Fashion houses' defence of toxic perfume has whiff of inaccuracy, says top scientist

Dermatologist insists that ingredients causing allergies could go without changing smell
  • @jeremylaurance

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.

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 per cent 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 per cent 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 EU report, which was led by Dr Ian White, identified 100 ingredients as potentially unsafe including three it said should be banned

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

* Ban atronol and chloratronal, constituents of tree and oak moss, which are "extreme allergens". Tree and oak moss are used in perfumes to provide "woody notes", including Chanel No 5, Miss Dior, Mitsouko by Guerlain, and Angel by Thierry Mugler, pictured right.

* Ban hydroxyisohexyl 3-cyclohexene carboxaldehyde, which has been widely used in skin care products to provide a floral aroma for the last decade.

An estimated 1.5 per cent of the population of Europe has become allergic to hydroxyisohexyl as a result of this exposure

* Restrict a further 13 chemicals to 0.01 per cent of cosmetic products. These include citral, found in lemon and tangerine oil, coumarin, found in spicy tonka beans, and eugenol, a component of rose oil.

* List around 80 other suspect ingredients on the labels of all perfumes on sale in Britain.