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9 Toners Detected with Fragrance Allergens Highest Alcohol Content Could Reach 34% Excessive Use May Induce Skin Dryness or Sensitivity

  • 2023.08.15

Beauty lovers would stick to all the skincare steps in their morning and evening routines. Most people use a toner immediately after cleansing, while many of these products claim to provide deep cleansing, help to tighten pores, exfoliate, or moisturise the skin. The Consumer Council tested 25 models of toner products on the market and found that over 35% (9 models) were detected with 1 to 4 fragrance allergens respectively, with the amounts exceeding the limit of the EU Cosmetic Directive that requires labelling of the name of fragrance allergens accordingly. 10 models were detected with alcohol (i.e. ethanol), of which 3 models had an alcoholic concentration of over 10%, the highest being 34%. Using products with high alcoholic content may accelerate the loss of moisture from the skin, resulting in dryness or even increasing the risks of allergy. The Council urges manufacturers to avoid or minimise the use of allergenic substances in their products, and include a clear ingredient list on the product label so that consumers could make informed choices. Consumers are advised to adopt appropriate cleansing and skincare routines, and be mindful not to cleanse the skin excessively or over-use toners, as this may remove the natural sebum of the skin which provides protection, thus increasing the risk of allergy.

The test covered 25 models, which were priced from $69 to $470, and ranged from 100ml to 250ml in volume per bottle, equivalent to a unit price of $0.35 to $3.92 per millilitre, with a price difference of over 10 times. With reference to the EU Cosmetic Directive and the Mainland's “Technical Safety Standard for Cosmetics”, the Council tested the models for harmful substances commonly found in toners, including fragrance allergens and preservatives, as well as the pH and alcohol content of the samples. Information on the product labels was also examined. Test results showed that 13 models were not detected with fragrance allergens or preservatives that might cause allergy or affect the reproductive system, and all received 5-point ratings. The price per ml of these models ranged from $0.45 to $3.92, reflecting that there are good choices for both higher and lower priced products.

Over 35% Models Exceeded EU Limit for Fragrance Allergens and Shall Be Labelled

Fragrances are often added into skincare products including toners to introduce a pleasant scent to the product, yet this could increase the risk of allergy. Overseas studies have found that about 10% of the population are allergic to fragrances, resulting in temporary skin rash, itching and irritation, or even allergic contact dermatitis with erythema and swelling of the skin.

The EU Cosmetic Directive sets out the requirements for 26 common fragrance allergens, 4 of which are banned substances. The Council carried out tests accordingly, and test results revealed that no prohibited fragrance allergens was detected in all models, and a total of 6 restricted fragrance allergens were found in 36% (9 models) of the tested samples. Fragrance allergens detected include linalool (6 models, detected amounts ranged from 0.0014% to 0.035%), citronellol (3 models, detected amounts from 0.0011% to 0.0055%), geraniol (4 models, detected amounts from 0.0014% to 0.0084%), limonene (3 models, detected amounts from 0.0025% to 0.015%), benzyl alcohol (1 model, detected amount 0.025%), and benzyl benzoate (1 model, detected amount 0.0015%), all of which exceeded the upper limit (0.001%) set by the EU and the allergens shall be labelled clearly on the product. Regarding the types of fragrance allergens detected, 1 model was detected with 4 fragrance allergens, while 2 models were detected with 3 and 2 fragrance allergens respectively. After reviewing the product labels, it was found that 3 models did not label the corresponding fragrance allergens on their packaging, and consumers allergic to these substances might use the products unknowingly, which is highly unsatisfactory. The relevant product information and test results have been forwarded to the Customs and Excise Department for follow-up.

3 Models with High Alcohol Content

3 Contained Preservatives that May Affect Reproductive System

Many toner products will add alcohol (ethanol) to enhance the refreshing sensation after application, while providing antiseptic properties. Alcohol can also act as a skin penetration enhancer, which can facilitate the transdermal absorption of active ingredients.

Ethanol was detected in 40% (10 models) of the tested samples, with the amounts ranging from 0.0061% to 34%. Among them, 3 models were detected with high ethanol content of 34%, 16% and 14% respectively. Products with high concentration of alcohol may lead to acceleration in the loss of natural moisture in the skin and dissolve the sebum that protects the skin, making the skin dry or even increasing the chance of allergy. People who had eczema before or are suffering from eczema may have higher risk of triggering or aggravating eczema symptoms after use. Although there is no regulatory limit on the alcoholic content in different skincare products in EU or China, consumers with dry or sensitive skin should avoid using products with a high alcohol content.

In addition to alcohol, many personal care products would be added with preservatives such as methylisothiazolinone (MIT) / methylchloroisothiazolinone (CMIT) and parabens in order to prolong their shelf life. MIT is a Category 1A skin sensitising substance, and overseas studies have reported that as many as 10% of eczema sufferers and 1.5% of the general population are likely to develop allergic reactions to these chemicals, and the reactions are generally severe. Paraben compounds are estrogen-like chemicals and are suspected endocrine disruptors, which are often associated with increased risk of breast cancer or early onset of puberty. Test results revealed that MIT and CMIT were not detected in any of the tested models, but 3 models were found to contain methylparaben at levels ranging from 0.024% to 0.089%, which complied with the requirements of both the Mainland and the EU.

Urging for Improvements on the Insufficient Labelling on Ingredients and Expiry Date

Accurate and sufficient information is fundamental for consumers to choose the right products, but the labelling information on the tested models still have room for improvement. Over 20% (6 models) were found with no ingredient list in Chinese or English, while there were respectively 4 models which did not carry directions for use and/or lacked information on the expiry date, which was disappointing. The Council urges the relevant manufacturers to make improvements promptly.

Excessive Cleansing Damages the Skin

According to the advice from dermatologist, daily cleansing with a facial cleanser is sufficient to remove dirt from the surface of the skin and inside pores, and using a moisturiser after cleansing is sufficient to provide the skin with the necessary moisture and protection in daily care. Using a toner for further cleansing may increase the risk of allergy due to over-cleansing. Besides, some products labelled as “strong oil removal” and “exfoliating” may lead to excessive cleansing of the skin, which may remove the natural sebum that acts as a protection layer for the skin, or thinning of the skin’s stratum corneum thus increasing the risk of allergy.

Consumers can refer to the following tips when choosing skincare products and during their daily skincare routine:

  • When choosing skincare products, including toners, always read the ingredient list. People with an allergic history to fragrance substances should pay special attention and consider discontinuing the use of toners if they have allergic reactions after use. If the allergic reaction persists, consult a dermatologist;
  • Different ingredients in toners may bring different benefits: Hyaluronic acid moisturises the skin and helps to reduce the appearance of wrinkles; salicylic acid/BHA exfoliates and helps to control oil secretion; while alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) help to remove excess oil and exfoliate aged stratum corneum;
  • Avoid over-cleansing: Most people would not have much dirt and oil on their skin when they wake up in the morning, and can consider washing their face with only water. They can choose to use a cleansing product only at night to remove dirt and excess oil. Consumers should avoid using hot water to wash the face even during winter time, and avoid using scrubs or deep cleansing products frequently;
  • People with eczema or sensitive skin should use mild cleansing products and avoid products containing AHA to minimise the risk of allergy;
  • As most toners have a relatively high water content, some of the preservatives may no longer be able to preserve the product after the expiry date, thus increasing the chance of bacterial or microbial contamination. The risk of microbial contamination will also increase after the product has been opened and has come into contact with air or skin. Once opened, the product should be used by the expiry date according to instructions.


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