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Sting, Skin

Perfume for the Scent Sensitive

By Laura deCarufel

For many, a bottle of Chanel No. 5 is the dream gift. But for those with allergic contact dermatitis to fragrance – 3.4 per cent of North Americans at last count – it can be a nightmare. Brand-name perfumes can contain as many as 5,000 chemicals. Allergic Living asked Dr. Sandy Skotnicki-Grant to clear the air on the topic.

Skin Testing
“Usually it’s only a handful of individual fragrances that cause a problem,” says Skotnicki-Grant. Ask your dermatologist about patch testing, which uses eight of the most common fragrance ingredients known to cause contact dermatitis: cinnamic alcohol (a mix of scents), cinnamic aldehyde (part of the cinnamon essential oil), eugenol (clove scent), isoeugenol (component of ylang ylang), geraniol (present in lavender, geranium, jasmine and citronella oils), hydroxycitronella, oak moss absolute and alpha amyl cinnamic alcohol (odour of jasmine).
Skotnicki-Grant also recommends a test for an individual scent. Apply a small amount behind your ear for seven days; if after a week your skin is not reacting, you should be fine.

In the Air
While true fragrance allergy is to the skin, a department store crowded with florals can irritate the airways of some asthmatics. Fragrance is also a knownmigraine trigger, and can potentially cause symptoms in those with sensitivities to chemicals. Such health issues are being taken seriously. In Halifax, for example, there is an official “no scent” awareness program in schools, hospitals and all city offices.

Final Note
Steer clear of products labeled “unscented.” They often contain masking agents that counteract unpleasant medicinal smells. Look for skincare and makeup lines that are fragrance-free, such as Marcelle, Clinique and La Roche-Posay’s superlative Toleriane line.
For fragrance, essential oils such as those from Neal’s Yard Remedies or The Body Shop are often safe bets (though there has been an increase in reactions to botanicals). L’Occitane makes some beautiful fragrances that aren’t packed with chemicals, as does Origins. Or, keep it simple with a lovely dab of pure vanilla extract.

Q & A: The Nose Knows

Susanne Langmuir has a beautiful nose, which she puts to good use as the founder of Susanne Lang Parfumerie, a company that uses mainly essential oils to create bouquets of customized fragrances and bath products – ideal for women with sensitivity to synthetic perfume. Over 12 years, the business has grown from Langmuir’s kitchen to become an empire, with locations opening this fall at shops across the Middle East, at Selfridges in the U.K., and at Printemps, the famed Parisian department store, where she is the first Canadian perfumer to be invited to sell.

What interests you about essential oils?
Essential oils are basically natural chemicals. They’re generally distilled from plants, flowers and organic materials, so they’re able to really capture the living essence of the flower.

What are some favourites?
In terms of health and well-being, lavender is the obvious one. For perfumery, oh gosh, I can’t pick one. I love sandalwood, and a beautiful frankincense is just unbelievable. I’m working with a 10-year-old patchouli, which develops new characteristics with age. Bergamot is also extremely versatile, and I use it as a top note in a lot of my fragrances. It reminds people of Earl Grey tea.

How do your fragrances differ from other perfumes?
Our customer is the woman who can’t wear commercial fragrance, who is overwhelmed walking through the fragrance floor in the department store. We get e-mails, letters, calls all the time from people who can’t wear anything else. For the first six years, I worked only with natural essential oils. It was to the point that I knew if an oil contained synthetics just by smelling it – I was that sensitive.

Have you noticed the growing number of women who say they are sensitive to fragrance?
That’s really why I started this. There are so many fragrance launches each year [Women's Wear Daily reports that 100 will launch this fall.] There’s an enormous need for fragrance producers to create something new, so there are even more chemicals going into the marketplace.

For the rest of this article, see the Fall 2006 issue of Allergic Living magazine.
To subscribe or order a back issue, click here.

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Allergic Living acknowledges the assistance of the OMDC Magazine Fund, an initative of the Ontario Media Development Cooperation.