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.