COVID-19’s impact on the beauty consumer is going beyond purchasing habits. Many are witnessing dramatic changes to their olfactory systems. Affected scent capabilities was a more common virus symptom than a fever or cough, with 60% of patients experiencing an impact on their sense of smell. Three-quarters recover fairly quickly, but a smaller percentage are still struggling with anosmia (a complete loss of smell), parosmia (distorted scent perception), or phantosmia (smelling things which aren’t there). 50% of health care workers hadn’t seen their sense of smell return to normal five months post-infection.
Generally speaking, a loss in smelling abilities comes with aging—1 in 5 Americans over the age of 40 reports a changed sense of smell. 1 in 8 has olfactory dysfunction, and 1 in 15 “smell” phantom odors. Anosmia is also a symptom of neural diseases, depression, and auto-immune diseases, or a side effect of head injuries. Three percent of the US population were considered anosmic in 2016.
In others, the opposite problem exists. Some COVID long-haulers are showing fragrance allergies and hyperosmia (a heightened sense of smell). Pre-pandemic, 30% of the American population had fragrance sensitivities, and fragrance is the second-highest reason for contact allergies after nickel. Veiled ingredient listings, false product claims, and delayed reactions make it hard for the consumer to pinpoint exactly what component they are allergic too. Estimates are that millions of infected people may never fully recover their olfaction capabilities, although scent training is proving a helpful recuperation strategy.
According to Regulation (EC) No. 1223/2009, added fragrance only needs to be on the product label if it is one of the known 26 substances likely to trigger allergies, such as citral or geraniol. The term “perfume” or “fragrance” on a label can include any other ingredient that is below the threshold concentration for declaration. In 2012, the EU Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) suggested that a further 101 fragrances be listed, but as of yet, it has not been made part of the EU regulation.
In terms of disclosure, even products tailored towards allergy-prone skin can be elusive. In a study of 24 sensitive-labeled shower products, 4 contained allergy-triggering ingredients. 7.7% of 932 cosmetic samples were non-compliant with allergenic legislations, and 3.1% of perfume-free products contained fragrance compounds. “The FDA does not have the legal authority to approve cosmetic products and ingredients (other than color additives) before they go on the market,” states Curology CEO and dermatologist Dr. David Lortscher. “There is no regulation specifically defining the use of the term ‘hypoallergenic,’ nor for the labels ‘safe for sensitive skin’ or ‘allergy tested.’”
Ambient scents further complicate matters. While certain spaces, such as airports in Copenhagen and Helsinki, have created designated fragrance-free routes, no one leaving their home can completely escape scents (and some might not want to for the sheer sensorial pleasure or nostalgia that a beautiful fragrance can provide). In terms of products, fragrance-free options devoid of not just synthetic variants but also certain essential oils are the safest options. Last year, 49.6% of women in Japan chose fragrance-free facial skincare options. There has been increasing scrutiny around added fragrance in facial skincare worldwide, with fragrance-free claims being important to 29% of consumers.
But what allergen, and what levels of said allergen, triggers a reaction in the individual can vary. Given the potential for skyrocketing numbers of people with these sensitivities due to COVID-19, the industry will need to become more stringent in its testing, transparency, and disclosure efforts. On the other hand, those who are regaining their sense of smell post-infection are likely to rebound from their anosmic period by fully embracing all the scented options at their disposal, at least upon initial recovery. A completely polarized market of fragrance avoiders and scent hedonists may be too simplistic of a consumer market outcome, but the pandemic will undoubtedly make consumers reassess their relationship to scent.