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When you see ‘perfume’ listed on the ingredients label of skin care products, it represents a combination of compounds which all make up the scent of the product. It isn’t possible to tell what all of these compounds are if just the term ‘perfume’ is used so it is hard to narrow down what exactly you are allergic to. In fact fragrances are an ingredient in almost everything we use, from tissues and bin-bags to moisturiser and perfume. 30% of the public report adverse health effects from being exposed to scents (Steinemann). A typical cosmetic can contain between 50 and 100 fragrances often to mask the smell of the basic product. Synthetic and natural fragrances can cause a range of symptoms from migraines and rashes to difficulty concentrating, breathing problems and even seizures and collapse. Reactions can be immediate or delayed by hours or days. Reactions occur from inhalation and skin contact, and chemicals can be absorbed into the blood through the skin. Children in particular tend to be more sensitive to fragrances. Perfume/ aftershave is the most common trigger for men, possibly because the skin gets damaged during shaving increasing the chances of absorbing the chemicals (WEN). Up to 72% of asthmatics are affected by fragrance (Mintel) as well as many people who have M.E. or are undergoing chemotherapy. Those who suffer from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) can have severe reactions to very small traces of fragrances in products that other people use. People with asthma, allergies, or other respiratory disorders may also be more susceptible to the effects of fragranced products at levels that are much lower than what might cause problems for those in the general population (Lamas, Sanchez-Prado, Garcia-Jares, & Llompart, 2010). According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), fragrances are considered the leading cause of cosmetic contact dermatitis. As a health problem, this sensitivity alone affects more than 2 million people, and studies suggest that sensitivity is on the rise. Download our free leaflet 'How to be Fragrance Free' here and find out which fragrance-free products are useful for Multiple Chemical Sensitivity.

What's on the Label?

The word ‘parfum’ is used to denote fragrance in a bodycare product. Parfum is made up of dozens of chemicals containing solvents similar to those used in adhesives, as well as benzene derivatives, aldehydes and many other known toxins capable of causing cancer, birth defects, and central nervous system disorders.

Once in the body, they easily breach the blood brain barrier – the protective membrane designed to keep toxins away from sensitive brain cells – and produce symptoms resonant with central nervous system (CNS) disruption - headache, mental confusion, listlessness, inability to concentrate, irritability, seizures, restlessness, agitation, depression, sleepiness.

Many bodycare products are heavily perfumed, and at least one study has demonstrated links between heavy perfume exposure during pregnancy, and learning disabilities and behaviour disorders in children. Studies have also shown that inhaling fragrance chemicals can cause circulatory changes in the brain.

In addition to being inhaled, fragrances can be absorbed through the skin – especially through children’s skin, which is thinner than that of adults. The greater the emollient quality of the product you are using (think skin creams, roll on deodorants, etc) the greater the absorbency. While fragrance chemicals can be quick to saturate the blood, they are slow to clear from the body. When they penetrate the skin they can cause discoloration of internal organs. They can also be toxic to the liver and kidneys. Still others accumulate in fatty tissue and leech slowly back into the system, or are passed on to our children through breast milk.

Labelling rules have changed in the last couple of years and manufacturers of cosmetics – and household cleaners – must list any of the 24 fragrances that the EU’s Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products and Non-Food Products (SCCNFP) has identified as common contact allergies.perfumes-set

But the fragrances not listed on the label are still potentially powerful enough to trigger more subtle emotional symptoms or longer-term health problems. Even some natural essences can cause allergic reactions in some individuals, though these are rare because natural essences are derived from the whole plant, and are believed to contain a variety of naturally occurring chemicals that mitigate any potential allergic reactions. If in doubt, or if you are very sensitive, you may wish to avoid scented products entirely.

From Pat Thomas


Health Legislation

All cosmetic, toiletry and perfumery products placed on the market in the UK (and throughout the EU) are regulated by European legislation, the Cosmetics Directive (76/768/EEC). The primary purpose of these laws is to protect human safety. The manufacturer or supplier of the cosmetic product is responsible for ensuring it is safe and each cosmetic must be assessed for safety by a duly qualified safety assessor before it is made available to the public.

The Cosmetics Directive also controls what may or may not be put in a cosmetic. There are lists of substances that must not be present and lists of substances that may be used as ingredients subject to particular restrictions. For example, some ingredients must not exceed a certain level or may only be used in rinse-off products.

In addition, certain classes of ingredients (colours, UV filters and preservatives) are closely controlled and only those individual ingredients pre-approved and listed in the Cosmetics Directive are allowed for these purposes.

Information relating to each cosmetic product, including its formula, its method of manufacture and its safety assessment, must be readily available to the competent authorities on request. Some of this information is also open to public inspection on request and further information may be found online.

The seventh amendment of the European Union (EU) Cosmetics Directive (March 2005) and the Detergents Regulations of the EU (October 2005) are now legal requirements in Europe. Cosmetic products and detergents must be labelled for 26 individual named fragrances, when present at concentrations of > 10 parts per million (p.p.m.) in leave-on products and > 100 p.p.m. in rinse-off products.

If you would like to know more about the cosmetic laws and the manufacture of cosmetics, see the CTPA's public website.

REACH (Registration, Evaluation & Authorisation of Chemicals) is a comprehensive European law that controls the safety of chemicals. To ensure a high level of protection, this law requires data to be submitted on human and environmental safety. It applies to all chemicals made in the European Union (EU), or imported into the EU, including certain natural substances and those substances used in cosmetic products. It is intended to address any public concern about the use of chemicals

Fragrance Free Labelling

Unscented or unperfumed products may well contain a small amount of fragrance to cover-up, or mask, the natural smell of the ingredients in the product.

perfumesAll ingredients used in a cosmetic, toiletry and perfumery product must be listed on the ingredients list. To avoid having to know ingredient names in many different languages the industry has agreed on a common naming system called the International Nomenclature for Cosmetic Ingredients, or INCI. The same ingredient names are used in every European country and most countries worldwide.

An ingredients list should always appear in the same format and use the same conventions:

  • It should be headed by the word INGREDIENTS.
  • Ingredients should be listed in order of weight in the product
  • Ingredient names are from the INCI naming system
  • Perfume mixtures are labelled as "parfum" except for certain specific perfume ingredients which are listed by INCI name
  • Flavours, such as in toothpaste, may be listed as "Aroma"
  • Colours use the Colour Index Number, or CI Number, an international naming system, for example "CI 15580"

For colour cosmetics, such as make-up and lipstick, which come in a range of shades, all of the colours used in the product range are listed together at the end of the list preceded by the "may contain" symbol which is a simple "+/-". Each particular shaded product will use a selection of the colours listed.

If you want to avoid fragrance altogether, you must look at the ingredients list, which is usually on the outer packaging or close by at the point of sale. Any added fragrance is always identified by the word ‘parfum’ in the ingredients list. You must also avoid any essential oils because, as well as having a strong smell, they often have the same natural constituents that are used in fragrances.

Accommodating Employees with Fragrance Sensitivity

Some employers are choosing to have a voluntary fragrance-free policy, educating employees about fragrance sensitivities and requesting employees to voluntarily refrain from wearing fragrances. Employers who have concerns about the legalities of implementing a fragrance-free policy as an accommodation should consult an appropriate legal professional. An excellent guide to acomodating employees with fragrance sensitivity can be found on this website:

More Information

The EC’s public consultation documents on fragrance allergens in cosmetic products can be found here.

The SCCS Opinion on Fragrance Allergens in Cosmetics Products (PDF) is here.

The Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association has lots of information for the consumer and dermatologists on skincare, allergies, labelling and ingredients. Visit here.

Prevalence of Fragrance Sensitivity in the American Population, Caress and Steinemann,2009, pubmed research here or  pdf here

There is a useful list of interesting articles about fragrance sensitivity at

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