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Scents and Sensitivity: Fragrance Allergy and Beauty Products

By: Bridget Johnson , Reviewed By: Dr. Emmy Graber

woman smelling a bottle

In addition to treating and improving the skin, a skin care regimen is meant to be a multi-sensory experience, with many products incorporating aromatic botanicals and fragrance to enhance this routine. While this is intended to be pleasing to the senses, it could wind up being a pain for your skin. If you have sensitivity to fragrances, you may be suffering from contact dermatitis. The good news is fragrance-free beauty products are available to those who find sensory ingredients more irritating than uplifting.

The Lowdown on Labeling

You can get the scoop on whether a product contains fragrance by looking at the ingredients list on the packaging, but don't expect anything specific. The FDA allows general labeling so as to protect the manufacturer's trade secrets — you may only find the listings "fragrance" or "flavor" without further detail. However, there are no requirements to label beauty products for potential allergens. The FDA cautions that products labeled "unscented" might still contain a little bit of fragrance to cover up the scent of other ingredients.

Telltale Symptoms

If you are sensitive to fragrances, use caution. Sustained exposure to trigger products will intensify your skin's reaction, and the allergy may not go away with time. You'll likely see a red rash characteristic of contact dermatitis appear within a few hours or up to two days after using the product. Itchy, dry skin can also appear. The first treatment step is to wipe products that contain fragrance out of your beauty cabinet. Eczema cream can help relieve the redness and itching, but if the reaction is persistent or especially bothersome, see your doctor.

Getting Answers

If you want more information on which products you need to avoid, your doctor can conduct allergy patch testing for the fragrances most likely to cause sensitivity reactions. For example, the clove aroma from eugenol can find its way into everything from cosmetics to toothpaste, and the lily of the valley scent in synthetic hydroxycitronellal shows up in eye creams.

Going Forward

Fragrance-free options are becoming more plentiful on the shelves, thanks to consumer demand. However, most of the thousands of fragrances used in products today are not common allergens and even scented products vary in the amount of fragrance used. To get an idea if you're looking at a product that's light or heavy on fragrance, check the ingredients list. The FDA requires cosmetic labels to list ingredients in descending order of prominence, with the higher concentrations listed at the top of the list.

This article has been reviewed by board-certified dermatologist Dr. Emmy Graber.

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