Cosmetic products (such as soaps, lotions, face and eye make up, fragrances, etc.) can provoke allergic reactions in some people. Many people suffer from allergies and anyone at any age can develop allergies. Allergic reactions are the immune system’s overreaction to substances that may otherwise be harmless. An allergen can trigger the immune system to release chemical substances such as antibodies that result in allergy symptoms. Many people are familiar with seasonal allergies brought on by pollen from blooming plants, or with food allergies. Allergic reactions to cosmetics most often appear as itchy, red rashes on the skin – or contact dermatitis.
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Common Allergens Found in Cosmetic Products
The FDA has compiled the list below of common allergens found in some cosmetic products. These are allergens that cause most allergic reactions from the use of cosmetic products.
Common allergens fall into the five classes as detailed below: natural rubber, fragrances, preservatives, dyes, and metals.
As noted below, these specific ingredients may not be identified on the cosmetic product label. The European Commission, which has conducted extensive research on fragrance allergens, lists the following 26 fragrance ingredients listed as allergens in Annex III of the European Union Cosmetics Directive:
- Amyl cinnamal
- Amylcinnamyl alcohol
- Anisyl alcohol
- Benzyl alcohol
- Benzyl benzoate
- Benzyl cinnamate
- Benzyl salicylate
- Cinnamyl alcohol
- Hexyl cinnamaladehyde
- Hydroxyisohexyl 3-cyclohexene carboxaldehyde (HICC), (also known as Lyral)
- Methyl 2-octynoate
- Oak moss extract
- Tree moss extract
- Methylisothiazolinone (MIT)
- Methylchloroisothiazolinone (CMIT)
- Formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasing ingredients:
- Bronopol (2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol)
- Diazolidinyl urea
- DMDM hydantoin (1,3-dimethylol-5,5-dimethylhydantoin)
- Imidazolidinyl urea
- Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate
- Quaternium-15 (Dowicil 200; N-(3-chloroallyl) hexaminium chloride)
What Consumers Can Do
Regarding possible allergens in cosmetics, the best way to prevent an allergic reaction is to know what you are sensitive to and how to avoid it. One way to accomplish this is by carefully reading the product ingredient panel and avoiding ingredients you know or think you are allergic to. It isn’t enough to check for terms like “hypoallergenic”, “fragrance-free” or “for sensitive skin,” as there is no federal standard or definition that governs the use of these terms in the U.S. However, under the authority of the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires an ingredient declaration on cosmetic products sold at the retail level to consumers. However, certain ingredients may be listed generally as “fragrance,” or “perfume,” without identifying the specific ingredients.
If you have reviewed the product ingredient panel and still have questions regarding the substances in the product, you may contact the manufacturer listed in the product label. In addition, consumers should always check product labels and follow the manufacturer instructions before applying as directed. Reading the label on products is especially important as some products contain ingredients that may cause irritation, regardless of whether you have allergies or not. For example, manufacturers of certain hair dyes instruct users to test a small amount of product first – to see if they have a sensitivity to the ingredients in the product before applying it more broadly.
Symptoms of Allergic Reactions
Allergic reactions can range in severity, but may include hives, itchy skin, a rash, flaking or peeling skin, facial swelling, irritation of the eyes, nose and mouth, wheezing, and anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that can be life-threatening. Symptoms of anaphylaxis include a lack of consciousness, shortness of breath, trouble swallowing, lightheadedness, chest pain, a rapid, weak pulse, nausea, and vomiting. If anaphylaxis symptoms occur, seek medical attention immediately.
In addition to allergic contact dermatitis, fragrance ingredients may also affect the respiratory system because they are essentially vapor and can be inhaled. This is especially true in patients with asthma, allergic rhinitis, and viral respiratory infections. For people with sensitivities to certain fragrances, inhaling them may result in shortness of breath, the sensation of being suffocated, coughing, phlegm, a runny or stuffy nose, headache, chest tightness, and wheezing.
If you experience symptoms of what you suspect is an allergic reaction, consult your healthcare professional, as sensitivity to allergens can become more severe over time. Be sure to discuss with your healthcare provider what product or particular substance you think might be triggering the allergic reaction. They may recommend different types of tests to better understand what you are allergic to.
If you believe you have experienced an adverse event (allergic reaction or illness) after using a cosmetic product, you can also submit a report to the FDA. The FDA encourages consumers with questions about cosmetic products to submit inquiries.
Testing for Allergens
There is some good news. You don’t have to wait until you have an allergic reaction to try and figure out what you are allergic to. You can get tested. Knowing precisely what allergen has caused a reaction will help you to avoid further exposure to the substance. Your healthcare provider may recommend you undergo patch testing or some other, less frequently used tests.
- Prick Test
This type of testing involves placing an allergen on the patient’s skin and pricking the skin in that same spot with a needle. The areas that were pricked (usually on the forearms) are then monitored. Redness, itching, or swelling may develop if the person is allergic to the substance.
- Intradermal Test
This test is like the prick test; however, for this test, allergens are injected into the top layer of skin and monitored for any signs of allergic reaction; redness, swelling, itching, etc.
- Allergy Blood Test
This test involves taking a blood sample from a patient and adding an allergen to it to see if antibodies are created. If antibodies are produced in response to the allergen, then the patient is likely allergic to that substance.
FDA Activities on Allergens in Cosmetics
To better understand allergens in cosmetics, the FDA focuses its efforts around three main areas:
- Monitoring of adverse event reporting;
- Conducting scientific research on the mechanisms of allergic reactions and how allergens interact with the body’s immune system; and
- Conducting research on consumer practices, the frequency of adverse reactions, and consumer awareness of allergens in cosmetics.
Monitoring Adverse Event Reporting
Adverse event reports contain critical medical information and descriptions that help the FDA identify signals of potential safety issues with cosmetic products and ingredients. The FDA receives adverse event reports from healthcare professionals and consumers via MedWatch. The FDA reviews all adverse event reports and when necessary, takes action to address safety issues associated with cosmetic products and ingredients.
More information on adverse event reporting can be found at the How to Report a Cosmetic Related Complaint page.
Reporting Cosmetic Adverse Events to the US Food and Drug Administration. Katz, L. M., Valenzuela, C. & Sadrieh, N. K. 2016. Dermatitis, 27(4), 236–237. doi: 10.1097/DER.0000000000000195.
Scientific Research on Cosmetic Allergens
The FDA is interested in better understanding how allergens interact with the body’s immune system. To do this, FDA scientists are collaborating with scientists at the National Center for Natural Products Research at the University of Mississippi and University of Florida. Through these partnerships we can better understand how allergic reactions are induced, and we are identifying new ingredients capable of inducing allergic reaction. We are working with our research partners to develop animal-free testing methods to identify potential allergens and are exploring whether allergen testing data can help us further identify potential allergenic ingredients in cosmetic products. We are also exploring the existing data for quality and potential gaps.
- Molecular docking predicts fragrance binding to HLA molecules. Schutte, R., X. Zhang, N. An, D.A. Ostrov & S. Vukmanović. 2019. Contact Dermatitis. 81:174-183.
- Skin sensitizers in cosmetics and beyond: potential multiple mechanisms of action and importance of T cell assays for in vitro screening. Vukmanović, S &. N. Sadrieh. 2017. Critical Reviews in Toxicology. 47:415-432.
- Identification of a compound isolated from German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) with dermal sensitization potential. Avonto C., D. Rua, P.B. Lasonkar, A.G. Chittiboyina &, I.A. Khan. 2017. Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology. 318:16-22.
- Determination of methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone in cosmetic products by ultra high performance liquid chromatography with tandem mass spectrometry.Wittenberg J.B., B.J. Canas, W. Zhou, P.G. Wang, D. Rua & A.J. Krynitsky. 2015. Journal of Separation Science. 38:2983-8.
- Simultaneous determination of cosmetics ingredients in nail products by fast gas chromatography with tandem mass spectrometry.Zhou W., P.G. Wang, J.B. Wittenberg, D. Rua & A.J. Krynitsky. 2016. Journal of Chromatography A.1446:134-40.
- Quantitative Determination of α-Arbutin, β-Arbutin, Kojic Acid, Nicotinamide, Hydroquinone, Resorcinol, 4-Methoxyphenol, 4-Ethoxyphenol, and Ascorbic Acid from Skin Whitening Products by HPLC-UV. Wang Y.H., C. Avonto, B. Avula, M. Wang, D. Rua & I.A. Khan. 2015. Journal of AOAC INTERNATIONAL. 98:5-12.
- In chemico assessment of potential sensitizers – Stability and direct peptide reactivity of 24 fragrance ingredients. Avonto, C., M. Wang, A.G. Chittiboyina, S. Vukmanović & I.A. Khan. 2019. Journal of Applied Toxicology. 39:398-408.
- Chemical stability and in chemico reactivity of 24 fragrance ingredients of concern for skin sensitization risk assessment. Avonto, C., M. Wang, A.G. Chittiboyina, S. Vukmanović & I.A. Khan. 2018. Toxicology In Vitro. 46:237-245.
- In chemico skin sensitization risk assessment of botanical extracts. Avonto, C., A.G. Chittiboyina, N. Sadrieh, S. Vukmanović & I.A. Khan. 2018. Journal of Applied Toxocology. 38:1047-1053.
- Quantitative determination of phenolic compounds by UHPLC-UV-MS and use of partial least-square discriminant analysis to differentiate chemo-types of Chamomile/Chrysanthemum flower heads. Avula B., Y.H. Wang, M. Wang, C. Avonto, J. Zhao, T.J. Smillie, D. Rua & I.A. Khan. 2015. Journal of Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Analysis. 88:278-88.
- Comparative studies on the chemical and enzymatic stability of alpha- and beta-arbutin. Avonto C., Y.H. Wang, B. Avula, M. Wang, D. Rua & I.A. Khan. 2016. International Journal of Cosmetic Science. 38:187-93.
- Alternative testing methods for skin sensitization: NMR spectroscopy for probing the reactivity and classification of potential skin sensitizers. Chittiboyina A.G., C. Avonto, D. Rua & I.A. Khan. 2015. Chemical Research in Toxicology. 28:1704-14.
- A fluorescence high throughput screening method for the detection of reactive electrophiles as potential skin sensitizers. Avonto C., A.G. Chittiboyina, D. Rua & I.A. Khan. 2015. Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology. 289:177-84.
- Skin sensitization testing requirements and data uses by U.S. regulatory agencies. Strickland, J., A.B. Daniel, D. Allen, S. Ahir, S. Bancos, E. Craig, D. Germolec, C. Ghosh, N. Hudson, A. Jacobs, D.M. Lehmann, J. Matheson, E.N. Reinke, N. Sadrieh, S. Vukmanović & N. Kleinstreuer. 2019. Archives of Toxicology. 93:273-291.
- In Chemico Evaluation of Tea Tree Essential Oils as Skin Sensitizers: Impact of the Chemical Composition on Aging and Generation of Reactive Species. Avonto C., A.G. Chittiboyina, M. Wang, Y. Vasquez, D. Rua & I.A. Khan. 2016. Chemical Research in Toxicology. 29:1108-17.
The FDA is also engaged in research specific to fragrance ingredients. The study’s purpose is to identify the likelihood of an adverse reaction from the use of products containing fragrance ingredients. This project will help establish acceptable levels for multiple fragrance ingredients used in a variety of rinse-off and leave-on cosmetic products. The methodology established in this project may be used in future studies to perform similar assessments for additional cosmetics ingredients.
Enhancing our scientific understanding of allergens however, is only one area of interest for the agency. The FDA is also taking steps to learn more about consumer practices and use of cosmetics. We are conducting consumer surveys and focus groups to collect the following information:
- How consumers use cosmetics;
- How often consumers experience an adverse reaction from the use of cosmetics with potential allergens;
- How aware are consumers of the presence of allergens in cosmetics; and
- What actions (if any) do consumers take to avoid allergens in cosmetics.
In addition, the FDA intends to conduct interviews with the cosmetics industry to understand how manufacturing, marketing, and sale of cosmetic products is impacted by information on allergic reactions to cosmetic products. Furthermore, from interviews with state and local regulatory authorities, the FDA hopes to learn about their awareness of safety issues associated with cosmetic ingredients, including potential allergens, and how they monitor and address these issues.
More information on these efforts can be found at: