE suppressed metastatic tumor dissemination and proliferation during and after chemotherapy, surgery, or radiation, with benefits seen in some human cancers and cultured cells as well as some autoimmune disorders and in chemical carcinogenesis prevention.10
Hypersensitivity and allergic reactions
The risks of sensitization to topical wheat proteins are thought to be higher in patients with atopic dermatitis, who have an impaired skin barrier.1 Indeed, Codreanu et al. have suggested that topical products containing food proteins of known allergenicity (including wheat) are contraindicated for neonates and infants with atopic dermatitis.11
In 2015, Bonciolini et al. studied 17 patients (13 females and 4 males, median age 36 years) with nonceliac gluten sensitivity presenting with nonspecific skin lesions. The eczema-, psoriasis-, or dermatitis herpetiformis-like lesions on the extensor surfaces of the upper and lower limbs, especially, were confirmed histologically, but immunopathological evaluations revealed pervasive C3 deposits along the dermoepidermal junction in a microgranular/granular pattern (82%). Notably, all of the patients improved markedly after initiating a gluten-free diet.12
In 2014, Fukutomi et al. conducted a case-control study of Japanese women aged 20-54 years (157 cases) who self-reported wheat allergy to ascertain the epidemiologic relationship between food allergy to wheat after exposure to facial soaps containing hydrolyzed wheat protein. There were 449 age-matched controls without wheat allergy. Participants answered a Web-based questionnaire about their use of skin and hair care products. The investigators found that current use of the facial soap Cha no Shizuku (Drop of Tea), which contains hydrolyzed wheat protein, was significantly linked to a greater risk of wheat allergy, with use of the soap more frequent in consumers whose wheat allergy had newly emerged (11% vs. 6% in controls).13
Cha no Shizuku had earlier been implicated in provoking hundreds of cases of allergic reactions between 2009 and June 2013. R. Teshima noted that the soap contains acid-hydrolyzed wheat protein produced from gluten after partial hydrolysis with hydrogen chloride at 95 ° C for 40 minutes.14
It is worth noting that case reports of allergic reactions to facial soap containing hydrolyzed wheat protein continue to appear. Iseki et al. described in 2014 a 38-year-old woman who experienced irregular headaches, sleepiness, and an episode of facial rash eruption after daily use for about 1 year of a facial soap with hydrolyzed wheat proteins (Glupearl 19s, which is also used in Cha no Shizuku). The investigators added that the patient’s serum contained wheat-specific IgE antibodies. Symptoms disappeared after the patient abstained from wheat.15
In 2012, Tammaro studied cutaneous hypersensitivity to gluten in 14 female patients (aged 12-60 years) with celiac disease who presented with eczema on the face, neck, and arms, after topical application of gluten-containing emollient cream, bath or face powder, or contact with foods containing wheat and durum. Five of the patients tested positive for wheat and durum wheat, while none of the 14 control patients tested positive. Improvement in cutaneous lesions, with no relapses during a 6-month follow-up, resulted when these patients used gluten-free cream and bath powder, and wore gloves before handling wheat-containing food.16
In 2011, Celakovská et al. studied the impact of wheat allergy in 179 adults with atopic eczema (128 females, 51 males; average age 26 years), using open exposure and double-blind, placebo-controlled food challenge tests, as well as specific serum IgE, skin prick, and atopy patch tests. The double-blind, placebo-controlled food challenge test showed that the course of atopic eczema was exacerbated by wheat allergy in eight patients (4.5%). A positive trend revealing that the course of atopic eczema was impacted by wheat allergy emerged during follow-up (at 3, 6, 9, and 12 months).17
Contact urticaria also has been reported to have been induced by hydrolyzed wheat proteins in cosmetics and is notable for the potential to precede food allergies.2,3 A wide variety of protein hydrolysates found in hair products have been associated with inducing contact urticaria, particularly in patients with atopic dermatitis.4
In 2006, Laurière et al. studied nine female patients without common wheat allergy who presented with contact urticaria to cosmetics containing hydrolyzed wheat proteins; six also had experienced generalized urticaria or anaphylaxis in response to foods containing such wheat proteins. Analyses revealed the importance of hydrolysis in augmenting the allergenicity of wheat proteins through contact or consumption.18 Immediate contact urticaria in reaction to hydrolyzed wheat protein in topical products also has been reported in a child.19
Can the presence of wheat hydrolysates in personal care products adversely affect a patient with celiac sprue or wheat sensitivity? The short answer appears to be “yes.” Given the use of hydrolyzed wheat protein in various skin care products, it is important that consumers who have celiac disease or sensitivity to wheat be advised to avoid skin care formulations with such active ingredients. On the positive side of the wheat ledger, there are some indications (albeit in very limited research) that the plant protein may impart beneficial health effects. Much more research is necessary to delineate the full impact of wheat on skin health.
I thank my dermatologist colleague Sharon E. Jacob, MD, at the University of Miami, for suggesting this topic.
Dr. Baumann is chief executive officer of the Baumann Cosmetic & Research Institute in the Design District in Miami. She founded the Cosmetic Dermatology Center at the University of Miami in 1997. Dr. Baumann wrote the textbook “Cosmetic Dermatology: Principles and Practice” (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002), and a book for consumers, “The Skin Type Solution” (New York: Bantam Dell, 2006). Her latest book, “Cosmeceuticals and Cosmetic Ingredients,” was published in November 2014. Dr. Baumann has received funding for clinical grants from Allergan, Aveeno, Avon Products, Evolus, Galderma, GlaxoSmithKline, Kythera Biopharmaceuticals, Mary Kay, Medicis Pharmaceuticals, Neutrogena, Philosophy, Topix Pharmaceuticals, and Unilever. Dr. Baumann also developed and owns the Baumann Skin Type Solution skin typing systems and related products.