Fragrance allergens

Sciensano evaluates products seized by federal departments to ensure that all allergenic fragrances are duly listed on the label. This measure allows the consumer to check the formulation of the products and avoid allergies.

What are allergenic fragrances?

Fragrances are used to give a pleasant odour or to mask an unpleasant odour. They are found in a wide range of consumer products:

  • cosmetic products (shower gels, soaps, creams, shampoos, toothpastes, make-up, etc.)
  • cleaning products (detergents, softeners, etc.)
  • aromatherapy products (scented candles, essential oils, home fragrances, etc.).

Please note! These fragrances can cause skin irritation or allergies. But other substances in cosmetics can also be irritating or allergenic: preservatives (Methylisothiazolinone), surfactants (Sodiul lauryl sulfate, Ammonium lauryl sulfate), UV filters (Benzophenone-1 and -3), dyes (P- Phenylenediamine), etc.

What are the allergenic fragrances used in cosmetics?

The fragrance database lists no fewer than 2,500 ingredients used to formulate a fragrance.  A perfume formula can contain several hundred fragrances. This mixture appears on the label under the name “Fragrance Mix” or “Perfume”. 

In 1999, the Scientific Committee for Consumer Safety of the European Commission identified 26 allergenic fragrances to be identified on the label. 

List A: Chemical fragrances which, according to current knowledge, are the most frequently reported and recognised as allergens for consumers:

  • Amyl cinnamal 
  • Amylcinnamyl alcohol 
  • Benzyl alcohol 
  • Benzyl salicylate
  • Cinnamyl alcohol 
  • Cinnamal
  • Citral 
  • Coumarin 
  • Eugenol 
  • Geraniol 
  • Hydroxycitronellal 
  • Hydroxymethylpentyl-cyclohexenecarboxaldehyde 
  • Isoeugenol 

List B: chemical fragrances that are less often reported and more rarely documented as allergens for consumers:

  • Anisyl alcohol 
  • Benzyl benzoate 
  • Benzyl cinnamate 
  • Citronellol 
  • Farnesol
  • Hexyl cinnamaldehyde 
  • Lilial 
  • d-Limonene 
  • Linalool
  • Methyl heptine carbonate 
  • 3-Methyl-4-(2,6,6-trimethyl-2-cyclohexen-1-yl)-3-buten-2-one

Two fragrances of natural origin have been added: 

  • Oak moss 
  • Tree moss.

Since 1999, 127 other established and probable contact allergens have been identified by the Scientific Committee for Consumer Safety of the European Commission. The labelling of consumer products containing them is recommended. 

What are the health risks of allergenic perfumes?

Allergic perfumes can cause skin reactions that usually take the form of redness, blisters, vesicles, etc. Skin reactions are very common and can have a significant impact on quality of life.

A distinction is made between different types of skin reactions:

  • Irritations
  • urticaria
  • contact allergies
  • photosensitization.

DID YOU KNOW? Skin irritations are often confused with skin allergies. Irritations always occur at the place in contact with the irritant substance while the allergy may appear in different places.

Fragrances are volatile substances and therefore, in addition to the skin, the eyes, nose and respiratory tract are also exposed. Fragrances can also exacerbate pre-existing asthma.

How is an allergy to perfume developed?

Allergy is a complex mechanism that develops in some people with a genetic predisposition. It takes place in two stages: 

  • the sensitization stage
  • the reaction stage. 

For an allergy to develop, a person must have been exposed to a sufficient amount of allergen. The allergen penetrates the skin and binds to a protein in the skin. The immune system will consider this substance wrongly as harmful and develop a series of reactions causing allergic symptoms.

Once the allergy has developed, it lasts a lifetime. Whenever the sensitized person is exposed to this allergen, their immune system will develop allergic reactions. Long-term exposure to allergenic fragrances can lead to a chronic allergy with painful cracks on the skin.

How to prevent reactions to allergenic fragrances?

Allergic reactions are due to the presence of allergenic fragrances in the environment. To avoid allergic reactions, the solution is to avoid exposure to these allergenic perfumes.

To this end, labeling and consumer information are paramount. If they are familiar with the names of the allergenic fragrances, consumers can consult a dermatologist or an allergist who will carry out tests to identify substances to avoid. 

Sciensano’s Medicines and health products service evaluates products seized by federal departments to ensure that all allergenic fragrances are duly listed on the label.  

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