In a fast-paced, stressful city life, essential oils are the favourite of many for body massage and bath, to help relieve the day’s tensions and induce sleep. A Consumer Council test on 30 models of essential oils on the market have detected the presence of a total of 10 different fragrance allergens – 2 models contained as many as 7 allergens. In addition, nearly 90% of the essential oil models made no disclosure of the allergens on the labels, leaving 4 models with samples indicating allergens which however were at variance with the actual allergens detected in the Council’s test. Furthermore, 14 models were lacking, on the label or packaging, any detailed dilution instructions in usage, without which it is difficult for consumers to use the products properly. The Council is highly concerned about the non-disclosure of allergens and the lack of dilution instructions which may increase the risk of having allergies upon usage. Agents are urged to perform well in their product labeling to safeguard consumer health.
Essential oils offer a great variety of scents and in the test 3 popular flavours were chosen: lavender, sweet orange and eucalyptus. 10 models were included for each flavour bringing a total of 30 models, priced from $55 to $340, or at unit costs of $3.7 to $29.9 per ml (or per gram), a variation of over sevenfold. In general lavender ranked relatively higher in price followed by eucalyptus and the cheapest sweet orange. The 3 flavours were extracted respectively from flowers, fruits and leaves. The test focused on the presence of fragrance allergens, other organic compounds, heavy metals, micro-organisms and their respective levels.
With reference to the EU cosmetics regulations the test examined the models for the presence of a list of 26 fragrance allergens. The EU has stipulated that products with any of these 26 allergens exceeding the specified levels (0.001% and 0.01% for leave-on and rinse-off cosmetics respectively) must label on their ingredient lists the names of the allergens. The results detected a total of 10 different fragrance allergens present in the 30 samples: limonene, linalool, geraniol, coumarin, eugenol, benzyl benzoate, citral, farnesol, benzyl alcohol and citronellol. Each model was found to contain at least 2 allergens. Among them 2 lavender samples had the most – 7 allergens altogether. In the test 12 models put the word “organic” on the package but only 9 models were able to provide the relevant certificates for the Council’s scrutiny.
All samples were detected with the allergen limonene that exists naturally in lemon and citric trees; the sweet orange samples were therefore found with the highest limonene content, 69.8% on average. Limonene could cause irritation to the skin and the eyes and when oxidized give rise to the risk of contact allergy. Consumers are advised to store and handle essential oils with care to reduce the production of oxidized limonene substance that may expose the users to allergy.
The test revealed that the amount of allergens in all models exceeded the limits set under the EU cosmetics regulations. There is a need for all the names of the allergens to be labeled on the products. But 4 samples in the test were labeled with some allergen names. However, the actual names or the number of allergens as claimed were different from those found in the Council’s test. Though in Hong Kong there is no legislation for mandatory disclosure of fragrance allergens in essential oils, such information is crucial to the consumers. Agents of essential oils are urged to make every effort to ensure full and accurate product labeling.
Essential oils are highly concentrated and should be diluted before use on skin to reduce the chance of allergy. Take citral which has the highest allergen risk as an example, the use of 6 drops on a 1cm2 skin area may potentially trigger allergic reactions. Therefore, the use of essential oils on skin must be carefully diluted prior to application.
Only about half (16 models) were labeled with dilution instructions when application on skin, though such information may be readily available at the sales outlets or from the salesmen but proper labeling is essential for the easy reference of consumers whenever the need arises. The Council always stressed the importance of user instructions and informative labeling and called on the manufacturers to provide clear dilution instructions through different channels to help consumers avoid misuse that could result in allergic reactions.
Children, pregnant women, patients of hypertension, kidney diseases and epilepsy, and people with skin wounds are reminded to be extra cautious in using the products. A US study has shown that lavender oil and tea tree oil may contain substances affecting the endocrine system and, furthermore, prolonged use on the skin of infants, and male of pre-puberty may cause abnormal growth of the breast; consumers should be very careful.
On the market are available essential oils that claimed to be suitable for dietary use. In the test 24 of the models were labeled specifically “For External Use Only” or “Not to be Taken Internally”. Only 1 lavender model was labeled for dietary use but without any detailed instruction for use. Consumers should exercise due care in using essential oils as flavouring condiments; in any case, consume sparingly to avoid adverse reactions.
Essential oils of the citric fruit type (e.g. bergamot essential oil) contain furocoumarins which are capable of absorbing UV light and the free radical and inflammatory substances produced by this energy may cause injury to skin and lead to pain and rash akin to sunburn. According to the 2005 EU’s “Opinions on Furocoumarins in Cosmetics Products”, cosmetics should not contain more than 1ppm furocoumarins. Consumers should avoid using such products on the face, and sun exposure for a long time or within 12 hours after usage.
All models were found free of heavy metals, micro-organisms, preservatives and some substances prohibited in cosmetics products; the results were satisfactory. 12 models, however, were detected with toluene; prolonged breathing of air contaminated with toluene will irritate the upper respiratory tract and the eyes or even affect the central nerve system. With reference to the tolerable daily intake (TDI) adopted by WHO, a 60kg adult will have to do daily massage of nearly 300 times using the sample detected with the highest concentration of toluene before exceeding the WHO TDI, therefore the risk is only minimal.
In purchasing and using essential oils, consumers should take note of the following:
- Never apply undiluted essential oil on skin to prevent allergic reactions induced by allergens of high concentration;
- Apply a small amount of diluted essential oil on skin should there be any sign of discomfort or allergy, cease to use immediately;
- Products with several oil ingredients are more likely to cause allergy; choose with care paying attention to the product ingredient label for allergens;
- Do not recklessly take essential oils for dietary use to avoid the risk of allergy or even poisoning;
- Essential oils are easily flammable, store in cool shaded place, far away from any heat or fire source;
- People vulnerable to allergy should conduct an allergy skin test before use.
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