Fragrance Allergens

Could you soon be listing them on your labels?

Image used for illustrative purposes only

My colleague and I were at a client’s office reception and all of a sudden we caught a whiff of a new perfume. Within minutes his eyes began to water and he was sneezing non-stop. He had experienced fragrance sensitivity. A bit of research and talking to a couple of doctors made me realize that a sizable population report fragrance allergy.

The International Academy of Dermatology in the US has listed fragrance at number four in its Top 10 Allergens. Medical Experts say it is Fragrance ingredients in cosmetics that are often the cause of contact dermatitis; they represent 30-45% of allergic reactions.

Ingredients in the fragrance

A fragrance may contain anywhere from one to more than 400 individual components that are specific chemical entities. 90% of cosmetics and 95% of deodorants and anti-perspirants have fragrances, but only few manufacturers list the fragrance in their products. Some products labeled “unscented” may even contain fragrance ingredients. This is done to mask an unpleasant smell without giving it an attractive odor. Cosmetic companies procure ‘fragrance’ formulations from fragrance companies. Since these suppliers are not mandated by law to provide full ingredient disclosure to their buyers, they in turn cannot provide consumers with the full ingredient disclosure.. Hence they are unable to protect the health of their customers against the allergens, endocrine disruptors respiratory irritants, carcinogens, and neurotoxic chemicals that could be in the “fragrance.”

Is Fragrance Listing required by Regulators ?

Detailing fragrance components is not required by the regulators in the US, India and in most countries now, but it is required by manufacturers in the European Union (EU).  The ASEAN Cosmetics laws, New Zealand’s Cosmetics legislation, as well as China, Argentina and Brazil all assume compliance with fragrance allergen declaration and labeling. There is no legal definition to “fragrance-free” or “unscented.” These claims often mean there is no apparent scent, but fragrance allergens can still be present.  IFRA (the International Fragrance Association) estimates that fragrance allergen patients have been growing in number steadily in the last two decades , affecting up to 4 percent of consumers.It is important to note,fragrances don’t just occur in cosmetics – they are also found in detergents, toys, air fresheners and other home products. It is however estimated that 80% of the total fragrance chemical volume is used in cosmetics and 20% in household products.

Skin care brands sold in the EU and other countries mentioned above are required to list possible allergens on their labels and the 26 fragrance allergens identified. Both synthetic and natural fragrances and even essential oils may contain known allergens. Eight essential oils in particular are found to be extremely reactive in skin care, including: Cadanga odorata (ylang ylang), Eugenia caryophyllus (clove leaf/flower), Evernia furfuracea extract (treemoss), Evernia prunastri extract (oakmoss), Jasminum grandiflorum/officinale (jasmine), Myroxylon pereirae (balsam of Peru), Santalum album(Indian sandalwood) and turpentine oil (pine tree). These must be labeled when they occur at 0.001 % in a leave-on product or 0.01% in a rinse-off product. With increasing research , the number of fragrance allergens listed has changed multiple which is why you will see different figures quoted all around online.


Image for illustration purpose only.

How is Skin allergy caused?

Researchers have revealed the mechanism by which chemicals present in fragrances trigger skin allergy. According to the study, published in the journal Science Immunology, skin allergy may be triggered by chemicals in cosmetics due to the way they displace natural fat-like molecules – called lipids – in skin cells. According to them, an allergic reaction begins when the immune system’s T cells recognise a chemical as foreign. Further , the researchers infer that CD1a , a molecule abundant on the immune cells in the skin’s outer layer called Langerhans cells may be responsible for making the chemicals visible to T cells. The researchers identified the chemicals benzyl benzoate and benzyl cinnamate present in balsam of Peru and farnesol used in many cosmetics and personal care products as the causative agents for the reaction. Further analysis of one of the chemicals, farnesol, revealed that when it forms a complex with CD1a, the compound kicks out naturally occurring human lipids, making CD1a more visible to T cells, and leading to T cell activation. Fragrance allergy reactions can present in a variety of ways, from a rash to sneezing and migraines. Other reactions can include blisters, red bumps, itching or blotchiness. With repeated use of a cosmetic with an allergen, skin sensitization may result. The client may end up with a full allergic response, which may become permanent. Repeated exposure to a fragrance allergen can also lead to contact dermatitis or eczema. Photosen­sitization can also occur, making the client’s skin sensitive to light exposure.


With the number of people with sensitive skin growing , formulators must take special care. Offering products that include hydrating, calming, antibacterial and antimicrobial ingredients as other benefits may help.

Author : Sheela Iyer