by Rajani Katta, M.D.
What do you think of when you hear the word “fragrance”? Many of us think about perfume or cologne. If you’re allergic to fragrance, though, it doesn’t stop there.
If you’re allergic to fragrance, you should definitely avoid perfumes. But fragrance is found in MANY other products. In fact, the vast majority of personal care products sold in the United States contains some type of fragrance.
That means that you’ll need to be careful with all sorts of creams, lotions, cosmetics, hair care products, and other skin care products. In other words, you’ll need to be cautious with ALL of your skin care products.
You’ll also need to read labels. And you’ll need to learn some basic facts about fragrance allergy, because this is a surprisingly complicated area. You can’t just choose a “fragrance-free” or “all-natural” product and be done with it. Fragrance, and fragrance allergy, are complicated. There are actually hundreds of different fragrance additives, and many of them are chemically related to one another.
Fragrance on a Label:
What It Means
The word “fragrance” on a label can be very misleading. When you’re reading that one word, it sounds like it’s one ingredient. In fact, studies have shown that this one word can indicate the presence of 40 or more different ingredients. That one “fragrance” word on a label should really be “secret mixture of fragrance additives.”
What is Fragrance?
The term “fragrance” refers to a group of substances. There are hundreds of different substances that can be categorized as fragrance additives. Many of these are all-natural substances, derived from plants. Others are synthetic chemicals. Since many of these ingredients are chemically related to each other, it’s common for patients to react to more than one.
Labeling Terms Are Not Always Helpful
Even using products labeled “fragrance-free” or “unscented” may not help, as some of these can legally contain fragrance additives. In fact, a recent US study that looked at best-selling body moisturizers found that for products that claimed to be “fragrance free”, 45% of these products actually contained at least 1 fragrance cross-reactor or botanical ingredient.
That’s why I DON’T just tell my patients to use products labeled as “fragrance-free”. Instead, I recommend a short list of products. These are products for which I’ve personally reviewed the entire ingredient list and can confirm that they are truly fragrance-free.
All-Natural Fragrances Are Just as Concerning
Many of my patients in recent years have turned to essential oils or all-natural products for their sensitive skin. Some have turned to products that are labeled with the term “no synthetic fragrances”. This particular term may also not be helpful, though — even 100% natural fragrances frequently cause allergic reactions.
This product advertises its natural ingredients…
…and (correctly) advertises that it contains no synthetic fragrances…
Hidden Fragrance Chemicals
It’s difficult, even if you’re reading labels carefully, to identify all fragrance additives. You should definitely avoid products with “fragrance” or “perfume” or “parfum” in the ingredient list. However, even preservatives such as benzyl alcohol, or moisturizing ingredients such as rose oil, can act as fragrance additives. These ingredients may even be legally used in products that are labeled “fragrance-free”. This post discusses this issue in more detail.
Other Products That May Contain Fragrance
If you’re allergic to fragrance, you do need to be aware of other types of products and exposures. Be careful with household products, such as floor cleaners, room fresheners, aromatherapy products, and household cleansers. I’ve seen several reactions from essential oil diffusers, so be cautious. Even products worn by your spouse or children can cause problems if they come into contact with your skin.
The natural fragrances in aromatherapy candles and essential oil diffusers can also trigger allergic reactions.
The Bottom Line
Fragrance allergy is a complex area, and fragrances can be challenging to avoid. Be careful with all skin care products, and ask your dermatologist for product recommendations that are truly fragrance-free.
Dr. Katta is the author of “Glow: The Dermatologist’s Guide to a Whole Foods Younger Skin Diet” and you can read more of her work in her blog.
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Dr. Rajani Katta is a board-certified dermatologist and recognized expert in allergic contact dermatitis. She has a deep passion for developing well-researched and practical educational resources that help people take action. For at least 17 years, she was a member of the clinical faculty for both the Baylor College of Medicine and the McGovern Medical School. She also serves as a member of the Media Expert Team of the American Academy of Dermatology.
She is the author of numerous medical journal articles and seven published books on the link between skin and diet, as well as allergic reactions of the skin. Her latest book, Glow: The Dermatologist’s Guide to a Whole Foods Younger Skin Diet, provides an evidence-based and practical approach to eating for younger skin.
Dr. Katta is the recipient of multiple awards recognizing her commitment to excellence in patient care, teaching, and research. A few of these awards are the National Merit Scholar, American Medical Women’s Association Scholastic Achievement Award, Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society and Women’s Dermatological Society Mentorship Grant.
She has also been part of the Texas Super Doctors® list since 2016. Follow Dr. Katta and find out about the “GLOW” diet when you read her posts on expert tips for health, skin and soul!