Am I Allergic to Wool?
Allergies to pollen or food allergies are well known. But there are many other things to which we can be allergic. Is there really such a thing as a wool allergy?
If there is something like a wool allergy then of course it is mostly triggered by our clothing. Many people complain of itching or reddening of the skin after wearing certain items of clothing. So if the sweater scratches and itches, could an allergy to wool really be the cause?
Just because the wool scratches does not mean that you are actually allergic to it; in most cases, physical causes are the reason – the wool is simply too scratchy. This is often the case with coarse sheep’s wool. Only when even soft merino or cashmere wool begins to itch – you think about the possibility of an allergy.
If there is indeed a wool allergy, then it is relatively rare, usually caused by dyes or preservatives added to the wool. This applies not only to wool from sheep but also to cotton.
In the case of untreated animal wool, the cause of an allergy is suspected to be wool wax. Mostly there are remains of wool wax, also called lanolin, in the wool. Allergic reactions to cotton, silk, or synthetic wool are due to dyes if they occur at all. But residues of detergents can also trigger these symptoms.
Do I have an allergy against wool? The main cause of allergic reactions to wool in clothing, however, are probably dyes as well as softeners and bleaches.
It does not matter which wool has been treated or dyed with them. Whether cotton, sheep’s wool or wool from artificial fibers, the colors of our garments are made from hundreds of different materials, which can also trigger allergic reactions.
The search for the actual trigger of the allergy can, therefore, be relatively difficult.
An allergy to the various substances in wool or clothing usually develops only after some time. The allergic reaction is a contact allergy, which becomes apparent after 24 to 48 hours through redness, itching and eczema.
Our immune system recognizes the substance as an aggressor and forms antibodies, which can then trigger the typical symptoms of contact allergy in allergy sufferers:
Wool has been used in clothing for thousands of years, using sheep’s wool and the wool of goats, camels, and angora rabbits.
As many people are allergic to animal hair from dogs or cats, it is obvious that there may also be allergic reactions to wool clothing?
Wool is used for almost all clothes, no matter if socks, sweaters, jackets or caps, almost everything can be made of wool. Wool keeps exceptionally warm and is a naturally renewable raw material that does not pollute the environment.
Lanolin (wool wax) is also used for a long time in care products and medicines. Lanolin has a caring effect as skin protection and anti-inflammatory.
Wool wax, which had already been used medicinally in antiquity under the name Oesypus, was later forgotten and was only reintroduced into the medical treasure by the German pharmacologist Oskar Liebreich in 1885 – as purified wool grease. Wool grease is an incorrect term because fats are fatty acid esters of glycerol, whereas waxes are esters of other alcohols.
The raw wool wax is found in the sheep’s wool sweat and, when the wool is washed, it first passes into the washing water. Here it is extracted by the addition of acids and separators.
Lanolin is used in many products, in ointments, baby creams and other skin creams, also for leather care and in shoe polishes. Lanolin can also be found in detergents, dishwashing liquids and cosmetics like lipsticks.
Very often, the industry advertises with the addition “caring lanolin contained.” However,wool wax is suspected of causing allergic reactions.2
Lanolin attracted a lot of attention regarding its allergic potential. The reason for this was a study carried out in 1952 at New York University Hospital. The study examined the quality of the pharmaceutical lanolin available at that time: it was practically raw lanolin according to today’s standards.
Allergy tests on 1048 patients showed a positive result in 12 patients – which corresponds to 1.14%. – It is important to know, however, that this 1.14% come from a group of people who already had dermatological problems and were therefore predisposed!
In no way can these patients be considered representative of the entire population.3
This misunderstanding of not distinguishing between the general healthy population and patients with dermatological problems has exaggerated the sensitizing potential of lanolin by a factor of 5,000 to 6,000. This false assessment of lanolin as a “potential allergen” became widespread, and cosmetics and ointments containing lanolin had to be labeled with an appropriate warning in the future.
This regulation has been very damaging to the lanolin industry and the reputation of lanolin.
Later studies in cooperation with skin clinics in England and Northern Europe proved that the allergy rate of lanolin in the general population is less than ten persons per million. If you know, tens of thousands of tons of lanolin are processed annually. When this enormous amount is compared to the number of cases of confirmed lanolin allergies, this finding is also confirmed.4
E. Clark also reports that when the free wool wax alcohols in Lanolin were reduced from 10% to below 3%, the allergy rate dropped to almost 0. Although Lanolin normally contains up to 12% free lanolin alcohols, rarely more than 20% lanolin is used in a formulation. Therefore the wool wax alcohol content always remains below the 3% limit found by E. Clark. 5
Consequently, Lanolin is not an exceptional allergen. In a healthy population where Lanolin is used normally, the incidence of lanolin allergies is negligible. “Lanolin is probably one of the least allergenic substances in clinical medicine”.6
Nevertheless, even today, lanolin is still considered a clinically relevant contact allergen among medical professionals. A study from 2017 also reports an increase in allergy rates from 0.45% in 2004 to 1.81%. 2017. Significant associations between atopic dermatitis and lanolin were found. However, patch tests with a 30% lanolin alcohol solution were performed. This concentration is undoubtedly not reached when wearing wool clothing.7
In a study from 2002 to which Wikipedia refers. On average, 0.6% to a maximum of 1.4% of the population of the Federal Republic of Germany react allergically to lanolin.8
So there is some controversy about the allergic potential of Lanolin, isn’t there?
Wool is considered by many people to be slightly prickly or itchy. Most people will also have heard of an allergy to clothing made of Wool.
The Australian Wool Innovation – AWI commissioned a study in 2012 where 3591 people were asked whether they buy wool clothing. Forty-three percent of those questioned denied this because Wool is too scratchy, too itchy or that they are even allergic to woolens!
It is generally assumed that wool can cause unpleasant skin reactions! Although this opinion is widespread, it has never been extensively studied under scientific criteria.
In 2016, a group of renowned physicians worldwide, with the help of MEDLINE and Google Scholar, has now reviewed research work from the last 100 years to evaluate these scientific studies critically.
A further aim of the study was to investigate whether textile processing additives or the lanolin naturally present in wool can cause irritation or allergic reactions on the skin – when wearing modern Wool clothing.
The results of the study do not support the idea that wool is a significant contact allergen. Furthermore, the substances with allergic potential used in wool processing, such as formaldehyde, chromium and chemical dyes, are only present in negligible amounts in the final product.
For a feeling of scratching or itching on the skin caused by woolen clothing, the wool fiber used or poor workmanship is probably mainly responsible! Irritation of the skin by wool or other textiles is strongly related to the diameter of the fiber of the material used.
Very coarse fibers (≥ 30-32 µm) can easily cause skin irritation and irritation. Fabrics made of very fine fibers, such as fine merino wool (≥22 µm) or baby alpaca (20 µm) will very unlikely to irritate the skin.
As far as lanolin is concerned, modern wool washing systems almost completely remove the wool wax from the fiber, and the proportion in the end product is less than 0.5%.
Although lanolin was once considered an important allergen, recent studies have not confirmed this (see: the controversy about lanolin).
The results of the study, therefore, determine the plausibility of a wool allergy or allergic symptoms that occur as a result of the lanolin contained in wool clothing.9
*It should be noted that this study was commissioned by “The Woolmark Company” – a non-profit organisation that works with Australian wool farmers to research, develop and certify Australian wool.
Of course, if you suspect an allergy, you should consult an experienced allergologist to have allergy tests carried out. Since an allergy to clothing is a Type IV hypersensitivity or delayed hypersensitivity reaction, this is done by so-called patch tests.
For most garments, it is indicated which fiber content or additives are hidden in them. However, dyes and preservatives or bleaches are not listed individually. Therefore, the search for contact allergens is often difficult. In skincare products and cosmetics, there is usually a reference to lanolin or wool wax.
In any case, it is advisable to avoid wearing wool or other clothing that could contain dyes or bleach for a certain period of time when choosing to clothe. Especially unbleached and non-dyed fabrics made of cotton, linen or silk are suitable. Many coarse or rough chemical fibers can also irritate the skin.
For acute symptoms and skin reactions, the doctor usually prescribes an ointment that suppresses the symptoms. Such ointments can also contain cortisone, and one should always consult an allergologist beforehand.
Atopic dermatitis is the most common chronic skin disease in children. The associated itching is particularly distressing for the child. It is affecting more than 9.6 million children and about 17 million adults in the United States. It’s a chronic condition that can come and go for years or throughout life.
It causes dry, itchy skin and is a widespread disease in infants and children. It usually occurs between 3 and 6 months of age.
It is estimated that every sixth to a twelfth child under the age of six is affected by atopic dermatitis worldwide. In about one third of children, the symptoms decrease over the years and eventually disappear completely.
The causes of atopic dermatitis are not clearly understood. A congenital predisposition is considered to be a significant factor. A familial predisposition to develop hypersensitivity reactions favors AD, and very often, there is a connection with other allergic diseases.
The disease risk of a child with one affected parent is 20 to 40 percent if both parents suffer from neurodermatitis, and even between 60 and 80 percent if both parents suffer from AD.
In addition to this genetic predisposition, environmental factors and physical stress, infections and allergens such as food, pollen, house dust or chemicals also play a role. Psychologically stressful but also exciting events, such as the upcoming school enrollment, can trigger a flare-up of the disease or intensify the symptoms.1011
AD can basically occur at any time, but most often it begins already in infancy. Exclusive breastfeeding in the first four months of life and the introduction of complementary foods not before the fourth month of life can greatly reduce the risk of atopic dermatitis.
Special care of the skin by daily creaming of the whole body seems to have a positive effect. This also applies to children whose skin does not appear dry. A pediatrician or an allergologist can recommend a suitable skincare cream.
Children with atopic dermatitis generally have very dry skin. The urea level, which is important for the moisture content of the skin, and the sebum production, which forms a protective lipid film, are strongly reduced.
This is another reason why they are very sensitive to external stimuli such as clothing with coarse fibers, clothing which is too tight, sweat, chlorinated water, bath additives and others.
If your child suffers from atopic dermatitis, you should follow some basic recommendations:
Always consult your pediatrician or a dermatologist if you have specific concerns.
Not every skin irritation is atopic dermatitis. If you notice skin changes in your infant or child, you should first observe the child closely for some time. If it does not disappear – you should consult a dermatologist.12