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Allergy and Irritation Issues of Fragrances in Hand Hygiene Products

The vast majority of hand hygiene products currently on the market contain chemical fragrances. Required by the FDA to be listed only under “fragrance” on the product label, these ingredients give a product its distinct smell or aroma. Yet certain chemicals commonly contained in fragranced products have been linked to negative health effects – including allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and even potential effects on the reproductive system – and it is important to be aware of some of the most common “hidden hazards”. Below are a few important fragrance-related issues for institutional purchasers to consider when selecting a hand hygiene product:

Harmful Ingredients

  • Allergens and Sensitizers: Since 2001, chemical fragrances have been listed among the top five allergens in North America and Europe. They have been known to both cause and trigger asthma attacks and to exacerbate allergies, sinus problems, and other respiratory disorders. Furthermore, the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Cosmetic and Non-food Products showed that as many as one in every 50 people may suffer immune system damage from fragrances and become “sensitized”. Once sensitized to an ingredient it is possible for a person to remain so for a lifetime, suffering allergic reactions with every subsequent exposure. Skin irritation, related to fragrance sensitization, is especially common in young children, and continued exposure to irritants will often result in an increase in symptoms.
  • Petrochemicals and Phthalates:It is estimated that 95% of fragrances in today’s products are derived from petroleum by-products, known as petrochemicals. Found also in pesticides, plastics, and other synthetic products, petrochemicals have been linked to endocrine disruption and even several types of cancer.The group of chemicals known as phthalates has been associated with hormone disruption, affecting development and fertility. Recent consumer pressure has resulted in the phasing out of some phthalates in cosmetic and hygiene products, yet the chemical diethyl phthalate (DEP) is still used in many products, often hidden under the term “fragrance”. A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed DEP to be a ubiquitous pollutant of the human body, found in 97 percent of those tested, and recent epidemiological studies have linked the chemical to a number of health problems.
  • Neurotoxins: Neurotoxins are chemicals that are harmful to the brain. From as far back as 1986, fragrance ingredients have been identified by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences as one of six categories to be investigated thoroughly for their neurotoxic effects on humans. However the necessary research has not yet been funded and the FDA has taken no further action towards requiring the listing of fragrance ingredients on product labels.

Benefits of Fragrance in Hand Hygiene Products

Despite the potential for harmful affects, fragrances can and do serve a functional purpose in many hand hygiene products. Attractively scented products make the hand washing experience pleasant and refreshing, and people have been shown to wash their hands more frequently and thoroughly when they like the product being used. Ultimately, the right fragrance can increase attention to hand hygiene, in turn increasing overall health and illness prevention.

Choosing the Right Fragrance

As has been shown, many fragrances found in hand hygiene products are made up of hazardous chemicals and come coupled with unwanted health risks. Yet, not in all cases should every fragranced product be considered damaging. It is pertinent that those persons with known health concerns seek out fragrance-free options in all products, yet most people have the ability to tolerate properly formulated fragrances. Safe fragrances should be certified by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) and listed on the company’s Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS).

The B4 Brands Fragrance Policy

B4 Brands recognizes the benefits and severe risks of fragrances in hand hygiene products. As a result, the company has instituted policies that place human health and safety as its top priority. Examples of B4 Brands’ policies include:

  • A strict prohibition on the use of petrochemical fragrances in any leave-on formulations, including hand sanitizers and hand lotions, where a product is not rinsed from hands.
  • Only IFRA Certified fragrances are used in any B4 Brands’ rinse-off formulation. Fragrance-free, rinse-off formulations should also be available for situations where even IFRA Certified fragrances are inappropriate.


Using hand hygiene products is a multi-sensory experience where personal preferences drive the perceived acceptability of a product. Individual consumers have the luxury of considering only their own personal preferences when purchasing hand hygiene products. Institutional purchasers, whether in healthcare, schools, or industrial settings, must consider the preferences and sensitivities of a large number of product users. Therefore, institutional purchases should seek hand hygiene products with the fewest inherent allergy and sensitivity risks. Institutional purchasers should strongly consider only fragrance-free hand sanitizers and hand lotions as well as hand soaps that are either fragrance-free or contain IFRA Certified fragrances. When IFRA Certified fragrances are acceptable, institutional purchasers should consider gender-neutral and light fragrances, as men tend to avoid floral or sweet smelling products, and woman often show less inclination towards fragrances that are too “musky”. Institutional purchases should be sure to review MSDS sheets, product labels, and ask manufacturers for IFRA Certifications to confirm that allergy and sensitivity risks are in fact being avoided.

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