Dermatologica Sinica

: 2019  |  Volume : 37  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 123--128

Contact allergy to preservatives in Taiwan between 1996 and 2015

Yen-Kai Huang1, Yu-Hung Wu2, Po-Hsuan Lu2, Mei-Eng Tu1,  
1 Department of Dermatology, Mackay Memorial Hospital, Taipei, Taiwan
2 Department of Dermatology, Mackay Memorial Hospital, Taipei; Department of Medicine, Mackay Medical College, New Taipei City, Taiwan

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Mei-Eng Tu
Department of Dermatology, Mackay Memorial Hospital, 92, Sec. 2, Zhongshan North Road, Taipei, 10449


Background: Preservatives are widely used in personal and industrial products. Frequent and sustained exposure to preservatives can cause contact allergy. Objective: We investigated the prevalence of contact allergic reactions to common preservatives in Taiwan over a 20-year period. Methods: A retrospective analysis was conducted among patients with allergic contact dermatitis who underwent patch testing at our clinic between 1996 and 2015. Patients who showed positive reactions to preservatives were enrolled. The location of the reaction, likely source of the allergen, and patient occupation, sex, and age were recorded. Thirteen common preservatives, including methylchloroisothiazolinone/methylisothiazolinone (MCI/MI), MI, formaldehyde (FA), paraben mix, and quaternium-15, were investigated. Results: Of 757 enrolled patients, 151 showed at least one positive reaction to preservatives. Allergy to MCI/MI (12.5%), the most frequent allergen in the standard series, showed a steeply increasing trend over time. FA (4.8%) and paraben mix (2.1%) were the next common allergens. Cosmetic products were the most common source of exposure (63.6%), while hairdressers and massage therapists were most commonly associated with occupational contact dermatitis. A sharp increase of sensitivity to MCI/MI was observed after 2006 and that of allergy to MI after 2013. Conclusions: In Taiwan, the prevalence of contact allergy to MCI/MI, MI, and parabens has increased in recent years. Individuals who are frequently exposed to cosmetic products should consider precautions against sensitization.

How to cite this article:
Huang YK, Wu YH, Lu PH, Tu ME. Contact allergy to preservatives in Taiwan between 1996 and 2015.Dermatol Sin 2019;37:123-128

How to cite this URL:
Huang YK, Wu YH, Lu PH, Tu ME. Contact allergy to preservatives in Taiwan between 1996 and 2015. Dermatol Sin [serial online] 2019 [cited 2022 Nov 29 ];37:123-128
Available from:

Full Text


Preservatives are common ingredients used in daily-use products, such as cosmetics, shampoos, cleansing solutions, perfumes, paint, glue, and ink. Preservatives are used to stabilize the products and prevent their deterioration. The first epidemic of contact allergy to preservatives occurred when many individuals experienced cutaneous exposure to formaldehyde (FA) in textile finishes and cosmetics between 1950 and 1960.[1] The introduction of methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI), methylisothiazolinone (MI), and methyldibromo glutaronitrile (MDBGN) subsequently resulted in widespread preservative dermatitis.[1],[2] Other common preservatives that result in contact allergy are parabens, quaternium-15, FA releasers, and iodopropynyl butylcarbamate (IPBC). The frequency of sensitization and ranking of these allergens differs worldwide.[1],[2],[3],[4],[5],[6],[7],[8] Recently, a mixture of MCI and MI (MCI/MI) or MI alone has increasingly been reported as a specific sensitizer, and the prevalence of the resultant contact dermatitis shows increasing trends.[9],[10],[11],[12],[13] Several epidemiology reports on contact allergy to preservatives have been published based on studies conducted in the United States,[14] Europe,[2],[3],[5] and Asia.[4] However, information regarding contact allergies to these substances in Taiwan is limited. Therefore, we conducted a retrospective analysis of data obtained from patients with contact allergy to understand the trends of contact allergy to different preservatives among the Taiwanese population.


We retrospectively enrolled patients who had a history of contact dermatitis and who underwent a European standard series patch test (Chemotechnique Diagnostics, Malmö, Sweden) at a referral center in Northern Taiwan between 1996 and 2015. Some patients were also tested using additional series tests, such as the cosmetic series or hairdresser series if clinically indicated. The results of the patch test and clinical data including sex, age, occupation, personal history, and the location of the skin problem were retrieved from medical records. The clinical relevance of the positive reaction was assessed by personal exposure history, occupation, and physical examination. For each positive allergen, the possible sources of exposure were also recorded.

The preservatives in the European standard series included MCI/MI, FA, paraben mix, 1, 2-dibromo-2, 4-dicyanobutane, and quaternium-15. The preservatives in the additional series included Kathon CG (MCI/MI 0.02% aqueous), dimethyloldimethyl hydantoin, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bronopol), diazolidinyl urea, and imidazolidinyl urea; 1,2-dibromo-2,4-dicyanobutane was included in the European standard series starting in 2008, and MI, MDBGN, and IPBC were included in the cosmetic series starting in 2011. The concentration of these preservatives in the patch test is shown in [Table 1].{Table 1}

The patch testing materials were applied with Finn chambers (Epitest Ltd Oy, Tuusula, Finland), with the upper back covered with Scanpor tape (Norgesplaster A/S, Vennesla, Norway). The testing materials were removed after 48 h. Readings were taken at 48 h, 72 h, and 7 days, according to the protocol recommended by the International Contact Dermatitis Research Group.[15]

All data were analyzed using SPSS™ version 12.0 (SPPS™ Statistics Chicago, IL, USA; IBM PASW Statistics) for Windows™. Fisher's exact test was used where applicable. The P values were two-sided, and a P ≤ 0.05 indicated statistical significance in all analyses.


We included a total of 757 patients examined at the clinic between January 1996 and December 2015. Their mean age was 39.6 years, and 71.9% of them were female (544/757). In total, 151 patients (19.9%) showed positive reactions to at least one preservative. The mean age of the patients with a positive reaction was 39.2 years, and most of these patients were female (n = 136, 90.1%).

The prevalence of positive reactions to individual preservatives and the prevalence stratified by sex are summarized in [Table 1]. MCI/MI (12.5%) was the most frequent allergen identified in the standard series; FA (4.8%) and the paraben mix (2.1%) were less frequently identified. Among patients tested with the additional series, MI (40.7%) and Kathon CG (38.4%) showed the highest reaction prevalence. Compared to men, women had a significantly higher prevalence of contact allergy to MCI/MI 0.01% (P < 0.001) and Kathon CG (P = 0.018). However, there was no significant difference between men and women in the prevalence of contact allergy to other preservatives [Table 1].

The frequencies of positive reactions to preservatives in the standard series in the first decade (1996–2005) were compared with those in the second decade (2006–2015) [Table 2]. The prevalence of contact allergy to FA decreased significantly from 7.0% ( first decade) to 3.2% (second decade) (P = 0.023). Conversely, the prevalence of contact allergy to parabens increased significantly from 0.6% ( first decade) to 3.2% (second decade) (P = 0.019). In particular, the prevalence of hypersensitivity to MCI/MI increased significantly from 3.8% ( first decade) to 18.6% (second decade) (P < 0.001). Positive reactions to quaternium-15 were infrequent during both periods. We were unable to compare the prevalence of contact allergy to preservatives between the two periods in the additional series, as not all patients were routinely tested for the additional series, and many preservatives were added to the patch test after 2006.{Table 2}

[Figure 1] shows the prevalence of contact allergy to different preservatives over the course of 20 years in Taiwan. The prevalence of allergy to FA followed a decreasing trend. Contact allergy to parabens appeared in 1996 and 1997 and then remained at 0% until 2007, after which it gradually increased. The prevalence of contact allergy to quaternium-15 was low and stable across the study period. There was a steep increase in the prevalence of contact allergy to MCI/MI after 2006, which reached approximately 30% between 2013 and 2015. 1,2-dibromo-2,4-dicyanobutane was included in our standard series in 2008, and contact allergy to this preservative remained at 0% from 2008 to 2011, after which it gradually increased to 5.6% in 2015. MI was added to the cosmetic series in 2011; contact allergy to MI remained at 0% for the first 3 years, before steeply increasing to 50% in 2014 and 66.7% in 2015.{Figure 1}

The sites of dermatitis in patients with a positive reaction are shown in [Table 3]. The most commonly affected location was the face (70.9%), and it was more frequently observed in women (P < 0.001). In contrast, hand and foot dermatitis was more common in men (P < 0.001 in hands and P = 0.004 in feet).{Table 3}

Analysis of patient occupation and the possible source of exposure revealed that 96 cases (63.6%) were related to cosmetic products and 35 cases (23.2%) were the result of occupational contact dermatitis [Table 4]. Hairdressers (15 cases) and massage therapists (6 cases) were the most commonly affected. Further, the ratio of patients with contact allergy associated with cosmetic products increased significantly from 35.3% during 1996–2005 to 71.8% during 2006–2015. [Figure 2] shows that the number of cosmetic product-related allergic cases increased significantly after 2006.{Table 4}{Figure 2}


This study revealed the trends in the annual prevalence of contact allergy to preservatives over a course of two decades in Taiwan. In the first decade (1996–2005), FA was the most significant sensitizer. It was replaced by MCI/MI in the second decade of the study (2006–2015). The prevalence of contact dermatitis resulting from parabens and MI also significantly increased in recent years. The face was the most frequent location of reaction, observed more commonly in women, which was likely associated with contact allergy to facial cosmetics. These findings were supported by an increase in the number of patients with allergies to cosmetics after 2006, and by the fact that cosmetics were the most common source of allergen exposure.

MCI and MI were initially compounded in a 3:1 ratio for industrial use. Although MCI/MI has been gradually replaced by MI over recent years, MCI/MI is still widely used in personal products, such as cleansers, shampoos, beauty preparations, sunscreens, and moisturizing creams, and is considered a common sensitizer.[10],[12],[13],[16],[17],[18],[19],[20] The rate of sensitization to MCI/MI in Taiwan, compared to that in other countries, between 1996 and 2005 indicates that the sensitization rate of MCI/MI observed at our institution (3.8%) was slightly higher than the rates reported by the North American Contact Dermatitis Group (NACDG; which recorded a prevalence of 2.2%–3%),[1] the Information Network of Departments of Dermatology (IVDK; 2.2%),[3] and in Denmark (1.8%);[2] however, it was similar to the rates reported for Israel (3.7%–4%).[6] However, the rate of sensitization to MCI/MI gradually increased, and several reports from the United Kingdom,[18] Spain,[21] and Thailand[11] have all shown that the prevalence of allergy to MCI/MI is >10%, with an increasing trend.

The prevalence of allergy to MCI/MI in our survey was 18.6% between 2006 and 2015, which increased to approximately 30% between 2012 and 2015. In our standard series patch test, the sensitization to MCI/MI in men (2.8%) was similar to that reported in other countries; however, it was markedly higher in women (16.3%). MCI/MI was the only preservative that had a significantly different sensitization rate among men and women (P < 0.001 for 0.01% aqueous, P = 0.018 for 0.02% aqueous). Moreover, the number of preservative-related allergic contact dermatitis cases associated with cosmetics increased after 2006, in parallel to the trend of contact allergy to MCI/MI. These findings suggest that MCI/MI may be strongly associated with cosmetics-related allergic contact dermatitis in the women in our cohort.

We have been testing MI at a concentration of 0.02% in our cosmetic series since 2011, and we have found that the rate of allergy to MI steeply increased after 2013. The sensitization to Kathon CG and MI in the additional series was dramatically higher compared to that in other geographic regions. In a study on contact allergy to cosmetics in Spain, about 27.4% (172/629) of the patients had a positive reaction to Kathon CG.[22] A possible explanation is that we tested Kathon CG and MI only in select patients, and most cases were associated with exposure to cosmetics. A survey from Thailand also revealed a high prevalence of allergy to MI (40.7%), which was also likely the result of exposure to cosmetics.[11]

Although the recommended concentration of MCI/MI has been restricted to 15 ppm in the European Union, and up to 100 ppm of MI is allowed in cosmetics since 2005, many investigations still show an increasing prevalence of isothiazolinone (MCI/MI or MI) allergy across regions, and some articles have highlighted its association with cosmetics.[5],[9],[10],[23] [Table 5] summarizes the prevalence of contact allergy to preservatives in different countries. Compared to data from other countries, our data show a higher prevalence of contact allergy to MCI/MI and MI from 2006 to 2015. This could be attributed to a possible lack of comprehensive regulations or restrictions on the use of preservatives such as MCI/MI or MI in cosmetic products before 2013 in Taiwan.[24]{Table 5}

The prevalence of allergy to FA over the course of the study was 4.8%, and it did not show any difference between men and women. The prevalence of allergy to FA was slightly lower than that reported by NACDG (5.8%–9.3% between 1994 and 2010)[1] but higher than that reported by IVDK (1.54% between 1996 and 2009)[3] and in Denmark (3.1% between 1985 and 2008).[2] The rate of sensitization to FA was the highest among the rates of sensitization to all the preservatives tested by our institution before 2006, after which it gradually decreased. This decrease could be attributed to the use of fewer products containing FA, which is increasingly being replaced by FA releaser or other preservatives. The rate of sensitization to all FA releasers was also <2%, whereas most of the FA releasers were tested for patients who underwent patch tests with the cosmetic series. Quaternium-15 was the only FA releaser tested in our standard series, and it is a frequently identified sensitizer in the United States;[1] however, the rate of sensitization to quaternium-15 in our survey was relatively low (0.2%).

Parabens are widely used in cosmetics and personal products. In a European study, parabens were found in 99% of leave-on products and 77% of rinse-off products.[30] Since the 1990s, the prevalence of sensitization has been relatively low and stable, ranging from 0.5% to 1.7% in Europe and North America.[1] However, a higher rate of allergic reactions to parabens is observed in Asian countries. A survey conducted in Singapore from 2006 to 2011 showed that the rate of sensitization to parabens was 2.6%,[4] while another investigation of cases of cosmetics-related allergies from Thailand[31] and Korea[32] showed that the sensitization rates of parabens were 9.2% and 3.1%, respectively. Our analysis found that the sensitization rate of parabens was low and stable (0.6%) in the first decade but significantly increased to 3.2% in the second decade of the study.

1,2-dibromo-2,4-dicyanobutane, known as MDBGN, was tested in our standard series since 2008. The prevalence of 1,2-dibromo-2,4-dicyanobutane was much lower than that of MCI/MI, FA, and parabens. Despite the small number of tested patients, an increasing annual trend of patients was observed.

The most common occupation of the patients in our cohort who had occupational contact allergy was hairdressers, followed by massage therapists. These data were similar to those from a case series on contact allergy to MCI/MI reported from another institution in Northern Taiwan.[33] The study revealed that the most relevant sources of exposure were essential oils, hairdressing products, and cosmetics.[33] A similar result was reported in a Finnish study from 2002 to 2013 that demonstrated that hairdressers and beauticians were the most significantly affected by MCI/MI.[19] However, the occupational contact allergy to MCI/MI and/or MI is also observed in manufacturing workers and painters,[19],[29],[34] indicating that isothiazolinone must be present in other products in addition to cosmetics. In our study group, we did not find a strong association between preservatives and occupational contact allergy, probably because most of our patients were female and were allergic to their personal daily use products.

There were several limitations to this study. The patients were enrolled from a single institution and the patient number was limited. The analyzed group of patients may not reflect the characteristics of the general population. Nevertheless, very few institutions can provide a patch test in Taiwan owing to the test materials being strictly regulated by the government; hence, this test is limited to only a few medical centers. Therefore, our data provide important information regarding the trends of contact allergy to preservatives in Taiwan.


The burden of preservative dermatitis has substantially increased over the course of two decades in Taiwan. There was a distinct rise in the prevalence of contact allergy to MCI/MI, MI, and parabens after 2006. Cosmetics were the most important sources of exposure, and hairdressers and massage therapists were the two most common occupations that experienced contact allergy to preservatives. Such information should be reported regularly to help devise informed policies related to the regulation of preservative usage.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.


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