Why you should avoid fragrance in cosmetics
There was a time when perfumes and fragrances were reserved for royalty. Many of the key ingredients were difficult to obtain and purify, making them exorbitantly priced and unattainable for all but society’s wealthiest. With advancements in chemistry, however, rare and exotic ingredients could be replicated in the laboratory, making fragrances much more affordable. Today, fragrance in cosmetics can be found in around 87% of products; they would often be listed as ‘parfum’ in the ingredients. While this may seem good for our noses, it may not be so good for our skin.
What are fragrances?
Fragrances are composed of small, light molecules that readily evaporate into the air at room temperature, which is how we’re able to smell them. Unfortunately, these same properties also make them more likely to penetrate the skin and be absorbed. Making fragrance in cosmetics and other household products the leading cause of contact allergy to cosmetics.
Why fragrance in cosmetics may cause contact allergy and sensitisation
Small fragrance molecules easily breach the skin’s outer defences, the stratum corneum, but they’re soon caught and bound by deeper cells called keratinocytes. The body doesn’t respond to this first attack, and you’ll be blissfully ignorant that anything happened, but the body remembers. If it decides the invaders could present a real threat in the future, information about them is relayed to the lymph nodes, which is the equivalent of handing out ‘Wanted’ posters. From there, a special task force of antibodies is assembled, ready to respond should the invaders attempt another assault. In most people this task force carries out their mission quickly and quietly, eliminating the antigen without causing any damage. But in people that have been sensitised the body releases histamine and other inflammatory mediators in what’s known as a hypersensitivity reaction, which is like killing a spider with a rocket-launcher, resulting in redness, swelling and itching that can persist for days or even weeks after the invaders are gone.
The ubiquity of fragrances
Fragrances are usually added at very low concentrations, but hidden behind that single word ‘parfum’ near the end of the ingredient list could be dozens or even hundreds of fragrance components. There are thousands of unique fragrance ingredients out there, and many of them have been identified as allergens. The most common allergens to watch out for are:
Cinnamal; Cinnamic alcohol; α-amyl cinnamal; Eugenol; Isoeugenol; Hydroxycitronellal; Geraniol; Evernia prunastri (oak moss); HICC; Citral; Farnesol; Coumarin; Citronellol; α-hexyl cinnamal.
Fragrances are more available than ever before, not only in perfumes and cosmetics, but in everything from air fresheners to detergents and laundry liquids to signature scents in hotel rooms. You may not be bothered by the increasing pervasiveness of parfum at the moment, you may even enjoy it, but fragrance sensitivity is on the rise. It’s important to realise that sensitivity to fragrance in cosmetics and fragrances in general can develop with time and increased exposure—it can take up to 10 years for some allergies to develop. Not only that, but when you consider the average Australian woman uses between 9 and 15 personal care products per day, there is potential for the different fragrances to clash. It’s also important to know the difference between fragrance-free and unscented products. By choosing fragrance-free products where possible you can cut the number of different chemicals your skin is exposed to throughout the day, as well as potentially limiting your chances of developing a fragrance allergy in the future.
Yazar K, Johnsson S, Lind M-L, Boman A, Lidén C. Preservatives and fragrances in selected consumer-available cosmetics and detergents. Contact Dermatitis 2011;64(5):265–72.
Jacob SE, Steele T. Allergic contact dermatitis: early recognition and diagnosis of important allergens. Dermatol Nurs 2006;18(5):433–9, 446.
Jones O, Selinger B. The chemistry of cosmetics [Internet]. Aust. Acad. Sci.2015 [cited 2018 Mar 15];Available from: https://www.science.org.au/curious/people-medicine/chemistry-cosmetics
Heisterberg MV, Menné T, Johansen JD. Contact allergy to the 26 specific fragrance ingredients to be declared on cosmetic products in accordance with the EU cosmetics directive. Contact Dermatitis 2011;65(5):266–75.
Nardelli A, Carbonez A, Ottoy W, Drieghe J, Goossens A. Frequency of and trends in fragrance allergy over a 15-year period. Contact Dermatitis 2008;58(3):134–41.
Lunder Tomaž, Kansky Aleksej. Increase in contact allergy to fragrances: patch‐test results 1989–1998. Contact Dermatitis 2001;43(2):107–9.
Weller RB, Hunter HJA, Mann MW, editors. Allergic contact dermatitis. In: Clinical Dermatology. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell; 2015. page 84–7.
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