Toddler and Preschool  |  Alcohol  |  Cosmetics and personal care products

My Child Drank Perfume

The Bottom Line

Most fragrance products contain alcohol; some contain up to 95%. Alcohol can cause serious effects in children. Fragrance products can also cause skin irritation, which will usually go away if you stop using the product. 

The Full Story

Perfumes and colognes are very attractive to children because of their smell and the ornate bottles. Children also mimic a parent’s use of the fragrance. Most fragrance products contain some type of alcohol, usually ethanol – the same type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages. Fragrance products typically contain a blend of water-soluble components and essential oils. The alcohol is needed to help everything mix in the product. Once the fragrance is on the skin, the alcohol and water evaporate leaving the pleasant-smelling essential oil behind.

The proportion of alcohol in fragrance products can be anywhere from 20 to 95%. In children, alcohol causes drowsiness and inebriation just like in adults, but it also can drop their blood sugar to dangerously low concentrations. The brain needs sustained levels of sugar to function normally. Children can develop slurred speech, show depressed breathing and loss of coordination, pass out, or even have a seizure. Since fragrance products were never intended to be swallowed, some might contain more dangerous “toxic alcohols” like those found in windshield washer fluid.

Perfumes and colognes can also cause skin irritation. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, fragrance products are the leading cause of cosmetic-related contact dermatitis. If that occurs, wash the skin with soap and water to remove any remaining product and discontinue use. If inflammation and irritation persists, an over-the-counter topical steroid like 1% hydrocortisone can be applied.

If your child drinks perfume, cologne, or any source of alcohol, give a light snack to prevent the blood sugar from dropping. Get guidance from Poison Control immediately to determine if your child has swallowed a dangerous amount: call 1-800-222-1222 or use the webPOISONCONTROL® tool for online help. Contact Poison Control, too, if you think your child has gotten into a perfume or cologne. Smell near the child's mouth if you think some was swallowed. If a fragrance product was inadvertently sprayed into the eyes, rinse gently for 15 min with lukewarm water and then call or get online help from Poison Control. 

Pela Soto, PharmD, BSHS, BS
Certified Specialist in Poison Information


For More Information

Alcohol: a dangerous poison for children. The Poison Post®, February 2013

Alcohol Poisoning (Mayo Clinic) [Accessed 1 Dec 2015].

American Academy of Dermatology [Accessed 1 Dec 2015].

Medscape. Ethanol toxicity clinical presentation [Accessed 1 Dec 2015]. 

WebMD, contact dermatitis


References

Alani JI, Davis MD, Yiannias JA. Allergy to cosmetics: a literature review. Dermatitis. 2013;24:283-90.

Yip L. Ethanol. In: Hoffman RS, Howland M, Lewin N, Nelson L, et al., editors. Goldfrank’s toxicologic emergencies. 10th ed. Ethanol. New York: McGraw-Hill; 2015. p.1082-93.

Poisoned?

Call 1-800-222-1222 or

HELP ME online

Prevention Tips

  • Keep perfumes and colognes out of reach of children.
  • Do not apply fragrance products in the presence of young children.
  • If you apply a fragrance product on a child, make sure the child knows never to apply it on their own.

This Really Happened

A mother called Poison Control because her 2-year-old daughter licked a rollerball perfume product about 20 minutes earlier. The child was sleepy, but the mother was not sure if it was because the girl was up late the previous night. Mom was unsure what the percentage of alcohol was in the perfume. Poison Control was able to find the product’s alcohol concentration and then calculate how much alcohol the child might have swallowed. Fortunately, the amount of alcohol swallowed was very small, so Poison Control advised the mother to let her daughter sleep but to call back if there were any changes or concerns.

Poison Control followed up the next day and the child was acting normally.