We're Calling Bullshit on All Fragrance, Even Natural

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Fragrance in skincare is stinky business, my friends. It’s confusing thanks to a myriad of misleading marketing terms and misinformation. And it’s everywhere — from our skincare to our haircare, even in laundry detergent. In case you haven’t been on the internet in the last five years (welcome back), fragrance is undergoing a reckoning because it’s negative impacts, especially on skin, are well-documented at this point.

Commonly linked to irritation, allergic reactions and photosensitivity, the more it’s studied the more evident it becomes that fragrance affects a higher pool of the population than originally thought. Reactions can be swift and severe or take months or even years to be realized as their cumulative presence slowly breaks down collagen. All the same, a single reaction to any one of the thousands of fragrance ingredients currently in use means a lifetime of sensitivity to that ingredient. (1, 2, 3)

As The Environmental Working Group (EWG) so aptly puts it: “A rose may be a rose, but that rose-like fragrance in your perfume may be something else entirely.” Here’s what you need to know about the something else that might be stinking up the air around your skincare.

What is Fragrance In Skincare?

Fragrance, loosely speaking, is a distinctive cocktail of synthetic and/or natural compounds that, one would hope, smells good. With a pool of around 3,000 ingredients to draw on, a single fragrance can enshrine anywhere from 5 to 500 such compounds that don’t necessarily make it to the ingredient list on labels, except as the catch-all term fragrance.

Why? Well, under U.S. regulations, fragrance can be listed simply as “fragrance” or “parfum” on an ingredients label. Here’s why: while the FDA requires the list of ingredients under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA), this law is not allowed to be used to force a company to tell “trade secrets.” Fragrance formulas are complex mixtures of often many different natural and synthetic chemical ingredients and thus fall under the category of “trade secrets.”

Fragrances aren’t just any ‘ole compound either — they’re volatile compounds, which means they evaporate rapidly. That volatile reaction is key to how fragrances impart their scent and it means we’re exposed to them through both inhalation and direct topical contact. Unfortunately, it also causes hypersensitivity, sometimes in the form of a reaction including inflammation, burning, stinging, itching or even fluid-filled blisters.

Estimations vary, but fragrance in skincare products affects anywhere from 1% to over 10% users. As the number one allergen in cosmetics, it beats out both preservatives and dyes. And allergic reactions are on the rise. (4, 5)

Is Fragrance Only Bad For Sensitive Skin?

Nope. Everything stated above applies to all skin types, not just sensitive. And that’s not the worst of it. Even if you don’t see a reaction right away, the damage is still being done — often beneath the skin’s surface and accumulating over time. The unhappy truth is you will see it eventually because irritation is the opposite of anti-aging. Chronic inflammation is stressful for skin and impacts its overall wellbeing. (6, 7) Read more about dealing with chronic inflammation in the article we wrote here.

Is Natural Fragrance Safe For Skin?

Two words: essential oils. Natural fragrance is extracted from a plant’s flowers, bark, stem, leaves, roots and sometimes fruits. Despite their popularity as the godsend alternative to chemical-laden skincare, essential oils do more harm than good. Many essential oils do have positive benefits, like potent antioxidant properties, but they also have very negative side effects ranging from irritation to more serious burns. Many fragrance ingredients that are considered bad for skin are also present in fragrant plant oil, such as limonene, citronellol, eugenol and linalool. Save your essential oils for your aromatic diffuser in small doses. (8)

If It’s So Bad, Why is Fragrance in Skincare to Begin With?

Three-part answer: First, people like skincare products that smell nice. Second, a lot of skincare formulas naturally don’t smell great without help. Given the option between a potion that promises clearer skin and smells like marshmallow heaven with one that promises clearer skin but smells like dirty socks, which do you think you’re brain is more likely to believe?

Brands get that a pleasant smell works better than a non-pleasant smell toward swaying consumers purchasing decisions. Which brings us to the third part of this answer, the stinky business of trade secrets. Brands also get that developing a fragrance takes time and money, so they want to (and are legally permitted) to withhold fragrance compositions. This keeps trade secrets protected but leaves folks like us vulnerable to potential allergens hiding behind the “fragrance” label.

There are workarounds that make adding fragrance to products unnecessary. Product developers can opt for other ingredients or take formulation steps to get neutral-smelling results. (9) But much like fragrance and it’s many hidden meanings, fragrance-free is a bit of a misleading nose-wrinkler.

So, Are Fragrance-Free Products Better For Skin?

One giant WTF to all this is that “fragrance-free” doesn’t always mean free of fragrance. It just means that no substances are added to the product in order to provide a scent. A product labeled fragrance-free could still contain fragrance substances added for non-scent reasons, like masking the smell of other ingredients. Not all fragrance-free skincare products are unscented, either. Ingredients like shea and cocoa butter are still going to smell like shea and cocoa butter, even if they were added for their benefits, not their smell. (10, 11)

But Unscented Products are Always Fragrance-Free, Right?

Not exactly. Even when you don’t smell anything, fragrance might still be in the formula. This goes back to that whole masking unpleasant odors thing again. When a fragrance is added for the purpose of neutralizing a less-than-desirable scent that occurs naturally (and sometimes strongly), they get the “unscented” label because you don’t smell anything. (12) When it comes to choosing skincare products that truly have no fragrance added, marketing slogans are unhelpful. You have to read the ingredient lists, carefully.

What Should I Look for On Labels?

The trial-and-error approach to skincare doesn’t make for very happy skin. To that end, here’s a short list of the most common offenders frequently used in cosmetic and personal care products so you can check your labels before finding out that hard way that something ain’t workin’ for you.

  • Alpha-amyl cinnamal

  • Benzyl alcohol

  • Cinnamyl alcohol

  • Citral

  • Eugenol

  • Hydroxy-citronellal

  • Isoeugenol

  • Amylcinnamyl alcohol

  • Benzyl salicylate

  • Cinnamal

  • Coumarin

  • Geraniol

  • Hydroxymethylpentyl cyclohexecarbonaldehyde

  • Anisyl alcohol

  • Benzyl cinnamate

  • Farnesol

  • 2-(4 tert Butyl benzyl) Propionaldehyde

  • Linalool

  • Benzyl Benzoate

  • Citronellol

  • Hexyl cinnamaldehyde

  • d-limonene

  • Methyl Heptin Carbonate

  • 3-methyl-4-(2,6,6,-trimethyl-2-cyclohexene-yl-3-buten-2-one

  • Oak Moss and Tree Moss extract

Of the thousands of ingredients currently being used in the industry, these 26 are most def known contact allergens. In Europe, they must be listed if included in a formula at a certain concentration considered harmful. In the U.S., no such restrictions exist so always check.

Alongside diligently reading labels, pay attention to brands who develop products with no fragrance added and that follow transparent truth-in-labeling practices. Bottom line, When it comes to your skin, don’t shop with your nose. If you need more olfactory bliss in your life, try a candle and let your skincare stay focused on your skin’s needs. (13, 14, 15) Skincare sans fragrance might stink, but it’s a way better bet than chronic irritation and potentially disastrous allergic reactions.