Perfume Allergy and the Battle over Scent Labeling

in Features, Fragrance, Indoor Allergies
Published: January 13, 2014

perfume bottles (2)Europe weighs strict limits on several allergens in fragrances, a move that could impact famous brands and shoppers around the globe. The fragrance makers, of course, are hopping (and spritzing) mad. In a case of allergy vs. Goliath, who will win? (From the Allergic Living archives.)

Once, Jennifer Beckinsale loved to dab Chanel on herself before going out for the evening. Its scent, a playful whiff of flowers and spice, made her feel fresh and beautiful – but no longer. Now, the Chicago-area native is scared to try most personal care products, never mind perfume, because she has no idea what’s in them.

In 2004, she had her first episode of contact dermatitis, an itchy, red, scaly, blistering eczema that is an allergic reaction. Finally diagnosed with a host of allergies about five years later, she knows that using anything scented is dangerous because in the United States, all a product label needs to say about perfumed ingredients is that it contains fragrance, period.

“It’s frustrating,” the 29-year-old office worker and allergy blogger said in an interview. “I don’t want to gamble with my health. I don’t understand why there are no laws here that require manufacturers to state what is used to create the fragrance – the same kind of warning label that specifies a product may have nuts or gluten.”

A fast-growing number of Americans report having adverse reactions to fragrance, from breathing problems to headaches and contact dermatitis. Most of them won’t have true fragrance allergies but the ones who do must, like Beckinsale, avoid essentially everything that is scented in order to stay healthy.

“Usually, people aren’t allergic to every fragrance but because of the lack of labeling, they can’t take a chance,” said Dr. Lisa Garner, a dermatologist in Garland, Texas. “We should be looking to the European Union, which has required fragrance allergen labeling of many ingredients for a number of years.”

Europe, Perfume and Allergy Labels

Ah, Europe: home to tradition and high style, fashion houses and le monde de parfum. Close your eyes and it’s easy to imagine the Empress Josephine being so partial to musk, the scent of it reportedly lingered in her boudoir for 60 years after her death. It was Harry Selfridge, the founder of the eponymous department store in London, who introduced cosmetics and perfume counters right at the store’s grand entrance: back in 1910, carriages pulled by horses were the main form of transport and the scents helped to mask the odor of manure. The horses may be gone but perfume’s prominent status has endured.

Despite its pedigree in the field of scent, the European Union is also a leader in allergy and asthma research and requires that the presence of 26 fragrance allergens be clearly labeled on cosmetics, cologne and perfume.

The allergens were first pinpointed in a 1999 study and have names only a chemistry graduate could love. Think “eugenol,” a spicy essential oil extract from cloves and roses. Or “anisyl alcohol,” used to enhance delicate floral scents such as lilac and mimosa. And hydroxyisohexyl 3-cyclohexene-carboxaldehyde, a synthetic blending chemical with an unwieldy name often shortened to HICC. It’s used in a wide range of personal care products and has a delicate smell reminiscent of lilies or cyclamen.

All of this means that, no matter if you’re in Paris, Brussels or a remote village in Spain – the information on a product’s package helps to minimize the chance of you having an allergic reaction.

A few years ago, the EU decided it was time to review the list. The result was a 334-page scientific report, released in the summer of 2012, which proposes an outright ban on three key components and tight restrictions on 12 others.

“Fragrance allergies are an important health problem,” says London dermatologist Dr. Ian White, who led the investigation. “And our job was clear: to assess the risk in order to protect the consumer to the best of our ability.”

Uproar over Perfume Allergy Updates

Yet the report caused an uproar. The recommendation that 12 of the allergens, including eugenol, citral (from lemon and tangerine oils) and coumarin (from tonka beans and apricots) be limited to .01 per cent of a finished product would render them useless as components, charges a spokesman for the perfume industry. “Almost all of those materials are naturally derived substances,” says Stephen Weller of the International Fragrance Association. “You could put them into a product at 100 parts per million, but that is no good for smelling.”

The real backlash – the one that made perfume company representatives practically swoon in horror – was reserved for the outright ban proposed for HICC, tree moss and oak moss, which White says have all started to cause more allergies. HICC is widely used in soaps, eau de toilettes, aftershaves and deodorants, and is the chemical most frequently linked to fragrance allergies – with 1.5 percent of the European population now allergic to it.

The tree and oak mosses, derived from lichen, are ingredients that give classics such as Chanel No. 5, Miss Dior and Mitsouko by Guerlain their distinctive, long-lasting woodsy notes. There were cries that if the recommendation to ban the three components becomes law, it will be the end of perfume as we know it.

The proposed ban is a threat to Europe’s “olfactory cultural heritage,” warned a spokesperson for LVMH, the luxury goods empire that produces scents including Miss Dior and Mitsouko. Sylvie Jourdet of the French perfumers’ society told British Vogue that “Chanel No. 5 has never done any harm to anyone. It is the death of perfume if this continues.”

These Allergies ‘Affect Life’

White, the straight-talking dermatologist, has heard the outcry, but stands firm that health comes first. “We estimate that 1 to 3 per cent of Europeans have fragrance allergies,” he said from his office at the St. John’s Institute of Dermatology.

“That doesn’t mean their hands get a bit chapped or they get a spot of rash behind an ear after dabbing on a drop of $100 perfume. These kinds of allergies affect quality of life. People quit their jobs. They lose their livelihoods. They can’t sleep. It’s a public health issue, nothing less,” he says.

The EU parliament is considering whether to update the current legislation – and the debate is shaping up to be a battle between the world of medicine and one where tradition, scent and profit intertwine to the tune of $25 billion a year worldwide, including the $9.5 billion American market for fragrance, cosmetics and skin care.

The companies have since gone silent, letting the IFRA’s Weller respond in more measured tones. Perhaps the companies will end up having to highlight a product’s allergens on labels more clearly, he says. Or maybe, in a world where most consumers have smartphones, they’ll develop apps that have ingredient information easily available at the touch of a finger.

“Yes, if these recommendations are implemented as is, a lot of iconic brands would have to be reformulated. In the end, there’s always compromise, we are hoping for proportionate measures,” he says. White, who has completed his term as chairman of the scientific committee, believes the recommendation should stand as is – and says that if history is any guide, the perfume companies will simply use the considerable funds at their disposal to find new ingredients.

“It’s not as if they haven’t done that before,” he says. “Fragrances are like fashion and fashions come and go. They change. They evolve.” Besides, when the health of the consumer is at stake, he doesn’t think there should be an argument, period.

“The safety of the people should be the highest law,” he said. “The quote is from Cicero – and I once used it while being questioned by politicians in the European Parliament. All of a sudden, the room went quiet. No one had a response.”

Impact of Regulations

Back in Chicago, Beckinsale has mostly had to teach herself how to deal with her allergy issues. “Regulations and labeling like they have over in Europe would totally change my world,” she says wistfully.

She would still have to take precautions about her other skin triggers, such as nickel, but to browse pharmacy shelves of shampoos and the beauty departments of the big department stores without fearing for her health would be liberating.

If the even stricter European regulations go through, that could even open the door to her finding a famous brand safe scent, which still seems an impossible dream.

“I’d be able to go out on a date with my boyfriend and wear a little perfume without having to worry,” she says, excited just considering the prospect. “Being able to smell good? How wonderful would that be?”


  • Nearly three-quarters of the 26 million Americans with asthma say that scents are a trigger for their condition.
  • There are two types of contact dermatitis – irritant and allergic. Statistics suggest 3 to 9 million Americans have allergic contact dermatitis. However, a Mayo Clinic study published in 2010 suggests that the standard patch test may not include enough potential triggers, and that fragrance reactivity is more common than previously thought.
  • In a University of West Georgia study, 30 per cent of study participants reported finding fragrance irritating, and 19 percent reported adverse health effects from air fresheners.
  • More than 2,500 chemicals are used in the making of fragrance, and any one scented product may contain from 50 to 300 of them.

See also:
Fragrance Sensitivity: Hard to Breathe, Tough to Touch