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Lanolin is the naturally occurring fat found in wool, which helps protect wool the weather and environment. It’s widely extracted and used in personal care products to protect and treat our skin and is frequently used in baby treatments.
For most of us its highly beneficial, however, it’s also a known cause of contact dermatitis in some people. Even this isn’t a binary allergy – an individual may be allergic to some lanolin-containing products but not to others.
We thought this was worth further study, to see if we could determine what lanolin is and why it appears to cause such a variable reaction. Ultimately to give you the information you need to do something about it.
In this article:
- What is lanolin?
- Why is it used?
- What are the risks?
- What are the alternatives?
- The best lanolin free dandruff shampoos
What is lanolin?
Lanolin is a ‘grease’ produced by sheep to waterproof their wool, helping to protect from the wind and rain. The wool from a freshly sheared sheep will produce up to 300mL of lanolin, although this varies by breed. This ‘crude’ product will contain :
- Lanolin (mix of polyesters, high-molecular weight alcohols, and acids)
- Dirt found on the wool
- Impure salts from sweat
The fatty, crude brown substance is washed with surfactants, heated, and then centrifuged. This produces a purer, light-yellow lanolin – although, for use in the pharmaceutical industry or cosmetics, the lanolin is still further refined to reduce pesticides and other contaminants.
Why is lanolin used in so many products?
Lanolin is widely used by the pharmaceutical (e.g. medicated creams, shampoos), cosmetic (hand creams, lipsticks, baby oils), and manufacturing industries (shoe polish, lubricants). Most people encounter lanolin through the day-to-day use of emollient hand creams.
Emollients can be split into two distinct categories, depending on the mechanism by the which they moisturize the skin:
· Occlusive (e.g. paraffin, dimethicone) – form a barrier to prevent water loss
· Humectant (e.g. propylene glycol) – draw water from the surroundings
Lanolin is a useful emollient because it has both occlusive and humectant properties, due to the wide variety of polyesters, alcohols, and acids. Uniquely, lanolin is also absorbed by the stratum coronium (outer layer of skin), and so can be used to deliver active ingredients (e.g. medicated steroid creams or ointments) .
What are the risks?
Lanolin can be labeled as ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ because it comes from sheep’s wool. This can be technically correct but doesn’t mean that it’s the right ingredient for everyone. This is especially true for those with skin conditions such as seborrheic/atopic dermatitis or those that are vegan.
The most significant issue with lanolin is hypersensitivity reactions or allergies, a topic which has gained traction in the press and online over recent years. The evidence for lanolin hypersensitivity is mixed and remains controversial, but is a very real phenomenon for thousands of people.
In 2009 the North American Contact Dermatitis Group reported data from 1994-2006, which showed that 30% lanolin alcohol (the most likely irritant in lanolin) caused skin reactions in 643 of 25,811 participants (2.5%) . A study at St. Marys Hospital in London analyzed 24,449 eczema patients, finding that only 1.7% reacted to the 30% lanolin alcohol patch .
Casting doubt on the true prevalence of lanolin allergies, a 2013 study by dermatologists at Mayo Clinic highlighted that the 30% lanolin alcohol patch caused more reactions than alternative methods – and so it’s unclear if the true prevalence of lanolin allergy is lower than has been reported by previous studies.
It’s a little more complicated than that too. Lanolin is a natural product and the contents vary. There are alcohols present in some lanolin that isn’t present in others. It’s often these alcohols that we believe to be responsible for the reactions, so some forms of lanolin may cause a reaction, whereas others don’t. In fact, there are chemically modified forms of lanolin which may be much better for sufferers. Unfortunately, there are some individuals who only react to these modified forms.
That said, if you suspect you have a wool alcohol allergy there are forms of patch testing available to you via your dermatologist.
And there are alternatives out there.
What are the alternatives?
For individuals with a known lanolin allergy, the prevalence among the public is largely irrelevant, and luckily lanolin cosmetics can be avoided. On ingredient labels, lanolin can be listed under different names, commonly one of the following:
- Lanolin (or derivatives, such as ‘lanolin alcohols’)
- Wool alcohols, wool fat, wool wax
- Brand names (‘Amerchol L101’)
- Isopropyl lanolate, laneth, lanogene
If reading the ingredient label seems overwhelming, most cosmetics will state they are ‘lanolin-free’, if they don’t contain lanolin-based ingredients. Most of the alternatives to lanolin are equally as effective, but can be more expensive, and finding the correct product for your skin can be down to trial-and-error :
- Coconut oil
- Hyaluronic acid
- Paraffin oils
The best lanolin free dandruff shampoos on the market today
Lanolin is a waxy substance produced from sheep’s wool, used in a range of products from medicated creams to shoe polish. One of the most common uses is as an emollient – in hand creams and body lotions – as lanolin has unique properties that make it an effective skin moisturizer.
Certain lanolin products are branded as ‘organic’ or ‘natural’, but this doesn’t mean the ingredient comes without risk. Lanolin allergies have been widely reported, although the evidence suggests a generally low prevalence. For those who have had skin reactions to lanolin, there are methods for identifying lanolin products, and alternatives are available.
Pharmaceutical Specialties formed in 1974 to “start a company to make better products than were commercially available for people with sensitive skin”. And boy, have they achieved it with this Free and Clear shampoo.
What is perhaps surprising on a website dedicated to dandruff treatments is that this isn’t a dandruff shampoo at all.
It’s rather a "a non-medicated, mild shampoo for sensitive skin and scalp.”
That said, we can’t use a medicated shampoo all the time, and this is my go to shampoo for those “between” washes.Read the entire review
BIOM8 Skin Conditioning Oil is now part of my daily skin care routine. It’s as simple as that. I have lost count of the number of products I’ve reviewed over the years and I can count on one hand the number of products that have impacted me on this level.
If you suffer from dry skin, facial seb derm or rosacea I simply can’t recommend this product highly enough.
It even makes a good beard oil!Read the entire review
Designed to treat Dry Scalp
Maple Holistics Hydrate Shampoo has been superbly formulated to soothe and moisturize the scalp and hair. The ingredients have been carefully selected to decrease the chance that the product will irritate the skin. Using multiple low dose surfactants is a stroke of genius and only the fact the shampoo contains only one potential contact allergen says it all.
This is as close to perfection as you get in the commercial shampoo world.
I simply can't recommend this highly enough.Read the entire review
Designed to treat Dry Scalp
Nurture My Body Everyday Fragrance-Free Shampoo is an excellent gentle option for sufferers of a dry irritated scalp. The absence of any noteworthy irritants or allergens combined with the expert formulation of anti-inflammatory moisturizing ingredients makes an excellent change from the usual harsh surfactants and other toxins that lead to a vicious cycle of irritation and inflammation.
They've managed all of this in a shampoo that foams and washes well.
It's not particularly cheap, but this is simply one of the finest dry scalp shampoos out there.Read the entire review
Calling all sensitive scalp sufferers, if you haven’t yet found an anti-dandruff shampoo your scalp can tolerate, you haven’t yet found Sebclair shampoo. A piroctone olamine, Malassezia yeast quelling formula with extremely mild yet highly effective cleansers, accompanying scalp hydrators, flake fighters and natural anti-inflammatories. No fragrance, no essentials oils, no allergens. Sebclair shampoo really does stand out in our anti-dandruff crowd.Read the entire review
If your babe’s crusty cradle cap’s only getting worse, it’s time to try a leave on treatment – one which doesn’t leave your baby’s scalp looking like a grease ball. Enter Bioderma’s ABDderm Babysquam keratoregulating cream a 14 ingredient formula made from sensitive, hypoallergenic, moisturising, soothing and barrier building ingredients.
Useable 7 days a week with no fragrance or harsh preservatives Bioderma’s ABDderm Babysquam keratoregulating cream respects, repairs and conditions away crusty cradle cap.Read the entire review
Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis
One of the best and mildest shampoos out there for seb derm sufferers with sensitive skin.
Containing both Piroctone Olamine and Salicylic Acid as well as being SLS free, paraben free, artificial color free this shampoo has an absolutely outstanding choice of active and inactive ingredients.
There are still two or three chemicals in there that some may find irritating. Otherwise this would have been a five out of five performer.Read the entire review
Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis
Sebamed is one of the gentle yet most effective seb derm shampoos available.
The active ingredient is Piroctine Olamine - an excellent anti-fungal agent.
The rest of the shampoo has been formulated with panache.Read the entire review
DHS Coal Tar Shampoo is an expertly formulated shampoo containing 0.5% coal tar and is the gentlest coal tar shampoo we’ve yet reviewed
We can't recommend this product or this company highly enough.Read the entire review
Quite simply the best pure Salicylic Acid shampoo we’ve yet reviewed. The shampoo contains 3% Salicylic Acid combined with a fragrance free, sulfate free and virtually every other nasty ingredient free formulation. It does this and still feels luxurious when washing.
Neutrogena should be exceptionally proud of this top top class shampoo.Read the entire review
Designed to treat Dry Scalp
An impressive dry scalp treatment shampoo with an innovative formulation.
I have to applaud any company that can formulate a shampoo with so few allergens. The fact that it washes so well is marvelous. For those not sensitive to Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Phenoxyethanol or fragrances - this is an excellent shampoo.Read the entire review
Designed to treat Dry Scalp
This dry scalp treatment isn’t a shampoo at all, but rather a leave on moisturizer that you apply to your hair after washing.
The advantage of this approach is that, while shampoos are designed to clean (and all the sensitizing issues that come with that) this treatment is designed to moisturize and nothing else.
You’re free to use the shampoo of your choice and us this treatment in combination.
It’s an excellent approach that I hope other manufacturers take notice of.Read the entire review
Hydrating shampoo formulas don’t come around often making Art Naturals Scalp 18 Coal Tar Shampoo a gem. Best for dry, itchy scalp symptoms. Can be used for mild dandruff. Plant-based, sustainable and cruelty-free – an all-round goodie.Read the entire review
Maple Holistics Tea Tree Shampoo is an outstanding Tea Tree shampoo for treating Dry Scalp or Seb Derm. It doesn’t contain any artificial coloring or fragrance, sulfates, parabens, or carcinogens. It contains only three potential contact allergens, with two of the three being tea tree and rosemary essential oils.
The combination of cleansing agents used are gentle, effective and innovative while the shampoo smells ace and washes even better.
If you're looking for a tea tree shampoo, I can't recommend this highly enough.Read the entire review
DHS Sal Shampoo is a 3% salicylic acid shampoo designed to treat Psoriasis and Seborrheic Dermatitis.
It’s an outstanding shampoo that washes well, contains relatively few ingredients, is gentle and won’t break the bank.
If you’re not sensitive to sulfates and are looking for a good salicylic acid shampoo, this is an excellent performer.
Yet again, DHS have produced a shampoo that we can't recommend highly enough.Read the entire review
Designed to treat Dry Scalp
Cleure Volumizing uses only a handful of skin conditioning agents and gentle cleansers to treat a dry scalp.
It contains only two potential irritants that should be considered low to moderate concerns, compared to other much harsher alternatives. This shampoo doesn’t use any sulfates, parabens, artificial fragrances, dyes, alcohol, salicylates, formaldehyde, or SLS, making it a good option for those with sensitive scalps who typically react to less gentle, conventional shampoo and other personal care products.
Unless you have severely sensitive skin and are highly reactive to any potential irritants, we suggest trying this shampoo from Cleure and seeing if it calms your sensitive skin, and helps to clear up any dryness and itchiness on your scalp.Read the entire review
Puracy Citrus Mint Natural Shampoo offers a great natural alternative to the many sulfate laden shampoos on the market today. Whether you are looking for an everyday use shampoo, or one that you can rotate your medicated dandruff shampoo with, we’d recommend trying the Natural Shampoo.
Because there are essential oils in the formula, we recommend caution to anyone who is sensitive to fragrances, or sensitive or allergic to any of the ingredients.
Otherwise, you’re looking at an expertly formulated shampoo that, for once, lives up to the manufacturer’s promises.Read the entire review
Sebclair Non-Steroidal Cream is an anti-fungal, piroctone olamine based treatment partnered with a trophy cabinet of natural anti-inflammatory actives. If you have a mild to moderate case of seb derm, hate steroids and love naturals Sebclair is for you. Best bit – there’s only two known allergens or irritants.Read the entire review
Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis
Do you have an extremely sensitive scalp in need of anti-dandruff help? Do you suffer from mild to moderate seb derm? Meet your new best friend. Free & Clear’s Medicated Anti-Dandruff Shampoo contains zero allergens, zero irritants, zero sensitizers formula based on 2% zinc pyrithione. An active ingredient able to improve the health of dandruff affected skin while also helping pacify dandruff causing overgrowths of the Malassezia yeast.
I simply can't recommend this shampoo highly enough.Read the entire review
Did you know using natural oils could be making your baby’s cradle cap last for longer? Instead, we recommend placing your trust in clinically trialed baby-friendly formulas able to effectively tackle the cause of your baby’s cradle cap – excess scalp oil. Case and point, ultra-mild Dentinox Cradle Cap Treatment Shampoo, an 8 ingredient formula proven safe and effective for everyday use.Read the entire review
Tired of testing out cradle cap shampoos which just don’t budge your babe’s crusty dry scalp? Then you need a cradle cap shampoo with active ingredients proven to work. Enter Babe Laboratorios Paediatric Cradle Cap Shampoo a 4 active ingredient formula including 0.5% scalp softening salicylic acid plus a boosting active able to make your 0.5% dose work harder than its quantity would usually dictate. For use 2 to 3 times a week, the gentle shampoo formula cleanses carefully, treats sensitively and works simply.Read the entire review
Are you looking for a natural solution to your baby’s crusty cradle cap? Want a formula that works with your skin to help restore a healthy scalp? Then look no further than Bella B’s Bee Gone Cradle Cap Baby Shampoo with oatmeal, tea tree oil, shea butter and more for helping restore what makes your baby's scalp healthy. Free of parabens, animal by-products, harsh cleansers and preservatives, the hypoallergenic formula makes Bella B’s bee gone cradle cap baby shampoo a great solution for the everyday care of your baby's scalp.Read the entire review
Anti-cradle cap shampoos designed to be used from the very first day of your babe’s life are hard to come by. And in the promise of finding one, you want to be 100% sure of its safety. Mustela foam shampoo for newborns is a diamond in the rough, featuring well proven anti-cradle cap/anti-dandruff actives with above and beyond safety testing in a daily use formula.
It is worth bearing in mind that it isn't fragrance-free, and salicylic acid can cause dryness after prolonged usage. But as a treatment to combat established doses of cradle cap - you'll struggle to find a more effective treatment on the market.Read the entire review
Shea Moisture Apple Cider Vinegar Anti-Dandruff Shampoo is a feel-good exfoliating scalp shampoo to help relieve embarrassing flaky scalp symptoms. An exfoliating benefit given by its 3% concentration of salicylic acid which studies prove can be highly effective for reducing itchiness on an oily scalp. We recommend Shea Moisture Apple Cider Vinegar Anti-Dandruff Shampoo for mild cases of oily scalp dandruff or as a between treatments shampoo for moderate to severe dandruff.Read the entire review
Dandruff shampoos can wreak havoc on dry, itchy scalps. Sea Magik Mineral Shampoo is different. A calming, hydrating formula with a combination of gentler, anti-dandruff actives. With independent research to back up claims that it’s potent, powerful yet still soothing. A great overall formula that's suitable for all but the most hypersensitive or allergy-prone skin types.Read the entire review
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 Lynde, C. W. (2001). Moisturizers: what they are and how they work. Skin Therapy Lett, 6(13), 3-5.
 Warshaw, E. M., Nelsen, D. D., Maibach, H. I., Marks Jr, J. G., Zug, K. A., Taylor, J. S., … & Sasseville, D. (2009). Positive Patch Test Reactions to Lanolin: Cross‐Sectional Data from the North American Contact Dermatitis Group, 1994 to 2006. Dermatitis, 20(2), 79-88.
 Wakelin, S. H., Smith, H., White, I. R., Rycroft, R. J. G., & McFadden, J. P. (2001). A retrospective analysis of contact allergy to lanolin. British Journal of Dermatology, 145(1), 28-31.
 Miest, R. Y., Yiannias, J. A., Chang, Y. H. H., & Singh, N. (2013). Diagnosis and prevalence of lanolin allergy. Dermatitis, 24(3), 119-123.
 Scheman, A., Jacob, S., Katta, R., Nedorost, S., Warshaw, E., Zirwas, M., & Bhinder, M. (2011). Hair Products: Trends and Alternatives. Journal of Clinical & Aesthetic Dermatology, 4(7).
Master of Pharmacy
Ethan graduated a number of years ago after studying pharmacy in the UK, and is now a practicing pharmacist by day.
By night he writes the most stunning articles on a whole range of pharmaceutical subjects both here, and on our sister site at safehouseholdcleaning.com