Ah, TikTok. Since the video platform and eating at home gained traction during the height of the COVID pandemic in 2020, FoodTok – or the sub-community of TikTok dedicated to all things edible – has become the go-to place for recipes, trends, cooking hacks, kitchen tips, and your not-so-basic #foodporn. Recently, though, the hashtag has been flooded with… beauty advice?

In a TikTok that has amassed more than 10 million views and 2.3 million likes since its original posting, user @challxn uses vanilla extract as perfume in the now-viral clip. The creator asks the audience to “trust her” as she pulls out a small bottle of extract, pours a few drops onto her palm, pats it in between her hands, and applies it as perfume.

Spoon University talked to dermatologists and skin experts to get the scoop on vanilla extract and to see if this food-grade chemical is safe to use as perfume.

What exactly is vanilla extract?

Vanilla extract is a solution containing the chemical vanillin, and it’s often used as a flavor additive in baked goods and dessert dishes. The scent often evokes warmth and coziness and popular fragrances with the same notes can cost anywhere from $10-$100.

“Vanilla extract has anti-inflammatory properties, and it's often used as a homemade remedy for acne and other bacterial induced skin problems,” notes Dr. Natalie Carlton, a dermatologist who specializes in cosmetic dermatology. “However, it's not safe for all skin types, as some can react negatively.”

Is it safe to use vanilla extract as perfume?

As seen in the viral TikTok video, a woman has been using vanilla extract as a perfume for years without any serious issues – but this isn’t necessarily the case for everyone.

Since the vanilla extract is meant for food (and not skin), its pH is not regulated. “Aside from containing alcohol that may irritate the skin, the chemical vanillin may cause contact dermati is and cause flares of atopic dermatitis,” warns Dr. Crystal Dinopol, DPDS, a board-certified dermatologist and writer.

Plus, true vanilla extract must be at least 35% alcohol, and such high concentrations of alcohol could damage your skin's barrier if used on a regular basis. “This issue can be especially problematic over skin folds like the neck, behind the ears, and other pulse points where perfumes are frequently applied,” says Dr. Alpana Mohta, a certified dermatologist and medical advisor for BetterGoods.org. “A broken barrier allows moisture to depart the skin and possible irritants to enter, resulting in redness and inflammation.”

“Additionally, vanillin is also one of the common allergens causing allergic contact dermatitis,” notes Dr. Mohta. Such patients may be allergic to synthetic vanillin but not to natural vanilla, vice versa, or both, and it’s difficult to know for sure how the extract – especially cheaper brands – are produced. Plus, vanillin is also a known trigger of migraines, according to Dr. Mohta.

“All things considered,” says Dr. Dinopol, “if you don't have allergies to Balsam of Peru or vanillin, and you don't have sensitive skin, using vanilla extract as a perfume might work for you as it has for the woman in the video.”

What are some alternatives to vanilla extract?

In addition to aggravating existing skin conditions, vanilla extract can also stain both clothes and skin. Instead of using vanilla extract, Dr. Mohta suggests using vanilla essential oil. “It smells just as nice and is frequently marketed in a carrier oil like jojoba, which is great for your skin.”

If you have any skin problems or known allergies to vanillin

or Balsam of Peru, Dr. Dinopol says it may be best to stick to cosmetic-grade perfumes to get that warm and cozy feeling that vanilla evokes. 

How do I try vanilla extract as perfume?

Dr. Anna Chacon, a board-certified dermatologist, suggests adding coumarin to vanilla extract if you’re going to try it as a perfume. “Coumarin, which is produced from tonka beans, imparts a rich, custardy, alcoholic richness to the vanilla,” says Dr. Chacon.

If you want to test it out for yourself, Dr. Carlton recommends applying the extract twice daily to the same spot on your skin for a little more than a week. “After seven to ten days, [if] you don't experience any skin reactions, such as red, itchy, or swollen skin you may proceed to apply it anywhere on your skin,” according to Dr. Carlton.