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The Issue with Lanolin in Sheep Wool: Understanding Allergenic Reaction

by Matt Keasey on Apr 25, 2024

The Issue with Lanolin in Sheep Wool: Understanding Allergenic Reaction

Lanolin is a waxy substance secreted by the sebaceous glands of wool-bearing animals, predominantly sheep. While it serves critical functions for sheep, its presence in wool products can be problematic for humans, particularly those with allergies or sensitive skin.

Function of Lanolin in Sheep Wool

In sheep, lanolin acts as a waterproofing wax, which is crucial for protecting the animal from harsh weather conditions. It helps to repel water from their coat, ensuring that sheep remain dry and insulated even in wet environments. Scientifically, lanolin also plays a role in protecting sheep's skin from infection and extreme temperature variations. The complex mixture of esters, diesters, and hydroxy esters in lanolin serves to both condition the wool and skin of the sheep, keeping it supple and healthy.

Lanolin as an Allergen

Despite its beneficial properties for sheep, lanolin is a known allergen for humans. It can cause allergic contact dermatitis, a form of skin inflammation triggered by an allergic reaction to substances in contact with the skin. The allergenic potential of lanolin has been recognized in clinical dermatology; according to a review published in the journal Dermatitis, lanolin is among the top allergens that contribute to allergic contact dermatitis (Zug et al., 2009).

The mechanism behind lanolin's allergenicity lies in its complex chemical structure, which can modify skin proteins and lead to an immune response. The immune system may recognize these modified skin proteins as foreign, triggering an allergic reaction characterized by redness, itching, and sometimes blistering.

Addressing Lanolin Sensitivity

For individuals with known sensitivities, avoiding lanolin-containing products is recommended. In the textile industry, especially in the processing of sheep wool, lanolin is often removed during the scouring process; however, traces can remain in the wool, potentially causing irritation.

Hypoallergenic wool products or those certified as 'lanolin-free' are treated to remove most, if not all, of the lanolin, reducing the risk of allergic reactions. Moreover, advancements in textile processing and the development of stringent purification techniques have improved the safety of wool products for sensitive users.

Alternatives to Sheep Wool

For those who are allergic or sensitive to lanolin, alternative fibers such as alpaca, cotton, or synthetic fibers may be preferable. Alpaca wool, for instance, is naturally lanolin-free and hypoallergenic, making it an excellent choice for those with allergies to lanolin.


While lanolin serves important functions for sheep, its allergenic potential in humans cannot be overlooked. Understanding and addressing the issues related to lanolin allergies is crucial for manufacturers and consumers alike, especially those involved in the production and use of wool products. Through careful processing and informed consumer choices, the benefits of wool can be enjoyed without discomfort or harm.


  • Zug, K. A., Warshaw, E. M., Fowler, J. F. Jr., Maibach, H. I., Belsito, D. V., Pratt, M. D., Sasseville, D., Storrs, F. J., Taylor, J. S., Mathias, C. G. T., DeLeo, V. A., Rietschel, R. L., Marks, J. (2009). Patch-test results of the North American Contact Dermatitis Group 2005-2006. Dermatitis, 20(3), 149-160.

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