What is sillier than a peanut? And what is more harmless than the oil derived from it? Except… peanut proteins are highly allergenic, to the point that even applying a cosmetic product containing them on the skin may induce undesirable reactions. And this motivated a request for European scientific experts to carry out a safety assessment.
Peanut oil is obtained by pressing peanuts or groundnuts (Arachis hypogaea).
This clear oil is mainly used in food and is particularly adapted to high-temperature cooking and frying, but it can also be found in a certain number of industrial products (mayonnaise, seasoning, ready-made meals…).
Peanut oil and cosmetics
Peanut oil and its derivatives also have many applications in the cosmetics industry.
Oils and functions
The oil itself (Arachis hypogaea oil) is used as an emollient agent (to soften the skin and make it suppler) and a solvent. It is known for repairing dry skins and for nourishing and fortifying dry and fragile hair. It can thus be found in skincare products (face and body, hair), but also in lip balms or sun milks. Ultimately, its penetrating texture and neutral smell make it very welcome in the composition of massage oils. It has no irritant potential and thus shows a good skin tolerance.
The hydrogenated oil (Hydrogenated peanut oil), whose texture is thicker, is emollient, emulsifying, and interesting for skincare or to adjust a formula’s viscosity.
Here are other derivatives of this oil:
• Peanut oil PEG-6 esters: emollient
• Peanutamide MEA: emulsifier, emulsion stabilizer, foam booster, surfactant, viscosity control agent
• Peanutamide MIPA: emulsifier, emulsion stabilizer, foam booster, surfactant, viscosity control agent
• Sodium peanutate: cleansing agent, emulsifier, surfactant, viscosity control agent
• Sulfated Peanut oil: cleansing agent, foaming agent, surfactant
Oil and composition
its 23 September 2014 Opinion
, the SCCS (Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety) describes the peanut oil composition as follows:
‘Peanut (Arachis hypogaea) kernels contain approximately 45.5-50% fat, 25-30% protein, 8-12% carbohydrate, 5% water, 3% fibre and 2.5% ash (CIR 2001, Koppelman 2001).’
Experts then focus more specifically on the presence and behaviour of the proteins contained in the kernels:
‘ The protein content of refined oils, including peanut oil, was shown to be about 100 fold lower than that in cold pressed oil (Crevel et al. 2000). The protein content of refined oils was found to be 0.2-60 mg/L. However, in one study protein content of refined peanut oil was reported to be < 0.3 μg/L (Peeters et al.2004). The refining process, which also included heat treatment, did not destroy the allergenicity of the peanut allergens (Olszewski et al.1998, Koppelman et al.1999). This indicates that the major peanut allergens are heat stable even when present in trace amounts in refined peanut oil.’
And if the experts are so interested in peanut proteins, it is because they are the only ones responsible for the undesirable reactions that can be induced by peanut oil.
Peanut oil and allergies
The allergy to peanut is one of the most frequent among children aged over 3. The number of children affected regularly increases, and is believed to have doubled over the past ten years. Once declared, the allergy tends to persist when the child grows up: only 10 to 15% of children recover from it at approximately 20.
A proven food allergen
In case of a contact with the allergen via food, the immune system of a sensitized individual triggers an exaggerated reaction that is conveyed by various symptoms:
• Itching, skin rash, swelling of the face, eyes, and lips, heat on the face
• Tingling in the mouth, sore throat, difficulty swallowing or talking
• Sneeze, cold, difficulty breathing, wheezing, asthma crisis
• Stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhoea
• Restlessness, anxiety or withdrawal with irritability
• Weakness, feeling of sickness, dizziness, fainting
• Acceleration of heart rhythm, sudden drop in blood pressure
• Anaphylactic shock in acute cases
In the absence of any curative treatment, the only way for people allergic to peanut to avoid these reactions is to ban peanuts as well as any product containing peanuts from one’s diet. But consuming peanut oil is usually allowed: this is due to the fact that it is highly refined and the better part of the proteins contained in the kernels was eliminated during the process.
A cosmetic allergen?
It was also thought that applying a cosmetic product containing peanut oil on the skin did not cause more problems, although some dermatologists recommended remaining cautious as they feared the immune system could recognize the food allergen.
Until now, it was thus not regulated by the European texts governing cosmetic products (in particular Regulation 1223/2009), which means each manufacturer could use it as they wished, in any product they wanted to, at the concentrations they deemed right, and without any requirement as to the degree of refinement.
However, concerns were raised over the fact that an unexpected risk of food allergy to peanuts was reported in particular at young children (0-3 years), where it was suspected that the induction of the sensitization might have appeared through the use of cosmetic products containing peanut oil in the first six months of life.
Several Member States of the European Union became alarmed about this news and recently indicated safety problems in relation to the use of this substance as an ingredient in cosmetic products. The Commission thus asked its Committee of scientific experts (SCCS) to assess whether the use of peanut oil in cosmetics was safe for consumers.
Peanut oil and refinement
After studying the characteristics of the peanut oils used by the cosmetics industry and reviewing both the data and scientific studies available, the SCCS released a first Opinion on March 27, 2014 .
From a potential risk…
Its conclusions seemed irrevocable then:
‘The SCCS is of the opinion that since it is not possible to define the level of peanut protein allergens in peanut oils (there being no standard for the refinement of peanut oil), and since cases of potentially life-threatening peanut allergy have occurred on the contact of peanut-allergic subjects with peanut oil-containing topical products, peanut oil or peanut oil derivatives containing peanut proteins cannot be used safely in cosmetic products, based on the scientific evidence that currently is available.
There is no known safe threshold currently defined at which peanut allergic subjects can safely be exposed to peanut proteins.’
In short: no possibility to define a level of proteins, no safe threshold to be determined… therefore, no possibility to consider using it absolutely safely.
In European terms, since the cosmetics regulation is primarily focused on consumer safety, all this could end up with the use of peanut oil being banned in cosmetics, no more, no less.
… to safety under certain conditions
No doubt the position of the experts could not but be unappealing to the industry, which widely uses this oil at reasonable costs in a vast number of products. Besides, it has the advantage of being a vegetable oil that can be organic-certified.
The industry had the traditional six-week period of consultation after the publication of the SCCS Opinion to put forward its arguments and provide any scientific data it deemed relevant: it did not fail to do so.
Meanwhile, the SCCS took the new elements provided into account.
In a revision of its first Opinion published on September 23 , 2014, the experts note that ‘according to information supplied by Industry, peanut oil can be refined to protein levels below 1 ppm, and for some products to a level below the 0.5 ppm detection limit.’
Another change: the SCCS notes that a level of proteins to which sensitized people can be exposed orally has been defined at 0.2 mg, that is, 200 micrograms. ‘However’, the experts add , ‘to derive a safe level of exposure of the skin is problematic.’
And they present the following reasoning:
‘A one-time application of body lotion on the entire skin is approximately 8 ml and a one-time whole body cream application (…) 20 gram. Thus, a one-time skin application with refined peanut oil with 0.5 ppm would result in a total dose of max 10 microgram peanut protein, which is well below the ED1 level of 200 microgram for ‘safe’ elicitation/challenge studies in sensitized individuals.’
‘There is no known safe threshold currently defined at which the skin of peanut allergic subjects can safely be exposed to peanut proteins, although such thresholds are available for oral intake.
However, in view of the documented safe levels of oral intake of peanut protein in sensitized individuals and in view of the industry’s capability to refine peanut oil below a protein level of 0.5 ppm, the SCCS can accept this value as maximum allowable concentration in (refined) peanut oil for cosmetic use.’
Therefore, once this position has been validated by the Commission and transcribed in official texts, this is what tomorrow’s norm should be as far as peanut oil in cosmetics is concerned.
The industry should just refine a bit better (which will not be too much of a problem, at least from the technical standpoint) to be compliant while ensuring better protection against the development of allergies.