How hard is it to avoid isothiazolinones?

How hard is it to avoid the isothiazolinone preservatives, do you think? Or indeed, other contact allergens? And is it getting easier, or tougher? 

A paper just published in the journal Contact Dermatitis — you can read the abstract here — researched the experiences of 139 MI-allergic individuals to see whether they suffered relapses following diagnosis and relief of symptoms. 

The median follow-up was three years, and researchers found that around two-thirds of people experienced at least one relapse of their symptoms, and were severe in one in five. 69% of relapses were on the hands, and 29% on the face. 

Anyone familiar with the MI-related Facebook groups will not be surprised at this. The despairing posts of patients who have tried exceptionally hard to avoid their triggers, and yet were somehow caught out, often by an unidentified source, are often difficult to see. It’s a feature of the isothiazolinone community that the support offered in these situations is strong, and members are never allowed to blame themselves for what has befallen them, but all of us are aware that mishaps will continue to happen, sometimes with severe, painful and distressing consequences that can set people back months. 

The abstract makes clear the main difficulties in successfully avoiding isothiazolinone preservatives:

  • hidden sources of MI;
  • the lack of labelling on industrial products;
  • the complexity of cosmetic labelling;
  • remembering the name of the allergen. 

These last two are I think especially important, especially if you have multiple allergens, not just to MI and MCI. Cosmetics labels can read like ingredients from a chemistry set, and if you have a long list of ingredients and chemicals you must avoid, it’s enough to make your eyes water. 

There are of course resources to help. On this site, for example, there are lists of isothiazolinone-free cosmetic brands, as well as a list of ‘Other Names for MI‘, which details the variety of guises under which isothiazolinone preservatives can occasionally appear. 


Clear “No” labelling by Sukin Organics.

Free From Labelling

But in my view, the single most helpful thing that any cosmetic brand can do is to clearly nail its policy to the mast and state explicitly — “MI Free”,  “Free From MI”, “No MI” or “Does Not Contain MI”. 

Wouldn’t it be great if more brands did that? 

Many of you I imagine will agree, but in the EU at least, so-called “free from” labelling is coming under attack from the regulators, who have passed new guidance on its use. The subject is complex and somewhat unclear, but ‘free from’ claims which are deemed to be ‘denigrating’ will not be permitted, and neither will such claims for products which do not ordinarily contain the ingredient in question, nor those in which the ingredients are illegal.

What does this mean in practice? One example is this: “Parabens free” will no longer be permitted, because parabens is cited as one of the ingredients about which there is a lot of public denigration and misplaced fear.

Another example might be “MI free” on a bar of soap, which does not ordinarily contain MI or any other preservative; the same goes for “MI free” on leave-on face or body cream, in which it is now banned. 

This is frustrating, because many people, the newly diagnosed especially, aren’t always aware of where allergens such as MI are usually found, nor are they aware of legislation. 

But what about “MI Free” on other products, such as shampoos? It is unclear whether this falls foul of the regulation, because — shockingly in my opinion — there is very little acknowledgement made of allergy concerns in the legislation (which you can see in full in Annex III here). 

If you’re wondering why the cosmetic industry is moving this way, it’s due to pressure from major cosmetic houses, orthodox cosmetic chemists who often work for them, and the cosmetic trade bodies whose members consist of them. They often appear to resent more ‘natural’ leaning cosmetics and the trend for green or more ethical beauty, and have lobbied the regulators to clamp down on ‘free from’ labelling for unjustifiable reasons. 

Thankfully, there are no signs that North America is heading this way, which is some comfort, given that isothiazolinones in leave-on products remain permitted here, but it is worrying that in Europe, there appears to be a crackdown on a form of labelling which is most useful to those with allergies. 

And I think it really, really stinks, and those who campaigned for it or support it should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. 

If you want to learn more about my thoughts on the new ‘free from’ legislation, see my article on the Skins Matter blog here


  1. Pauline Ludlow

    As an MI sufferer it would be fantastic if companies labelled their ingredients as MI free. I’m that person who has to stand in the supermarket checking it’s ingredients only to sometimes find to check a website because there is no ingredients listed. Making life even more difficult.

    1. MI Free (Post author)

      Exactly. The argument from the conventional chemists is that something like “MI Free” gives the impression to general consumers that MI is somehow “BAD” for everybody rather than just bad for those who need to avoid it or other people who may be more vulnerable to developing allergies and would therefore like to avoid it. It’s just about making life more simple for those who have greater need for protection … It’s really that simple isn’t it.

      1. max ehlenz

        Well, that shit certainly is bad for everybody, just even worse for some.

        1. MI Free (Post author)

          I don’t fully agree with that, because when used in ‘rinse off’ products at a trace level, it is considered safe for the vast majority of people. The possible problems come with potential overexposure (e.g. through paints) and leave-on cosmetics, which increase risk of sensitisation.

  2. Linda Dinella

    It’s almost impossible to avoid products containing Mi! Mostly due to the lack of labeling. I’ve gone thru your list of ‘free’ products however these are not those readily available in most stores. I was able to order shampoo/conditioner recommended by your site that I’m very pleased with but it’s impossible to find hair color, nail color, or if it’s safe to use ‘UV Gel’ nail covering. I’ve had to resort to contacting manufacturers of products I use to see if they use MI in “that specific product”! Some have responded with rediculously evasive responses which led me to cross them off my list!
    Traveling is difficult since most hotels use bleach in laundering sheets and towels. This means I must bring Hydrocortisone along on every trip! I didn’t develop this allergy until the age of 70 and I’ve had it 2 years now. Don’t know if this is lucky or not but at least I won’t have to live with it toooo much longer!!!

    1. MI Free (Post author)

      Hi Linda,

      Are you in the US? It’s tough to research some brands there for me as I’m in the UK

      Regarding hair color, this article might help:

      Nail products usually don’t have water in them to my knowledge, so wouldn’t have to be preserved with MI, but I could be wrong. I do know they contain other allergens, including quite strong ones. I’m afraid I don’t know what UV gel is … but do you think it’s something I should look at?

      Sleeping bag liners can be useful for travelling, and your own pillow covering.

      Hope this helps a bit, but if you’re struggling for certain products, I can post a request on the Facebook page to ask other followers for recommendations?

      All the best, Alex

  3. Bonnie Renwick

    My MI allergy is on my feet and hands mostly. I travel quite a bit, and I leave a pair of flip flops beside the bed, making sure I put them on before walking on the floors, and I wear them in the shower. I have become a Mary Kay representative, because only 1 of their products contain MI. And they have a wonderful website where you type in the allergen, and the system shows you the product that has it. I carry my own bar of Ivory soap in my purse, and sometimes I wear vinyl gloves with the fingers cut off, for bowling. I try not to touch tables, doors, handles, etc. by using my sleeve or my elbows. I find putting my chair in the ocean, the salt water heals my feet. when around the pool, I try not to touch the railings or sun chairs by covering them with a towel. Hope this helps others…..

    1. MI Free (Post author)

      Lots of good tips, Bonnie!

      1. Jennifer Snow

        I became a Mary Kay consultant as well hoping that would help me. Needless to say, most of the products I tried broke me out. It took me months to clear up my face. I normally struggle mostly with my fingers but Mary Kay was a huge trigger to my allergy.

        I too live in the USA and struggle with hand soaps in public bathrooms. I try to avoid by washing my hand vigorously under warm water only then use an alcohol rub. This normally causes awful burning on my hot spots.

        I wish we had a list of products that was an easy go to to purchase

        1. MI Free (Post author)

          Yes, trying not to wash or rub skin too vigorously is a very good tip. I try to keep the lists on the site as updated as possible, but there’s no real escaping the need to check ingredients, unfortunately …


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