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How to avoid fragrance allergies Episode 13

This week you’ll learn all about fragrance allergies – what they are and how to avoid them. We also update our discussion on pore minimizing products AND we poke fun at Refinery29’s article about using left over alcohol on your hair.  Bonus: Our first (and probably last) beauty science joke!

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Question of the week

Nicole’s question: I was recently diagnosed with orris root allergy. My doctor says it is not often listed and that it falls under the category of general fragrances. Am I safe if I use fragrance free products or do I need to look for hypoallergenic products? Also, are there any other ingredients I should avoid?”

Disclaimer: We’re not doctors and we can’t give you medical advice. But we can explain how fragrance allergen labeling works and what hypoallergenic really means.

What is orris root and why is it used in personal care products

Apparently “orris” is a variation on the name “iris” so orris root comes from the root of certain iris species. It’s also related to the lilly. Its official INCI name is “Iris Florentina (Orris) Root Powder” but it’s known by many other names: such Yellow Iris, Flag Lilly, Myrtle Flower, and Poison Flag.

The root of the orris plant is used to make herbal medicines and can be found alone, and in combination with other herbs, in homeopathic dilutions and tea preparations.  It can supposedly purify the blood and do all other sorts of things that are completely unsubstantiated.

It does have a nice, light violet scent and so it is prized as a perfume ingredient. Actually it’s multipurpose because in addition to adding the floral scent it also can “fix” the scent of other fragrance oils. It helps to slow their evaporation and binds them to the skin so the fragrance is longer lasting. It used to be commonly used in face powders – until it was discovered that it can be irritating. But is still used today as a fragrance component and apparently it’s quite common in potpourris and sachets (because of staying power.)

As Nicole’s doctor rightly pointed out, since it’s a fragrance ingredient it doesn’t have to be listed as part of the ingredients. That’s because fragrances are composed of hundreds of different chemicals and it’s just not practical to list ALL those individual chemicals. The exception to this rule is for fragrance components that have been identified as known allergens – THEY have to be listed.

What is a fragrance allergen?

Because fragrances are composed of so many chemicals and because these chemicals tend to be reactive, it’s not uncommon for a small percentage of people to have a reaction to some of these compounds. Depending on which study you believe the numbers are as low as 1 to 3% for Europe or as high as 10% for parts of Scandinavia.

The two most common reactions to fragrance are skin allergies and skin irritations. Even though people will say “I’m allergic to this fragrance” most of the time they are having an irritant reaction and not a true skin allergy. The difference is that allergic reactions typically take about a day or so to develop while irritation occurs almost immediately. Once you’ve developed a true allergy it’s a life long problem and every time you’re exposed to that chemical you may experience redness, swelling and pus-filled vesicles. Regardless of where you apply the product, the reaction may show up on your face, hands or armpits.

If a certain ingredient irritates you then you’ll only have a reaction on the spot where you applied the product. Also, the irritation may not occur every time you’re exposed to the chemical because the effect also depends on the irritation potential of the other ingredients in the product and their concentrations. So just because “lavender” irritates you in one product doesn’t necessarily mean that every lavender product will bother you.

But regardless whether it’s irritation or allergy you’ll want to avoid fragrance chemicals which bother you. Fortunately, the fragrance industry has worked out a way to label these allergens.

How to tell if a product contains fragrance allergens

A number of industry organizations (including The Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products and Non-food products (SCCNFP) and the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM)) have developed an official list of allergens. If a product contains any of these materials, they must be disclosed on the label. Typically they are presented at the end of the ingredient list.

Right now in the US there are 26 allergens which require labeling . The EU started with 26 but now has expanded that to 127 (not sure if these are proposed for labeling of already ratified and what is the US status.)

There are three lists of allergens, follow the links for some scintillating reading:

Surprisingly, orris root is NOT listed on any of these lists. The list is re-reviewed every so often so new allergens can be added as they are identified so hopefully if orris root is a common enough allergen (and it appears that it is) it will hopefully be added to the list.

Is hypoallergenic helpful or just hype?

Unfortunately, looking for hypoallergenic products doesn’t really guarantee you very much. Here’s what hypoallergenic means: First, companies typically try to formulate using mildest ingredients possible. However, there is no mandated list of ingredients that you have to use or, have to exclude, to be considered hypoallergenic.

Second, beauty companies send their product to a testing company for what is known as “patch testing.” Essentially this involves putting some of the product on the skin of volunteers, covering the product with a patch, and then evaluating the panelists skin over time for a reaction. If there is little or no reaction to the product then the company can say it is hypoallergenic.

This is a marketing claim and is it basically it means “won’t cause an allergic response in most people.” But here’s why the test doesn’t mean much – if the product being tested contains orris root and no one on the test panel has an orris root allergy, then the product could pass the hypo allergenicity test. Just passing this test doesn’t certify that the product is free from every possible allergen. So that’s why, in this case, looking for fragrance free products is better than looking for ones that have been labeled “hypoallergenic.”

The bottom line

The good news is that Orris root is used almost exclusively as part of a fragrance. Using fragrance free products AND double checking the label to make sure orris root is not added as a separate ingredient for some other reason should be sufficient to protect you. Hypoallergenic products could theoretically still contain orris root since that term is more for marketing.





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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Nicole January 14, 2014, 5:11 pm

    Hi, I am really enjoying your informative podcasts and have a question. As you rightly stated, a lot of common natural extracts used in skincare products are known allergens. The human allergen link provided lists individual chemicals and natural extracts. My question is: if a natural extract is not on the list (eg Palmarosa Oil) but does have a main chemical compound of geraniol (which is on the list) do you need to list both INCI name for Palmarosa AND geraniol? Or does geraniol only apply if it was added as a synthetic ingredient? Really appreciate your thoughts on this, Nicole

    • Randy Schueller January 14, 2014, 5:41 pm

      Hi Nicole. Thanks for the kind words about our podcast. It’s a new endeavor for us and we appreciate the positive feedback. (We’re also open too constructive criticism, so if there’s anything you DON’T like please let us know that too!)

      To answer your question, the only requirement is to list the allergen itself. Individual fragrance components do NOT have to be listed provided they are not allergens. Now, let’s say that the product in question is fragrance free but Palmarosa oil is added for some other purpose. (Let’s pretend it’s also an emollient.) In that case, Palmarosa oil would be listed separately but the allergen SHOULD still be listed too. Does that help?

      • Nicole January 15, 2014, 11:10 pm

        Thanks Randy, it does

  • Sarah F. January 14, 2014, 9:16 pm

    Thanks for this useful post. A pet peeve of mine is people who confuse allergy with irritant reactions. Every time I go to a makeup counter, I feel compelled to correct the sales associate who responds to my sensitive skin saga by telling me that I have “allergies.” I don’t know why I do this. They don’t care if they’re not using the correct term. It just bothers me. Call me quirky:)

  • Nicole January 15, 2014, 10:36 pm

    This was my question, and thank you so much for the information! I had to laugh to myself when you mentioned up to 10% of Scandinavians as that applies to me. And about where a reaction to the allergy shows up as I’ve had that problem. I knew I was sensitive to fragrance in that certain smells bother me, but it wasn’t until my most recent allergy testing that they tested for orris root. I hadn’t even known about it. I’m not as allergic to it as other stuff, but from what my doctor tells me, every little bit helps and changing to fragrance-free products is certainly easier than avoiding all the pollen (every single one they tested) and mold!

  • SLMeyer January 24, 2014, 6:00 am

    “Right now in the US there are 26 allergens which require labeling”. Can you please tell me where you got your info on that regulation and point to the source of that regulation that says the US cosmetic manufacturers must list 26 allergens on their US product labels. I’m aware of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 requirement, but that’s food, not for cosmetics.

    • Randy Schueller January 24, 2014, 7:37 am

      The regulation we quoted is the EU’s Cosmetics Directive 76/768/EEC. Many (most?) US companies are following that regulation even though they are not required to (this is especially true of global companies.) We should have said “right now in the US there are 26 allergens which have been identified for labeling.” I’m sorry for the confusion and thanks for letting me clarify the point.

      Also, keep in mind that the regulation is concentration specific: This labeling must occur if the concentration of the designated ingredient exceeds 100 parts per million (ppm) for a rinse-off product and 10 ppm for a leave-on product.

  • Helena January 21, 2015, 9:50 am

    I know it’s not completely related, but I was wondering if I should avoid fragrance and possible skin irritants in skin products even if I don’t have any sort of reaction to them. Some (Paula Begoun, for instance) claim that even if the damage isn’t visible, certain ingredients such as Linalool and Limonene and some essential oils are still bad for your skin, you just don’t see it yet. What would your recommendation be?

    • Randy Schueller January 21, 2015, 10:11 am

      Great question, Helena. We haven’t seen any data showing that fragrances cause “delayed action” damage so we don’t think there’s much to worry about. (If anyone out there has such data we’d love to see it!)

  • just good scents February 29, 2016, 5:07 pm

    Some of the most popular and expensive fragrances for women are
    ‘Jasmin Noir’, ‘Omnia Green Jade’ and ‘Rose Essentielle’.
    I spent many afternoons watching those beets grow, and finally in mid March, the first
    flowers set. It’s great accommodation with something else added
    that makes for special times.

  • Barbara Silver August 27, 2017, 8:02 am

    I myself have been orris root allergic, have been fragrance free for 20 years. Ive noticed that if fragrance is listed anywhere on the label, I have a rash from head to toe. I have found only one perfume so far that does not cause a reaction but I use it sparingly. Ive also noticed that those around me, when we are outside, here in the country, attract mosquitoes and black flies, while I myself attrack very few. I need a list of perfumes that do not have orris root as a base. Thank you.

    • Randy Schueller August 27, 2017, 9:01 am

      I’m sorry Barbara but I’m not aware that such a list exists.