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Fragrance in Skincare

Fragrance in Skincare: The Debate

Is fragrance in skincare actually bad? In this era of clean beauty, most skincare products proclaim the ingredients that they don’t include. After all, cult-favourite skincare brand The Ordinary built its credibility by opting out of adding fragrances to most, if not all, their products. And who doesn’t like to wind down a busy day with a serum tinged with the scent of sakura blossoms or your favourite fruit? 

What Are Fragrances?

Fragrances are designed to emit a pleasant odour. It can be natural or synthetic. Natural fragrances are derived from, of course, a natural source. Think lemon, frangipani, or lavender. Most of the time, natural fragrances won’t last as long as their synthetic counterparts.

Synthetic fragrances, more often than not, are developed in a laboratory. Some are fully synthetic. Others can be semi-synthetic, where part of their formulations has natural compounds in them. Brands may use synthetic fragrances as they last longer: up to five years, compared to the one to two years for natural fragrances.

Fragrances in Skincare

The biggest problem about the adding of fragrances to skincare products is that products doesn’t show all the ingredients that go into formulating the fragrance. In the U.S., companies can simply list their fragrance and flavour ingredients as ‘Fragrance’ or ‘Flavor’ under Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations.

The FDA requires the list of ingredients for products under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA). However, that law can’t be used to force a company to share its ‘trade secrets’. Fragrance and flavour formulas can be complex, so they are the types of components that are most likely to be the ‘trade secrets’ for the manufacturers. And it doesn’t just end with synthetic fragrances. Even if products proclaim that they use ‘natural’ fragrances, you should investigate if the formulation is actually derived from natural sources.

Fragrance in Skincare
Photo by: pmv chamara, Unsplash

The Argument Against Fragrances in Skincare

Synthetic fragrances and even natural fragrances, such as essential oil can potentially harm the skin. The American Academy of Dermatology found that synthetic fragrances are the most common cause of allergic reactions. Fragrances have been found to exacerbate skin conditions like eczema, rosacea, psoriasis, acne, or dermatitis. In another study of perfumes used in toiletries and skincare products, they found that the allergenic compounds in the fragrance mix can’t be avoided at all in the use of perfumed cosmetics.

And we don’t really know what’s inside fragrances. A safety assessment of fragrances found that a single scent may contain 50 to 300 distinct chemicals. In a 2018 report mentioned in The Guardian, Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE), a women’s health non-profit reported over 1,200 fragrance chemicals that are currently in use have been flagged as potential or known “chemicals of concern”. It included seven carcinogens, 15 chemicals prohibited from use in cosmetics in the EU and others cited in various international warning lists. Endocrine disrupters have been found as well. As they mimic human hormones, many researchers and advocates are particularly concerned about endocrine disruptors as they can have effects even in the smallest doses.


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Proponents of the fragrance industry say that safety ultimately boils down to the question of exposure. A spokesperson for the Fragrance Creators Association said in an email statement: ‘The exposure to any individual fragrance ingredient in a product is extremely low – well below 1%. Fragrance ingredients are not hazardous based on usage.’

And there is no state, federal, or global regulating fragrance chemicals and their safety. The fragrance industry, as is much of the cosmetics industry, remains largely self-regulated too. The current framework is drafted by the research arm of the International Fragrance Association, which only sets voluntary safe use standards for chemicals.

Fragrance in Skincare: Good or Bad?

 If you’re allergic or sensitive to fragrance, yes. For some of us, even the smallest hint of a fragrance can give us headaches. Still, anyone, anyone, no matter their skin condition, can have a bad reaction from using fragrances. Some of the chemicals in fragrances have been linked to migrainesrespiratory conditionsskin and eye irritations. and endocrine disruption.

For the rest of us? Maybe. You can stick to the hard and fast rule of avoiding fragrances altogether. But say you can’t part ways with that lavender toner, you can still go and find out if there’s a list of ingredients that give off that lavender scent. Due diligence can save you a world of pain.

One should be wary of labels like ‘unscented’ too. It might not mean that the product is truly ‘fragrance-free.’ That’s because some products may use components to mask the smell of the original formulation. So even if you don’t smell any fragrance, it doesn’t mean that there are chemicals that cover the smell of the product’s underlying formula

A Final Take

In the golden age of social media and skinfluencers, every new product will face scrutiny from across the globe the moment they get to market. And there is a repertoire of resources on the internet to help consumers parse through their formulas.

But if you want to keep it simple, just keep it simple: avoid fragrances on the more sensitive parts of your skin, such as your face, neck, and under-eye area. For the rest of your body with less sensitive skin, fragrances should cause no harm.

So the usual axioms for skincare still apply: there is no one-size-fits-all; if you don’t know why your skin is having some irritation, best to consult a professional allergist or dermatologist.


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