Perfume and the Scent Sensitive

in Skin Allergy
Published: July 2, 2010

By Laura deCarufel

For many, a bottle of Chanel No. 5 is the dream gift. But for those with allergic contact dermatitis to fragrance – 3.4 per cent of North Americans at last count – it can be a nightmare. Brand-name perfumes can contain as many as 5,000 chemicals. Allergic Living asked Dr. Sandy Skotnicki to clear the air on the topic.

Skin Testing

“Usually it’s only a handful of individual fragrances that cause a problem,” says Skotnicki. Ask your dermatologist about patch testing, which uses eight of the most common fragrance ingredients known to cause contact dermatitis: cinnamic alcohol (a mix of scents), cinnamic aldehyde (part of the cinnamon essential oil), eugenol (clove scent), isoeugenol (component of ylang ylang), geraniol (present in lavender, geranium, jasmine and citronella oils), hydroxycitronella, oak moss absolute and alpha amyl cinnamic alcohol (odor of jasmine).

Skotnicki-Grant also recommends a test for an individual scent. Apply a small amount behind your ear for seven days; if after a week your skin is not reacting, you should be fine.

Chemicals In the Air

While true fragrance allergy is to the skin, a department store crowded with florals can irritate the airways of some asthmatics. Fragrance is also a known migraine trigger, and can potentially cause symptoms in those with sensitivities to chemicals. Such health issues are being taken seriously. In Halifax, Canada, for example, there is an official “no scent” awareness program in schools, hospitals and all city offices.

Final Note on Fragrance

Steer clear of products labeled “unscented.” They often contain masking agents that counteract unpleasant medicinal smells. Look for skincare and makeup lines that are fragrance-free, such as Almay, Clinique and La Roche-Posay’s superlative Toleriane line.

For fragrance, essential oils such as those from Neal’s Yard Remedies or The Body Shop are often safe bets (though there has been an increase in reactions to botanicals). L’Occitane makes some beautiful fragrances that aren’t packed with chemicals, as does Origins. Or, keep it simple with a lovely dab of pure vanilla extract.

First published in Allergic Living magazine.
To subscribe or order a back issue, click here.