Kate Miller takes a look at what’s behind the rise in allergies in the UK and how this could provide opportunities for smart natural health retailers
The recent research linking some mainstream hay fever drugs with Alzheimer’s was, on the whole, ill-reported and misinformed. Which was a shame, because the side-effects of many conventional medicines for allergies don’t have to be exaggerated to be true, and they are what is driving many consumers into health food shops in a bid to find a more gentle cure.
According to Don Harrison, principle of The British Institute for Allergy and Environmental Therapy, the NHS just isn’t equipped to treat allergies: “A lot of the time with allergies, the problem is that people are having their illnesses maintained in different ways. They are prescribed one thing, then they develop something else which is a side-effect of the first medicine.”
The one-size-fits-all ethos of mainstream medicine is driven by cost, according to Harrison: “What suits Peter doesn’t suit Paul,” he says: “Treating allergies is a very individual process and it’s time-consuming – the NHS just doesn’t have the money.”
Which is good news for the natural products industry, says Sarah Brown, founder of Pai skincare, being perfectly placed to serve the allergy market by offering more holistic solutions to allergies. “In terms of skincare, natural products tend to contain no, or at least fewer, synthetics, which can often be the cause of skin irritation or flare-ups.”
Brown points to the ubiquitous use of certain ingredients as accelerating allergies: “Cosmetic ingredients like propylene glycol and sodium lauryl sulfate are known problem ingredients for skin conditions such as dermatitis, especially perioral and seborrheic forms, as is methylisothiazolinone which dermatologists have recently cited as causing an eczema epidemic.”
The interest in products with ‘cleaner’ ingredients has clearly grown, according to Max Wiseberg, founder of HayMax hay fever products: “When we launched into Boots in 2008 there was one other product on their natural shelf. These days there is a whole shelf of products.” Wiseberg says that this could be due to many factors, not least that hay fever seems to be on an upwards turn in line with pollen counts.
According to the Royal College of General Practitioners, there has been a massive spike in the number of patients seeing GPs for hay fever symptoms, doubling between 2013 and 2014. According to the report, in June 2013, 5,560 people visited their GP in England and Wales with hay fever symptoms or allergic rhinitis. At the same time in 2014
this had increased to 11,873, representing a 114% jump year-on-year. Most of those affected are children aged five to 14, followed by people between 15 to 24.
Admission rates up
Hay fever isn’t the only allergy on the rise. The Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) has found that there were 20,320 hospital admissions for allergies between 2013 and 2014, up almost 8% on the previous year. The rate of admissions is highest in children aged from birth to four, with the number higher in males in this age group. The rate of admissions decreases overall with age, with a higher number of admissions in females than in males in the older age bands. Of all admissions, over half (61%) were emergency allergic reactions, up 6% on the previous year. Worryingly, the most dangerous form of reaction, anaphylactic shock, was up nearly 10%.
Of particular note in these figures is the rise in allergies affecting children. According to Child’s Farm founder Joanna Jensen, young skin has a greater risk of sensitivity because it is still growing and developing. “Babies don’t develop an acid mantle – outer layer of skin – until they are a month old, and this helps maintain moisture levels in the skin. Sebaceous glands don’t develop until we are teenagers, so oil regulation has to be helped too.”
She believes that parents especially are looking to the natural products market for both their children and themselves: “I believe people turn to natural products because the skin – the largest organ in our bodies – needs to be maintained and protected, and research has shown us the risks of using products which are synthetically created, on the young in particular.”
For natural products retailers, there is huge potential in this market. As Jensen points out, one in five children in the UK under five are suffering for atopic eczema, meaning one million kids need bathing products which can help with this issue.
“A retailer who is aware of these sorts of statistics will be able to respond to customers’ needs really quickly. The larger national chains are all over these trends, so monitoring how they change their offerings can offer a lot of insight to smaller retailers who don’t necessarily have the budget to spend on external consumer data,” she points out.
But it’s not only retailers who need to get smart, says Brown, staff need to be well-informed too: “Many customers are turning to natural supplements or products as a concerted choice but don’t have the security of a doctor’s prescription! They look to shop staff for reassurance that it’s the right product for them, and guidance on how to use it. This brings serious responsibility. Having qualified nutritionists and naturopaths on hand to offer this specialist advice is hugely important.”
As previously mentioned, customers with allergies often turn to natural products because they assume that the ingredients they contain are cleaner and less irritating, and Brown says it’s up to health food retailers to make sure they don’t fall victim to greenwashing: “I’d encourage retailers to do their homework and not be afraid to question brands on areas of concern. Stores are seen as gatekeepers. Customers expect this due diligence to have been done for them, but it’s not always the case.”
Finally, Wiseberg says retailers need to be proactive in their approach to allergy products: “For hay fever, you could post pollen counts every day – there are plenty of sites where you can get them. We do a lot of POS materials which can also help.
“If you haven’t got the products out in May, June and July then you’re going to be missing out on sales, as 95% of people with hay fever are allergic to grass pollen and these are the months for it.”
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