If you have allergies, you likely look for products marked “hypoallergenic” to avoid triggering an allergic reaction. Hypoallergenic means a product contains few allergy-producing substances known as allergens.

But because there’s no agreed-upon scientific or legal definition of the term, the word “hypoallergenic” printed on a label doesn’t necessarily protect you.

Sellers of cosmetics, toys, clothing, and even pets can label their product “hypoallergenic” without being required to meet any government-prescribed standard.

The word “hypoallergenic” on a label doesn’t mean the product won’t produce an allergic reaction in some users.

As the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) writes on its website: “There are no Federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term ‘hypoallergenic.’ The term means whatever a particular company wants it to mean.”

People have varying degrees of sensitivity to allergy-causing ingredients (allergens).

Some people might not be affected at all by a particular ingredient. Others might feel slightly itchy or uncomfortable. And there are those who might experience a full-fledged allergic reaction.

If you think you or your child may have an allergy to a food, a pet, or any substance, it’s best to talk to your doctor and consider seeing an allergist for testing and treatment. Then you’ll know what allergens to look out for.

Allergens of all sorts are present in the natural environment. These can include things like plant pollens, dust mites, pet dander, insect bites, fragrances, and a wide variety of foods.

An allergic attack can range from mild to life-threatening.

A mild allergic attack can cause itching, watery or runny eyes, sneezing, nasal congestion, and headache from your sinuses filling up. A skin allergy, such as allergic contact dermatitis, can show up as an itchy, red rash.

In the worst case of allergic reaction, the body goes into a state known as anaphylactic shock (anaphylaxis).

Anaphylaxis sometimes starts with mild allergic symptoms like itchiness. Within a half hour or so, it may progress to any of these symptoms:

  • hives
  • swelling of lips, tongue, or throat.
  • wheezing or shortness of breath
  • fainting, dizziness, confusion, vomiting
  • low blood pressure
  • sped-up pulse or heart rate

An anaphylactic reaction is a serious condition that requires an immediate injection of epinephrine (adrenalin). If not treated, at its worse the condition can be life-threatening.

Most people don’t get such a severe reaction to allergens. At least 1.6 percent of the world population will experience some degree of anaphylaxis over an entire lifetime.

Double-check the label

If you or your child suffers from any type of allergy or contact dermatitis, it’s especially important to read ingredient labels to be sure that there’s nothing in the product that could trigger an allergic reaction or rash.

The word “hypoallergenic” on a label doesn’t necessarily protect you.

In one study carried out in Brazil, doctors found that of the 254 children’s products marked hypoallergenic that they tested, 93 percent still contained at least one ingredient that could cause an allergic reaction.

Knowing how to read a product label can literally save your or your child’s life. Here are some tips to reading labels:

Ingredient list

The first thing to look at in any food or cosmetic product is the list of ingredients. Ingredients are listed in order of how much of it is in the product relative to the other ingredients. This is known as the concentration.

Water is often the first item on an ingredient list.

Active ingredients

Some labels list “active” and “inactive” ingredients separately. All of these will likely come into contact with your body, so be sure to examine them all.

Chemical names

Most labels will use chemical names that might sound dangerous, but may not be. Ordinary baking soda, for example, may be listed as bicarbonate of soda or sodium bicarbonate. Very few, if any, people are allergic to that.

Plant-based ingredients

Plant substances that you might be allergic to could be listed by their Latin names.

For example, common marigold, which produces allergy in a small number of people, might be listed as Calendula officinalis. Lavender might be listed on a label as Lavandula angustifolia.

In the scientific classification system, the first name (beginning with a capital letter) refers to the genus of the plant. The second name (beginning with a lowercase letter) refers to the species.

Lavandula is the genus for all lavender plants. The most common species is angustifolia. But there are others, such as Lavandula latifolia or Lavandula dentata.

If you know you have a plant allergy or sensitivity, become familiar with the genus name and look for it on labels. If you’re allergic to one species of lavender, you might be allergic to others.

Know your allergens so you can protect yourself from a lot of discomfort and even danger.

The word “hypoallergenic” on a product label doesn’t necessarily protect you from allergy-causing substances.

To protect yourself or your child, know what substances can cause an allergic reaction, and always read product labels.

If you think you or your child may have an allergy to a food, a pet, or any substance, it’s best to talk to your doctor and consider seeing an allergist for testing and treatment.