‘Fragrances are a key cause of allergies’

London - The scientist who led a three-year investigation into the toxicity of chemicals used in fragrances has hit back at claims by some of the world's leading perfume houses that the report's recommendations will destroy the industry.

Ian White, a consultant dermatologist at Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust and the chairman of the EU Scientific Committee on Consumer Protection (SCCP), said fragrances were a key cause of allergies.

This year, the perfume industry will have to reformulate several classic fragrances due to a European Commission ruling banning the use of oakmoss. Credit: REUTERS

Dr White was speaking after perfume manufacturers protested last week that the SCCP investigation had identified 100 ingredients of fragrances as potentially unsafe, including three which it said should be banned and others which it said should be restricted.

The protests highlighted tree moss, which manufacturers pointed out had been used as a constituent of perfume brands such as Chanel for more than 90 years.

“This is not a trivial problem,” Dr White said. “After nickel, fragrances are the most important cause of allergy. Most things applied to the skin contain fragrances of one sort or another: deodorants, hand creams, body sprays. We are not talking about particular products, such as fine fragrances. When people put these things on their skin they get eczema.”

The co-ordinated PR move by the perfume houses claimed the report was an attack on Europe's most famous fashion houses and their scents. News reports warned that consumers could be left to live without their bottle of Chanel No 5 and Miss Dior because of meddling EU bureaucrats. “It would be the end of beautiful perfumes if we could not use these ingredients,” Françoise Montenay, the non-executive chairman of Chanel, told Reuters.

“It is essential to preserve Europe's olfactory cultural heritage,” said a spokesperson for LVMH, the luxury-goods group which owns Dior and Guerlain.

The SCCP report was adopted as an opinion by the EU last July but the protests from the perfume industry surfaced only last week.

Rather than the science meaning an end to fragrances, Dr White says it is possible to extract the harmful chemicals without hurting the smell of the perfume. “Tree moss contains chemicals which are extreme allergens. The manufacturers know this perfectly well. They have funded research to reduce them - they can extract these ingredients so the other constituents of the moss can still be used,” Dr White said.

Among patients with eczema, 16 percent are “sensitised to fragrance ingredients”, the report says.

“This is not just to protect people with allergies but to prevent a whole new generation of people developing allergies. Around 1.5 percent of the population have become allergic to a synthetic chemical, hydroxyisohexyl, which has been widely used in skincare products over the past decade. The only thing to do is to ban it,” Dr White said.

Stephen Weller, of the International Fragrance Association in Belgium, said it was looking at the implications of the report. “We are hoping we can come up with something proportionate that protects the consumer and preserves the industry,” he said.

The EU Commission's Directorate General for Health and Consumers said it was in talks with the perfume manufacturers to consider the impact of the report. “The Commission is currently reflecting on the regulatory measures to implement the scientific opinion into the cosmetics legislation,” it said.

The 334-page report by the EU Scientific Committee for Consumer Protection recommends: