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Everything you need to know about fragrance allergens – Episode 126

This week you’ll learn all about fragrance allergies – what they are and how to avoid them. 

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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.






Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Eileen March 29, 2016, 11:50 am

    Since fragrance in cosmetics is a serious problem for some people, this was very interesting reading especially since you explained the difference between a true allergic reaction and the irritation caused most probably by a cocktail of chemicals. What it comes down to is we can use a product that is devoid of that to which we are allergic and still develop irritation because we are sensitive to the reaction of the various chemicals in it. I guess that is, in part, what has given impetus to the simple ingredients approach some companies are using to market their products as “simple”, “basic”, and “pure” rather than calling them hypoallergenic.

    As for the term hypoallergenic, the prefix hypo simply means beneath, under, or in more common parlance, low. It does not mean the absence of. Hypoallergenic does not, therefore, mean the absence of allergens. It means the probability that the product will cause an allergic reaction is low–but not impossible. I guess it might be a good starting place as long as a person realizes it is not a guarantee that the product won’t cause a negative reaction. It is still important to read ingredient labels carefully and to know all the alternate names for the substances to which we are sensitive.

  • Julia April 1, 2016, 9:46 am

    Hi guys! Recently discovered your podcast, been going through the archives while working. Super helpful, especially when you delve into how things work – I thoroughly enjoyed the episode about hair structure and feel my coconut oil habit has been validated 🙂
    One thing I think you might be interested in, I tried the spray on nail polish you covered a while back! As a UK resident I got my paws on it some time ago and I have to say, it’s genuinely great. They just happened to hit the sweet spot for me personally. I’ll try not to sound like a sponsored post, haha! I would recommend it to people who are not great at doing their nails, too impatient to wait for manicures to dry*, or just plain don’t have 45 minutes to do their nails. I really hope people get into these and they put out more colours, because three is not a lot to work with (and they’re not all super wearable).
    * I haven’t used their base/top coat so can’t speak to drying times, but my usual Insta Dry works great with it, and from start to washing fingers it’s about 15 minutes.

    • Randy Schueller April 1, 2016, 9:48 am

      Great feedback, Julia. Thank you! As we always try to make clear, we’re not the end users for many of these products so sometimes it’s hard for us to accurately gauge how well people will like it.

  • Charlotte G April 5, 2016, 12:29 am

    Is is true that even fragrance free skincare contains some fragrance to mask the unpleasant smell of chemical ingredients?

    • Randy Schueller April 5, 2016, 7:09 am

      Not in general but it IS possible. Usually these products are labeled as “Unscented” but not always. Instead of containing a fully compounded fragrance they may contain a single fragrance component that is a good masking agent such as ethylene brassylate.

  • Miss chandelier April 8, 2016, 9:43 pm

    well I thought the joke was funny. If only for how much thought you put into it. 🙂

  • Darlene April 24, 2016, 6:40 am

    Hi Randy,

    It’s always been a pleasure to read your posts; they’ve helped me tremendously in explaining the ‘why’ and ‘how’ products are made that get the results consumers continue to buy when I write my blog reviewing products.

    From my own clients, it sounds like more and more of them are seeking more simple ingredient lists in cosmetic products to avoid situations like going home with a leg rash after a pedicure that scrubbed their skin with an irritating salt-drowning-in-mango-pineapple-fragrance. I know I sure was, it’s why I went to beauty school.

    I am so interested in this post and I really appreciated the tables you linked to show all the contact allergens. However, I didn’t see what the + signs were to indicate on the far right column. Does more +’s in the column mean that people/animals are really allergic to them? Just so I’m not reading it wrong.

    Thanks so much,