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The fragrance industry

IFRA is the International Fragrance Association, the peak body for fragrance manufacturers world-wide. They have tested some fragrance ingredients in response to public concern about their safety.

IFRA acknowledges that “some of the chemicals in common use today may have the potential to cause dermal sensitization.”

(Dermal (skin) sensitization is an allergic reaction to a substance that leads to the skin becoming inflamed and itchy. The skin becomes “sensitized” – that is, with every exposure to the substance the reaction is greater. )

“However, the fact that a chemical is a dermal sensitiser does not mean it cannot be formulated into consumer products at safe levels…it is possible to conduct an exposure- based Quantitative Risk Assessment to determine safe levels of fragrance ingredients…”.

In other words, even if a chemical causes negative reactions, it can still be used – just in a small amount, as determined by IFRA’s own Quantitative Risk Assessment.

“The introduction of the Quantitative Risk Assessment (QRA) as the basis for IFRA Standards on ingredients exhibiting a potential for dermal sensitization groups consumer products according to key parameters. These are Sensitisation Assessment Factors and consumer product exposure. The QRA approach establishes standards restricting the use of fragrance ingredients with a known sensitization potential, and also has established standards to ensure safe quantities of ingredients of concern.”

In other words, the tests take into account how toxic a product is, and the amount of exposure a consumer might be expected to have to it. A toxic product could pass this test if it was something IFRA thought you wouldn’t use often, or didn’t expose large areas of skin to.

New products are being devised all the time, and people are using products in different ways (eg using fragrance several times a day rather than just once, and using many fragranced products at once, rather than one at a time). For this scenario, IFRA advises self-regulation:

“In cases where a product is not currently categorized and where the likely consumer product exposure is clearly different, or where the matrix may indicate a higher degree of potential penetration or irritation, then it is incumbent on the fragrance supplier to contact the IFRA Secretariat for advice.”

In other words, if you’ve come up with the new product, or if an old product is going to be used in a new way, or if a product is going to be embedded in a different base for a different use, then the maker should contact IFRA.

In general, IFRA says: “As an organization, it gives us no pleasure to ban or restrict materials… however, if the science clearly shows a material as being a sensitizer, we have to respond in the interests of consumer safety. We do our best to keep the perfumer’s palette as large as possible, but we also have to balance the needs of society and regulators.”

In other words, a fragrance ingredient is deemed innocent until clearly proven guilty, because the health of consumers is not the only consideration – the needs of the industry have to be taken in account too.

There are several limitations to IFRA’s tests:

  • there’s no detail on the website to clarify what substances IFRA tests, in what quantities, what the methodology of the tests is, or how the independence of the testers is ensured.
  • IFRA’s test are only for skin sensitization when other, possibly more serious, health problems are known to occur from fragrance, such as cancer and hormone disruption (see below, "Tests by Independent Researchers").
  • The information on the website suggests that individual ingredients or products could test as safe because they’ve been tested only as part of a much larger group of products.
  • There is no mention of any policing of the self-regulation, or what the penalty, if any, might be if the maker decides not to declare the new ingredient or the new use of an old ingredient.


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