Nearly seven million people in Germany have a contact allergy, according to figures published by the Robert Koch Institute in 2013. Six years later, the situation has not improved. The reason: Cosmetic products do not have to be tested for their benefits or safety before they are launched on the market. Only medicines are subject to testing.
But cosmetic products are far from being harmless. Dangers lurk in preservatives and additives such as parabens, formaldehyde resin – which is often found in nail polish – surfactants and emulsifiers. Even scents can cause problems.
Fragrances awaken more than just the senses
Nearly all body care products contain fragrances, and for good reason. They appeal to the senses, convey wellness, smell clean, or evoke pleasant memories. Nevertheless, they are the second most common cause of contact allergies, after nickel.
According to Regulation (EC) No. 1223/2009 on cosmetic products, a fragrance added to a product only needs to appear on the label if it is one of 26 substances listed in the regulation as likely to cause allergies. Furthermore, labelling is only required if the amount exceeds a specific concentration. Treemoss and oak moss extracts, citral, eugenol, geraniol and farnesol are some of the substances included in the list.
If the amount of the substance is below the threshold concentration for declaration, the manufacturer can hide it within the general term ‘perfume’, ‘fragrance’ or ‘aroma’ along with all the other fragrances. This is a risky ‘black box’ for people with allergies, since even low concentrations can trigger an allergic reaction.
The EU Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) therefore recommended in 2012 that an additional 101 fragrances be listed by name on products. This recommendation has not yet been made part of the EU regulation.
Top sellers ‘sensitive’ and ‘natural’
The latest Öko-Test Magazin (March 2019), a German consumer reports magazine, has a special focus on allergies. It features a test report on 24 shower gels and lotions marketed as ‘sensitive’. Four of the tested products contained allergy-triggering perfumes or mineral oil.
In late February, Svenja Market and Kai Thomas of Öko-Test wrote that the term ‘sensitive’ sounds reassuring but is not based on any clearly defined standard. And although manufacturers usually claim that such products are especially well tolerated by the skin, it doesn’t always have to be true.
So-called ‘natural cosmetics’ or products marketed as containing ‘natural ingredients’ must be approached with the same degree of caution. Even natural ingredients like tee tree oil, marigold and chamomile can cause allergies.
Tracking down the offender
So you have itchy, reddened skin, maybe a runny nose or scratchy throat. You are having difficulty breathing. You may have an allergy. But it is not always easy to track down the trigger. Why? Because symptoms don’t always occur immediately after contact with the offending substance – sometimes it can take hour or days. Of course any newly used cosmetics or body care products are the first to come under suspicion. But products that have been tolerated for years can also trigger allergic reactions – for example, if the formula has been changed.
Fortunately the skin itself holds the clue to finding the trigger, because the skin changes usually begin at the place where the product was applied.
If you suspect an allergy, apply the product to a small patch of skin and observe it for two days. For more conclusive results, see a dermatologist for a skin test.
Digital trigger search
A convenient way to avoid specific ingredients, due to an allergy or for environmental reasons, is to scan the product code with an app. CodeCheck (Codecheck AG) and ToxFox (BUND – Produktcheck) in particular have a high number of downloads from the Google Play Store and have received mostly positive reviews. On the other hand, the Cosmile app, released by Deutscher Allergie- und Asthmabund (German Allergy and Asthma Association – DAAB) in cooperation with Industrieverband Körperpflege- und Waschmittel (Industry Association of Body Care Products and Detergents) in 2016 didn’t fare as well. Its main shortcomings are that it is technically rather unsophisticated and does not have enough products in its database, which means that information on many substances is lacking.
Amtsblatt der Europäischen Union: Verordnung (EG) Nr. 1223/2009 des Europäischen Parlaments und des Rates. L342/59, 30.11.2009.
Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS): Opinion on Fragrance allergens in cosmetic products. Juni 2012.
Langen U, Schmitz R, Steppuhn H. Häufigkeit allergischer Erkrankungen in Deutschland. Bundesgesundheitsbl 2013;56:698–706.