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.
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.
Laughing Goat Fiber Says:
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.
You’re welcome, and sure you can use the answer.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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?
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
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.
“But It Itches!” – Part II: What to Do | The Sweaty Knitter, Weaver and Devotee of Other Fiber Arts Says:
[...] to The Naturalist, “a wool that averages 24 microns or more is likely to [have] at least 5% of fibers over 30 [...]
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