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. Call Poison Control immediately to determine if the child has swallowed a dangerous amount: 1-800-222-1222. Call 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 Poison Control. If no symptoms are present yet, you can also get help using the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool.
Pela Soto, PharmD, BSHS, BS
Certified Specialist in Poison Information
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.