Updated 19 April 2017

Are you allergic to your perfume?

Do you suffer from an itchy neck or wrists after applying perfume? It might be time to change your fragrance.

Modern life makes it virtually impossible to completely avoid any exposure to perfumes and fragrances.

They are in everything – from deodorants and perfumes to topical pharmaceuticals, household cleaning products and products at work.

Fragrance allergy, however, most commonly occurs in women with facial or hand eczema, and symptoms will flare up when they're exposed to a fine fragrance or scented deodorants.

However, other products with fragranced ingredients are also frequent causes of contact allergic reactions.

Read: Multiple chemical sensitivity 

How to spot an allergic reaction

Skin allergies and skin irritations are often the giveaway that you may be allergic, or have an intolerance to one or more ingredients in your fragrance.

The most common complaint is a rash after using a perfume or perfumed products.

However, a skin rash is not necessarily indicative of a true allergy and may be nothing more than an irritant reaction. So how do you know the difference?

A true allergic reaction will appear up to a day after using the perfume or cosmetic product – but an irritant reaction is instant and appears immediately after exposure.

Read: Allergy skin test

It is also possibly to gradually develop a skin allergy to fragrance ingredients through regular use of a fragranced cosmetic product.

And the bad news is that once you have developed the allergy, it is a life-long condition.

Symptoms of a true fragrance allergy include redness, swelling and vesicles, and mostly affect the skin of the face, hands or armpits.

Skin reactions to fragrances can result in allergic contact dermatitis, irritant contact dermatitis, photosensitivity, immediate contact reactions (contact urticaria), and pigmented contact dermatitis.

Testing for fragrance allergy

Read: Atopic dermatitis

The most common test which will result in a positive diagnosis is done through patch testing with a mixture of fragrance ingredients, known as the "fragrance mix".

And although research shows that often eczema-sufferers will test positive in this test, some experts estimate that 1.7% to 4.1% of the general population have some form of sensitivity to ingredients of the fragrance mix.

This may not seem like a lot, but considering that allergens from the fragrance mix have tested positively in 15% to 100% of cosmetic products, including deodorants and fine fragrances (in some cases there are combinations of up to to four allergens in one product),  it is difficult to avoid exposure.

Exposure to fragrance chemicals and other potential allergens is most commonly by direct skin contact. Some of the most common exposures to fragrance chemicals occur from:

- Personal cosmetic use

- Detergents and other household products

- Medications

- Occupational exposure via work toilets, manufacturing ingredient(s), products in work process

- Secondary exposure from another individual (e.g. spouse, child)

- Toys

- Food and drink

- Airborne exposure

Another difficulty facing researchers trying to nail down the specific allergens is that fragrance makers are continually changing the composition of their fragrances, which is why new diagnostic tests are continually being developed to identify contact allergy to new allergens.

Read more:

Top 10 skin allergens 

Contact dermatitis 

Sun allergy (photosensitivity)


Fragrance contact allergy: a clinical review:

Perfume Allergies: 


Ask the Expert

Allergy expert

Dr Morris is the Principal Allergist at the Cape Town and Johannesburg Allergy Clinics with postgraduate diplomas in Allergology, Dermatology, Paediatrics and Family Medicine dealing with both adult and childhood allergies.

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