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? (This article is from the Summer 2013 edition of Allergic Living magazine.)

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.”


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.

Three 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.”

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