Lanolin and Sheep’s Wool Allergies

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The Question:
Sheep have lanolin in their wool to keep the fibers from matting together and protect them from the sun. Angora goats also have a kind of grease, or wax. Is it also lanolin? Is lanolin the allergen for people who are allergic to wool?

Submitted by: Lisa, Ithaca, NY

The Short Answer: Lanolin is a complex combination of waxes, oils, esters and alcohols that coat the fibers of sheep’s wool. So goats would not have “lanolin.” But all mammals probably have some similar substance that coats their hair fibers. We just don’t call it lanolin. As for allergies to wool and lanolin, there has long been a debate about both. The scientific consensus seems to be fairly well resolved about wool. The scratchy feeling that people get when wearing wool is not a true allergic reaction, which would involve activation of the immune system. People report any fabric as being scratchy and irritating when it has over 5% of its fibers thicker than 30 microns in diameter. Many sheep’s wools have fibers in this range. But scientists have duplicated the sensation with artificial fibers such as nylon, proving that the skin irritation is not specific to wool. Probably some people have more sensitive skin, or have less of their own hair that holds the fabric away from the skin, or any number of other reasons that make them more “allergic” to wool than other people. But it seems fairly clear that this is a physical irritation of the skin, not an allergy.

Lanolin … now that’s a more complicated story. Lanolin is made up of dozens of compounds, not all of which have even been studied yet. When cosmetic manufacturers talk about having lanolin in their products, they are talking about a subset of the raw “wool grease” that is squeezed out of sheep wool, and then processed. For many years, there has been controversy among researchers and doctors in the allergy field as to whether there are a lot of people allergic to lanolin or almost none. Part of the controversy seems to be that the compounds in lanolin that people most often have a reaction to are the different types of alcohols in lanolin. These “wool alcohols” are usually processed out of lanolin used in creams and cosmetics. But standard allergy tests use wool alcohol precisely because it is most likely to cause a reaction.

A large study of allergy tests done at Mass General Hospital reported that wool alcohols caused an allergic reaction in 6.6 percent of people who came in for an allergy test. Because the people tested represent the subset of the total population that goes to a doctor with allergy symptoms, the incidence of allergy to wool alcohols in the general population is probably considerably less. And reactions to lanolin, as opposed to the wool alcohol segment of lanolin, seem to be lower still.

So the answer is that lanolin is probably not the cause for most people who report being allergic to wool. In nearly all cases, the “allergy” is probably caused by the itching sensation that results from larger size fibers.

More Info: All wool that has an average fiber diameter of 24 microns or more is likely to at least 5% of fibers over 30 microns, and therefore trigger a prickly sensation. And about a third of wool with average fiber of 21 microns will still have enough 30 micron fibers to make it scratchy. Fine Merino wool is about 18 microns and therefore unlikely to produce a scratchy feeling. Cashmere, from Cashmere goats, ranges from about 14 microns to about 18. Mohair, the fiber gained from Angora goats, can average in the low 20’s in microns, but the fiber size tends to get larger as the animal ages. Here are a few other “exotic fibers” and their average fiber size:

Musk Ox 10-12 microns

Angora rabbit 10-12 microns

Alpaca 13-30 microns

Vicuna 10-13 microns

Guanaco 14-18 microns

Camel 15-22 microns.

References:

Patch-testing with the standard series at the Massachusetts General Hospital, 1998 to 206. Landeck L, Schalock P C, Baden L A, Neumann K, Gonzalez E. Dermatitis, Vol. 20, No 2, 2009, pp 89-94.

Lanolin Allergy: History, Epidemiology, Responsible Allergens, and Management. Lee B, Warshaw E.
Dermatitis, Vol. 19, No 2, 2008, pp 63-72.

Recent advances in marketing and product development of Mohair and Cashmere. McGregor B A. 7th International Conference on Goats, France, 15-21 May 2000.

The myth of lanolin allergy. Kligman A M. Contact Dermatitis, 1998, 39, 103-107.

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Cite this article as: Pelletier, TC. (June 16, 2010). Lanolin and Sheep’s Wool Allergies Retrieved from http://askanaturalist.com/lanolin-and-sheep%e2%80%99s-wool-allergies/ on October 22, 2017.

32 thoughts on “Lanolin and Sheep’s Wool Allergies”

  1. That’s a great answer and is exactly what I was looking for! Now, can I print it out and distribute it? Can I put a link on my website ? Can I put a link on FB page (search FB for Laughing Goat Fiber)? Thanks so much.

  2. A couple of years ago I had a reaction. With the tips of four fingers I touched the “forehead” of a lamb. I barely touched the lambe due to slight wool reactions in my past. Swelling from hand to elbow….no airway rxn. Swelling went down with Benedryl. I do not recall how long it lasted but the swelling was significant. Allergy?

  3. Sharon, well that certainly does sound like an allergic reaction, not irritation due to fiber size. The studies of allergies suggest that most people are suffering from irritation from fibers, not a true allergic reaction, but they also show that a small segment of the population has a true allergy to sheep, probably to lanolin. Have you ever noticed any reaction to cosmetics that contain lanolin?

  4. I used to wear wool, mohair and angora sweaters. One day I put on some body cream for my very dry skin, I broke out in hives along with extreme itching, burning skin. Now I just bought a new sweater containing cotton and 5% angora, I had itchy skin and small hives. I also suffer from exzema, extremly bad as a baby, grew out of it as a child and now it’s just getting worse as I get older. Now is this an allery to my new sweater?

  5. Janet, that’s hard to say. According to the research, most of the time, it’s an irritation instead of an allergic reaction, but I don’t know how you’d know for sure other than by going to a dermatologist and being tested for allergies.

  6. hi Tom,
    From patch testing I found out I am allergic to lanolin. I was being tested to find the cause of contact dermatitis under the arms, which turned out to be from disperse dyes (clothing dye specifically used to dye synthetic clothing).

    So, I’m trying to replace a lot of clothing in my wardrobe with only natural fibers like cotton, silk, and wool to avoid dyed synthetic clothing.

    Question is, if I’m allergic to lanolin, should I avoid wool clothing?

    I’ve never had a reaction to lanolin that I’m aware of. I don’t use cosmetics, and lotions/cremes I use don’t have lanolin.

    However, I’ve always found wool to be itchy, and typically wear a layer (i.e. a shirt) between the wool and my skin. But some parts touch my skin, such as a sweater’s collar or wool pants waistband. I always had assumed it was because wool is just plain scratchy (and like your post says, I’ve noticed that Merino wool is much less scratchy). Wool clothing has not (yet) given me a rash, or hives, or made me swell up.

    So, to sum it up, should I avoid wool because the patch testing showed an allergy to lanolin?

    Thanks.

  7. hi, it’s Lynn again with a quick follow up on the question I posted on Dec. 22, 2011.

    A bit more reading online has turned up the following –

    Wool comes from sheep, goats, alpacas, and a few other mammals.
    Lanolin comes from sheep’s wool.
    Cashmere is not sheep’s wool. Cashmere comes from goats.

    Therefore I think goat’s wool (i.e. cashmere) does not have lanolin. But it has been very hard to confirm this. I have seen sites that say cashmere has lanolin, but they aren’t sites by “clothing industry experts”. and I suspect people tend to think all wool is the same, i.e. that it’s all from sheep. After all, that’s what I thought!

    also, some of what I’ve read says that much of the lanolin from sheep’s wool is removed in the processing, and it’s extracted then used in cosmetics, etc. Products that are marketed for washing wool contain lanolin in order to put it BACK into the wool.

    so… more food for thought.

    wonder if you can find more reliable sources to determine for certain if Cashmere has lanolin.

    thanks. Happy Holidays

  8. I think a lot of the problem is over-generalization. I have a confirmed lanolin allergy, and have had three people send me to this website saying “See-You’re just imagining it! It’s just scratchy.” Unfortunately, I am not “imagining it”, an increase in blood pressure, redness, swelling, and hives are not imagination. According to my allerginist, many people who have allergies are never tested, and he estimates that about one in 20 people total(not just allergy patients) have some reaction to lanolin, but many do not report it.

  9. Pingback: “But It Itches!” – Part II: What to Do | The Sweaty Knitter, Weaver and Devotee of Other Fiber Arts
  10. What are other names for lanolin? I found out after using Burts bees lip balm and having mouth burn over a year I am allergic.

  11. I’ve always been sensitive to wool, even the softest, and I am sensitive to any lotion, etc. that contains lanolin. For example, my mother likes Nivea cream. She was in the hospital and I brought her the Nivea. The eczema on my hands was acting up, so I used the Nivea. The eczema became worse. I then found out that Nivea contains lanolin. My mom also wears cashmere, and since I am her home-care worker, I am always helping her in and out of her chair. The more I do this, the more I’ve noticed that when she’s wearing cashmere, my skin gets irritated, even though cashmere is very soft. Thoughts?

  12. Heidi,
    If you have eczema frequently, you might want to see an allergist. And there may indeed be something in lanolin that you are allergic to. As to your reaction to your mother’s cashmere clothing, I guess that’s just an individual thing. I’m not an expert in this subject, but from what I had read, most people don’t find cashmere itch-causing, but you may be different.

  13. I am allergic to lanolin. I take vit D3 for bones
    Unless it says it is from fish it is from animal.
    I found out thru itching until I changed brand.

  14. I had itchy, open and weeping areas on my lower right leg and was being treated by a dermatologist to find the cause. All the creams, etc he tried either did nothing or made it worse. As a last resort he did a puncture test. The doctors office was selling small tubes of Aquaphor lip balm which I purchased and used and within hours my lips were itching and blistered. My results came back and I’m allergic to lanolin which is in the lip balm. I am so glad I never used the Aquaphor body wash he recommended….and now I know why I always broke out in a rash wearing wool sweaters! I read labels and ingredients on everything now!!!

  15. I’m allergic to lanolin, and it wasn’t an allergist that diagnosed it! After the birth of my daughter, I was given a cream to ease the pain of my episiotomy. I complained it was swelling and more uncomfortable, and the nurses couldn’t figure out why. I looked at the cream’s ingredients and lanolin was at the top of the list. Stopped the cream, swelling went away!! NOT the place you want to put lanolin when allergic!!

  16. In answer to an earlier post, lanosterol, esters, isopropol lanolate, and lanolin achohol are ingredients to avoid if you have a lanolin allergy or sensitivity. Basically, anything with lano in the name.

    With regard to another post, cashmere does not have sheep lanolin. I cannot touch sheepswool, but I can wear cashmere, alpaca, mohair, and angora. I am wondering, however, if I have to avoid leather from sheep or lambskin; does lanolin remain in the skins after they are processed?

  17. I doubt there’s much lanolin in processed sheep leather, but I don’t know that for sure. You might want to ask an allergist. As you probably know, cashmere is made from the hair of goats, as is mohair, so they wouldn’t have lanolin. And, of course, neither would alpaca or angora. Angora fiber comes from rabbits (not to be confused with Angora goats, which are the source of mohair fiber).

  18. I have a confirmed lanolin allergy as well as other contact allergies. I’ve had to stop using dryer sheets as a result of the other allergies. I’d like to make some felted dryer balls to use instead but I’m wondering if there will be any lanolin left after the felting process that might end up on my other clothes. I’d consider using alpaca, it’s just more expensive.

  19. Trying to get information to understand my allergy. I’m thinking it is lanolin. I’ve heard the whole “it’s just irritation” thing as a knee jerk reaction so many times before even getting a chance to share my symptoms. Sticky, burning, swollen shut eyes, fierce sneezing, burning (not itching) skin are my symptoms. I doubt that’s physical irritation, especially as I find many wools quite cozy to the touch. I also do experience these symptoms when I wear cosmetics with lanolin in them, as well as hives. Please don’t assume itching is the symptom people are experiencing when they claim they believe they have an allergy. We’re not all that dumb.

    What I have noticed is that I can wear inexpensive wool blends sometimes. I wonder if that is because more lanolin has been removed in harsher, less costly, less quality-minded processing? I have not experienced my allergies in reaction to cashmere when unblended but I do react strongly to alpaca. Pendleton blankets are the worst, I can’t even sleep with them near the bed. Some wools are worse than others, I just don’t have it figured out yet.

  20. Susanna, I’m sorry if it sounded like I was belittling people’s symptoms. The original question was about whether lanolin is the allergen when people are allergic to wool. The scientific studies I could find on this subject suggest that the itching symptom is probably a physical irritation, not a chemical allergic reaction. But that doesn’t mean that you and other people aren’t actually allergic to lanolin or some component of lanolin, which could express the whole range of allergy symptoms, including, the swollen eyes, hives, etc., that you experience. And you may be right that the lanolin content of different wools differ. I would think that after enough cleanings, the lanolin would be almost completely gone, but it doesn’t take much of some substances to trigger an allergic reaction. I wish you well in figuring out how to manage this problem.

  21. My wife and I were planning a trip to Ireland, but my wife (who has a severe allergy to wool) is getting cold feet due to the number of sheep in the country. Are her fears justified?

  22. Hi, I suspect that as long as you don’t go to a sheep farm and hang around in the barn, you’ll be okay. After all, there are probably more dogs and cats in Ireland than sheep, but people who are allergic to those can still visit and live there. However, I’m not an allergist and if your wife has a particularly severe allergy that will ruin your trip or put her in danger, you should certainly talk to her doctor.

  23. I’ve been to Ireland, and it isn’t like the sheep are running all over the place. I saw sheep on a farm, and in a field. She’s good.

  24. Hi. I enjoy wearing wool, and am fine with alpaca. However, I recently bought a wool sweater that has 2% cashmere and I could feel my chest tightening when wearing it the first time. (I’m very allergic to cats, and evidently, cashmere goats.) When I returned home, I took the sweater off and eventually took a loratadine when my chest remained a bit tight. I’d really like to keep this sweater – if I wash it, maybe a few times, might that help? Thanks very much!

  25. I am a spinner weaver knitter and dyer and have my own yarn company that only deals in wool. Lately I’ve noticed my eyes itch and breathing become more difficult if I’m working with wool. Also shirts that have wool in them that I’ve owned for years suddenly I can’t wear them. I have no rashes but the other symptoms take time to decipate even after I drop working with wool. I think I’m developing a wool allergy due to exposure, is that possible? I’ve always had sensitive skin but 10 years ago I could wear the scratchiest sweater next to skin without any issues but now the softest wool blends are an issue. My life is all about wool and my business will need to change every product and all my techniques of I’m allergic.

  26. Samantha, I’m not a doctor. It sounds to me like you should see an allergist.

  27. Thanks Tom I think I will. I did a few more tests on myself and I’m 99% sure it’s a wool allergy particularly a lanolin allergy.

  28. Wool allergies run in my family. I was always keen on checking what was in clothes to see the percentage of wool. If it was low enough, I could usually wear it without getting lobster red and itchy. One day I decided to use Nair hair removal. I broke out all over in a very familiar rash (which was worse around my knee since there was a tiny cut there). When I checked the bottle I was immediately frustrated. Lanolin. Mum said it was “to leave your skin smooth”, but that doesn’t exactly work when your skin’s reaction to lanolin is to turn bright red and pop up with hundreds of little bumps.
    Are there certain wools I’d be able to wear, or should I just stay away completely? I live in New England and I’m going into nursing and would really like to know if I can get any fluid-resistant socks to keep me warm and dry.

  29. Hi Shae, I’m sorry to hear about your lanolin allergy. I’m not an allergist, nor an expert in socks, but I do like to hike and I know there are alternatives to wool for hiking socks. From REI’s website: “Some man-made materials are designed to insulate like wool and wick moisture. These materials (Hollofil®, Thermax®, Thermastat®) trap warmth like wool, but dry more quickly and are more abrasion resistant.” So you might want to try socks made of one of those materials. https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/backpacking-socks.html

  30. I am three months into recovering from an extreme allergic reaction to D3 with lanolin. My doctor recommended that I take a particular brand which contained high doses of D3 (liquid form) to bring up my D level. After two days I had developed a geographic tongue, extreme thirst and urination, severe eye pain, back pain, hives on my feet, and plummeting fatigue. I have seen several doctors and apparently I am having an unusual reaction. I have found very little information on this type of reaction to D3 so I wanted to share my experience to help others who may experience something similar. It has been a very frightening experience.

  31. I can assure you that my allergy to wool and lanolin is an actual allergy. When I was a little girl, my mother bought me a wool coat. I always itched when I wore it wherever it touched my skin. Though I was miserable, I still had to wear the coat because we could not afford to replace the coat with something made from another material. One day when I wore the coat, I broke out in a rash. After that I would develop the rash everytime I wore the coat if it touched my skin. A couple weeks later I started wheezing in addition to getting the rash. The last time I wore it my throat and bronchial tubes swelled so much that I could hardly breathe and had to go to the hospital. I didn’t wear that coat again, and my mother wouldn’t allow wool in our house after that. After I had my daughter and was breastfeeding her, my nipples became very sore. Iwas was told to use pure lanolin on them, but to wash it off before nursing and to reapply afterward, which I did. Over night , my daughters mouth and my nipples broke out, cracked and bled. Later, I had a reaction to Burt’s Bees lip balm. I now stay far away from wool and lanolin, as does my daughter and my granddaughter.

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