Hand holding a small glass bottle of essential oil, against a background of various colorful flowers.

IFRA standards in cosmetics: placing safe use limits for fragrances and essential oils

Cosmetic products contain various ingredients, including “active” ingredients that provide benefits to the skin, those that form the basis of the formulation, stabilising agents, and those that add colour and scent, making the product more appealing to consumers.

In this article, we will discuss fragrances, essential oils, and certain plant extracts that may contain skin-sensitising substances. It is essential to adhere to usage limits to prevent consumer complaints and ensure the product’s safety under normal or foreseeable conditions, as specified by the EU Cosmetics Regulation 1223/2009.

Fragrances and essential oils in Cosmetics

What is a Fragrance?

A fragrance is a blend of volatile substances and essential oils, both natural and synthetic, which create a unique aroma. These fragrances can be added to various cosmetic products, from perfumes to moisturising creams.

What is an Essential Oil?

Hand holding a black-capped dropper with a yellow essential oil inside, against a plain white background

Essential oils are volatile oils extracted primarily from plants (leaves, flowers, bark, etc.). They can be used pure, as in aromatherapy, or in small quantities as perfuming or active ingredients in cosmetic products.

Fragrances, essential oils, and other plant extracts often contain skin-sensitising substances. Therefore, they should be used cautiously as ingredients in cosmetic products.

What is IFRA?

IFRA stands for International Fragrance Association. It is an international entity that ensures the safe use of fragrances and essential oils as raw materials. They have established a series of standards, the IFRA Standards, through which they promote the safe use of fragrances and essential oils.

IFRA Standards

Several tall, clear glass vials containing a small amount of orange essential oil, arranged on a reflective surface in a laboratory setting

Over the years, IFRA has identified and built a database of natural and synthetic substances with the potential to be harmful to humans due to their skin-sensitising nature.

They have been monitoring and assessing the safety of these substances through the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM), which gathers scientific data regarding the hazard potential of substances. Based on the results, scientific evidence, and consumer feedback, the  IFRA has established rules of use. These rules prohibit, limit, and/or establish purity specifications for these substances to ensure consumer safety.

To establish these rules, IFRA considered the different types of exposure that consumers may have to these substances and defined various categories according to the type of product. For each category, limits of use were established based on the composition of each fragrance or essential oil and the amount of skin-sensitising substances.

The RIFM continues to study substances with sensitising potential, and more information becomes available over time. This ongoing research leads to constant updates of IFRA standards. Each time RIFM identifies and communicates a new concern about the safe use of a substance, IFRA issues a new standard. These standards are updated in the form of amendments, with the current amendment being the 51st Amendment.

IFRA Categories according to the 51st Amendment

IFRA Category

Type of Product
Category 1 Leave on products generally applied to lips.
– Lip products of all types (solid and liquid lipsticks, balms, clear or coloured, etc.).
– Children’s toys.
Category 2Leave on products generally applied to axillae.
– Deodorant and antiperspirant products of all types including any product with intended or reasonably foreseeable use on the axillae or labelled as such (spray, stick, roll-on, under-arm, deocologne, etc.). 
– Body sprays (including body mist)
Category 3Products generally applied to the face using fingertips. 
– Eye products of all types (eye shadow, mascara, eyeliner, eye make-up, eye masks, eye pillows, etc.) including eye care and moisturiser
– Facial makeup and foundation
– Make-up remover for face and eyes
– Nose pore strips 
– Wipes or refreshing tissues for face, neck, hands, body
– Body and face paint (for children and adults)
– Facial masks for face and around the eyes
Category 4Fragrancing products generally applied to neck, face and wrists.
– Hydroalcoholic and non-hydroalcoholic fine fragrance of all types (Eau de Toilette, Parfum, Cologne, solid perfume, fragrancing cream, etc.), aftershaves of all types (except creams and balms)
– Fragranced bracelets
– Ingredients of perfume kits and fragrance mixtures for cosmetic kits
– Scent pads, foil packs
– Scent strips for hydroalcoholic products
Category 5ALeave on products applied to the face and body using the hands (palms).
– Body creams, oils, lotions of all types
– Products that contain UV filters are not listed separately and are included in the major product type (e.g., lip creams containing sunscreen are included in the lip products category).
– Foot care products (creams and powders)
– Insect repellent (intended to be applied to the skin)
– All powders and talc (excluding baby powders and talc)
Category 5BLeave on products applied to the face and body using the hands (palms).
– Facial toner
– Facial moisturisers and creams (including care products for beard and moustache)
Category 5CLeave on products applied to the face and body using the hands (palms).
– Hand cream
– Nail care products including cuticle creams, nail lacquer remover, etc. 
– Hand sanitizers
Category 5DLeave on products applied to the face and body using the hands (palms).
– Baby cream/lotion, baby oil, baby powders and talc
Category 6Products with lip and oral exposure.
– Toothpaste
– Mouthwash, including breath sprays
– Toothpowder, strips, mouthwash tablets
Category 7AProducts applied to hair with hand contact.
– Hair permanent or other hair chemical treatments (rinse-off) (e.g., relaxers), including rinse-off hair dyes
Category 7BProducts applied to hair with hand contact.
– Hair sprays of all types (pumps, aerosol sprays, etc.)
– Hair styling aids non-sprays (mousse, gels, leave-on conditioners)
– Hair permanent or other hair chemical treatments (leave-on) (e.g., relaxers), including leave-on hair dyes
– Shampoo – Dry (waterless shampoo)
– Hair deodorizer, hair perfume (exclusively for hair)
Category 8Products with significant anogenital exposure.
– Intimate wipes 
– Intimate deodorant spray
– Tampons
– Baby wipes 
– Toilet paper (wet)
Category 9Rinse off products with body and hand exposure.
– Bar soap
– Shampoo of all types
– Cleanser for face (rinse-off)
– Conditioner (rinse-off)
– Liquid soap
– Body washes and shower gels of all types
– Baby wash, bath, shampoo
– Bath gels, foams, mousses, salts, oils and other products added to bathwater (such as bath bombs)
– Foot care products (feet are placed in a bath for soaking)
– Shaving creams of all types (stick, gels, foams, etc.)
– All depilatories (including facial) and waxes for mechanical hair removal
– Shampoos for pets
Category 10AHousehold care products with mostly hand contact.
– Hand wash laundry detergent (including concentrates)
– Laundry pre-treatment of all types (e.g. paste, sprays, sticks)
– Hand dishwashing detergent (including concentrates)
– Hard surface cleaners of all types (bathroom and kitchen cleansers, furniture polish, etc.)
– Machine laundry detergents with skin contact (e.g., liquids, powders) including concentrates
– Toilet seat wipes 
– Fabric softeners of all types excluding fabric softener sheets
– Household cleaning products, other types including fabric cleaners, soft surface cleaners, carpet cleaners, furniture polishes sprays and wipes, leather cleaning wipes, stain removers, fabric enhancing sprays, treatment products for textiles (e.g., starch sprays, fabric treated with fragrances after wash, deodorizers for textiles or fabrics)
– Floor wax 
– Fragranced oil for lamp ring, reed diffusers, pot-pourri, liquid refills for air fresheners (non-cartridge systems), etc.
– Ironing water (Odorized distilled water)
– Dry cleaning kits (involving manual application on the textile)
Category 10BHousehold care products with mostly hand contact.
– Animal sprays – sprays applied to animals of all types
– Air freshener sprays, manual, including aerosol and pump 
– Aerosol/spray insecticides
Category 11AProducts with intended skin contact but minimal transfer of fragrance to skin from inert substrate.
– Feminine hygiene conventional pads, liners, interlabial pads
– Baby diapers
– Incontinence pant, pad 
– Toilet paper (dry)
Category 11BProducts with intended skin contact but minimal transfer of fragrance to skin from inert substrate.
– Tights with moisturisers 
– Scented socks, gloves 
– Facial tissues (dry tissues) 
– Napkins 
– Pillow spray 
– Paper towels 
– Wheat bags 
– Facial masks (paper/protective) e.g., surgical masks not used as medical device 
– Fertilisers, solid (pellet or powder)
Category 12Products not intended for direct skin contact, minimal or insignificant transfer to skin.
– Candles of all types (including encased)
– Laundry detergents for machine wash with minimal skin contact (e.g. Liquid tabs, pods)
– Automated air fresheners and fragrancing of all types (concentrated aerosol with metered doses (range 0.05-0.5mL/spray), plug-ins, closed systems, solid substrate, membrane delivery, electrical, powders, fragrancing sachets, incense, liquid refills (cartridge), air freshening crystals, solid non-aerosol car diffuser)
– Air delivery systems
– Cat litter
– Cell phone cases
– Deodorizers/maskers not intended for skin contact (e.g., fabric drying machine deodorizers, carpet powders)
– Dry cleaning kits (placed in the dryer)
– Dryer sheets and fabric softener sheets
– Fuels
– Insecticides (e.g., mosquito coil, paper, electrical, for clothing) excluding aerosols/sprays
– Joss sticks or incense sticks
– Dishwash detergent and deodorizers – for machine wash
– Olfactive board games
– Paints
– Plastic articles (excluding toys)
– Scratch and sniff
– Scent pack
– Scent delivery system (using dry air technology)
– Shoe polishes
– Rim blocks (toilet)
– Toilet gel
– Scent beads

When formulating cosmetic products with fragrances, essential oils, or other plant extracts, it is essential to adhere to IFRA standards. Request an IFRA certificate from the raw material supplier, detailing the maximum allowable quantities for the product you are developing. Ensure that the IFRA certificate is based on the current amendment.

While the European cosmetics regulation does not directly mention IFRA standards, compliance with these standards is crucial during a safety assessment of a cosmetic product. Ensuring that fragrances and essential oils meet IFRA standards is key to declaring the product safe. Additionally, non-compliance with IFRA standards may lead to consumer complaints related to allergic reactions, negatively affecting the cosmetic product and brand.

This is why at Taobé, we always consider this information to be very important.

If you are interested in further information on the topic of essential oil regulation in the EU, our detailed guide on essential oil regulations is an excellent resource. This guide covers specific regulations, compliance requirements, and their implications for manufacturers and consumers.

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