Fragrance is the most common allergen, but what if you still want to wear your signature scent? Judy Johnson finds out if there’s any way to work with scents and sensitivity
As my sensitivity has increased, so too has my level of reaction to fragrance; I distinctly remember spraying Natural Collection’s White Musk, So…? Inspired and JLo’s Still liberally in my teens (big hits in the '90s) and experienced no irritation as a result, yet fast forward to the last few years and I’m now unable to spray perfume on my skin without developing a fairly instant, angry rash.
I avoid fragrance at all costs in my skincare (a discussion for another day, but I share some of my top fragrance-free products in a previous column here ), but when it comes to wearing a scent, I can’t give it up. I tried to go without, after one careless application too many in which a rash spread along my arm and lingered far longer than the perfume would have - but I felt lost without it. Fragrance is such a personal product, not only entwined with memory but also your sense of self; I like that friends associate me with my favourite perfume and I didn’t feel quite right, or ready, without a spritz of something - only now I simply spray it on my clothes rather than my skin and hope for the best.
But is there any such perfume as one that can be worn by those with sensitive, easily irritated skin? If you’re allergic to synthetic fragrance, do you have to say goodbye to your favourite scent? The simple answer is: it’s complicated.
Natural vs synthetic
As with skincare, in fragrance there is a battle between the natural and the non-natural; but while synthetic fragrance is the sworn enemy in creams and cosmetics (if only all brands would realise this), and organic products often cited as ’safer’ for fragile skins, in the perfume world it’s a different story. The majority of fragrances are created using a combination of synthetic and natural ingredients, and many couldn’t exist without both - though when it comes to allergens, it’s the naturals that have come under fire.
"Many people switch to natural perfume for sensitivity reasons. But this isn’t entirely reaction-proof as some naturally occurring ingredients can cause sensitivities too. In fact, of the 26 known allergens that a perfumer has to list on the label, 16 of them can occur naturally in essential oils,” explains Imelda Burke , founder of Content Beauty & Wellbeing.
This is down to The International Fragrance Association (IFRA), the body which regulates the industry in Europe and restricts the use of certain allergens - though as Josephine Fairley, fragrance expert and Editor of The Perfume Society tells me, there are conspiracy theories surrounding the ingredients that are banned. “You can’t patent a natural, so by lobbying to have allergenic natural ingredients restricted you are forcing [formulators] into using synthetic versions (though I don’t necessarily subscribe to that theory)."
Of course, as Jo tells me, brands are required by law to list any known allergens on the packaging - but just as in skincare, these lists can be ambiguous. In the interests of avoiding copycats, a brand isn’t going to reveal every component of its formula, but for the consumer this means spraying the unknown onto their skin. "The main problem with perfume is the lack of labelling,” agrees Imelda. "All a brand has to list is ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ and the common allergens, so we really have no idea what is in the formulation."
But is it really the elements that give the fragrance its scent that are to blame for reactions? Perfume expert Michael Donovan isn’t so sure. "We are supposedly allergic to the allergens in natural ingredients - so real jasmine, real rose etc rather than the manmade molecular versions. This would mean that we are less allergic to the cheaper, chemical perfumes than the more natural and luxurious counterparts."
If that’s the case, organic fragrances would be the worst possible product for those with sensitivity - which on a personal note has not been the case for me (see below for a few of my recommendations).
Skin sensitivity comes in infinite variety
"I am a little cynical about this,” Michael continues. “Skin sensitivity comes in infinite variety - if indeed there are people that are allergic to the very small amounts of a single flower oil in a fragrance I think it very rare and extremely difficult to work out. An Eau de Toilette can be of a concentration as low as 5% perfume, so the amount of a single natural flower oil would be so minute, thus I think it more likely that it is the alcohol - which can be 95% of the scent. If you have sensitive skin it can dry and burn; in summer you can also get a photo-sensitive rash caused by the sun’s rays directly on the alcohol, so never put perfume onto an exposed area of skin and sunbathe!"
Alcohol, in all its forms, is a known irritant; Imelda agrees that it could be the culprit for many fragrance reactions. "The base of perfume makes up the majority of the ingredients. For many perfumes this is a pre-formulated mix of alcohol and solvents called a formulator or perfumers alcohol mixed with distilled water. This is typically made up of synthetic chemicals, not essential to making good-quality perfume, that can cause irritation. I would suggest avoiding perfumes made from this as they will contain:
- Ethanol (Denatured): An alcohol, which forms the main carrier for the aroma oils. This evaporates quickly off the skin and will often be the first thing you smell with the top notes.
- Isopropyl Myristate: Used in preparations to increase absorption and reduce the oily feel of other ingredients. Known to be an eye, lung and skin irritant.
- Monopropylene Glycol or Dipropylene Glycol: Synthetic solvents used to help the aroma components dissolve in the alcohol carrier. Known to be an eye, lung and skin irritant."
Whatever you’re sensitive to, it’s going to be hard to pinpoint it - but with a little trial and error, the good news is you can find a way to wear a scent you love.
You can start by getting to know your formulas - check out The Perfume Society’s guide in their FAQs here about the concentration of oils within fragrance, and perhaps give EDT a go if EDP is seeming too strong. Michael urges that this is about finding something that works for you - don’t fall for the brands who claim to have ‘low allergens’ or ‘allergen-free’ credentials, or you might compromise on quality. "Fragrances that have no allergens or reduced allergens are entirely synthetic - for me, synthetic fragrances are rather one dimensional - they do not have the facets, the nuance and sheer beauty of those that contain the real thing - they smell thin by comparison."
Conversely, there are all-natural fragrances, such as Weleda’s new Jardin de Vie range , £19.95 - the Rose is particularly beautiful and despite my usual proneness to rashes, I didn’t react at all.
Test it out
So how can you find your perfect perfume? Just as I’ve learned to test, test and test again with skincare , the same applies here; patch testing is your best bet. "My advice is don't throw the baby out with the bathwater,” explains Michael. "Try patch tests with EDTs, EDPs, extraits, solids, completely synthetic, rollerball scents (the oil-based variety) and alcohol-free to try and get a broader picture of your particular issues. If you smell something that you really love, try a patch test - you never know if the formula may work.
"I recommend that you spray the tester paper 'blotters' in a store and rub that on the inside of the wrist - it is much better than spraying directly on the skin if there is likely to be an issue."
Though they still contain alcohol or potential other irritants, if photo-sensitising fragrances are your issue, there are some that are designed to not react in the sun; try Caudalie’s Rose de Vigne , £26, or Clarins Treatment Fragrances , £33.
If you’re sure that alcohol is your issue, there are plenty of options; try solid, wax-based perfumes (which are great for travelling, too) where the perfume is suspended on top of the skin, or oil-based varieties. "Most botanical brands that are creating pure perfumes and eau de parfum will use a base of organic sugarcane alcohol, organic grain alcohol or a cognac (Strange Invisible Perfumes uses a custom-distilled esprit de cognac alcohol from non-GMO, pesticide-free grapes),” explains Imelda. "Other brands avoid alcohol altogether and use a base of oil or unfiltered beeswax in solid perfume.” Imelda recommends Lina Hanson’s Satori Perfume Oil , £75, while The Organic Pharmacy also have a range based on organic rye alcohol, with perfumes which are 100% natural and 85% organic, from £138.95.
Most baby fragrances (no, I didn’t know they existed either) are alcohol free; so, ignoring the idea that spraying your baby with pricey perfume is a little… odd, by all means take advantage and get one for yourself. I adore Creed Pour Enfants , £110, which is an absolute dupe of Alexander Wang’s B.Balenciaga and went down very well in the Glossy office. Michael recommends Thameen’s luxury baby range, available exclusively at Selfridges .
Hair fragrances, a newer trend, also tend to be alcohol-free (as it dries the hair) - plus, it means there’s no contact with your skin. Simply avoid the scalp, spritz, and swish your hair to your heart’s content. Frederic Malle and even Chanel are creating some of their signature scents in this format - so you can wear your No5 with nothing but positive reactions (namely from those down-wind of you).
Wear it differently
Do as I do and wear your chosen fragrance on your clothes, rather than your skin. In fact, there are even ranges coming out designed for exactly that. The new ' Lingerie Sprays ' by IDEO Parfumeurs are £28, and are at 5% concentration, designed to be sprayed onto fabrics (including your delicates); they’re alcohol-free and will wash out so you can switch up your scent.
Ever the fragrance enthusiast, Jo Fairley’s bottom line is to enjoy your perfume in other ways, be it a fabric fragrance or a classic. “Spray it on your clothes or scarf, spray your hair, stick a cotton wool ball soaked in fragrance down your bra, put it on a ribbon on your wrist…. somehow, enjoy it.” Stellar advice that's not to be sniffed at.
What's your favourite perfume and how do you wear it? Let me know in the comments!