The Truth About Fragrance in Skincare

If you thought you were being super kind to your skin by buying strictly fragrance-free skincare, we have news for you: fragrance-free isn’t always what it claims to be…

By Georgia Gould
Mar 02, 2021
Photo by Sora Shimazaki from Pexels

Smell (AKA olfaction) is one of the most powerful and emotional of your five senses. Take a minute to think about a smell you like – be it anything from baked cookies to freshly cut grass. Now, how do you feel when you think about this smell? We’d bet our bottom dollars that whatever this feeling is, it’s a nice one. How do we know this? Because commonly perceived ‘good’ smells will always provoke a position emotion, making you feel happy, relaxed, confident and so on. Because biology.

Your sense of smell is directly linked to your brain via a large nerve in your nose called the olfactory bulb. Much research has been carried out on the olfactory system and it’s been proven that smell highly influences brain function because fragrance compounds have the ability to affect the central nervous system. This is why when you smell something you like you feel good… and when you smell something bad? Well, quite the opposite. 

Nevertheless, as great and powerful as your sense of smell is, when it comes to skincare, fragrance is not always a good thing. If you have ‘normal’ skin that can tolerate anything you throw at it, you might be OK with the odd scented moisturizer, but what if your skin errs on the sensitive side and screams at even the thought of chemicals in your skincare? In this case, fragrance can be seriously bad news. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), around 2.5 million people suffer from fragrance allergies in the US, making it the number one cause of cosmetic contact dermatitis nationwide. 

So, let’s take a deeper look at fragrance in skincare, shall we? Because things are not as simple as you might think…

Why Is Fragrance Used In Skincare?

Fragrance is often added to products to cover up unpleasant odors that naturally occur from other ingredients. 

“Some synthetic ingredients have a waxy or chemical-based smell while natural ingredients often smell fermented or grassy,” explains David A. Mays, PharmD, MBA.

“While some of these smells may be perfectly acceptable for cleaning your floors or kitchen countertops, putting them on your face won't be a pleasant experience for most people,” he adds.

Take ferulic acid, for example. Ferulic acid is a very effective antioxidant, but it’s often associated with the odor of hot dogs which, correct us if we’re wrong, is probably not high on your list of things you want your skin to smell like. Similarly, ingredients like yeast extract and algae don’t smell great, but they’re very good at their jobs and so are used frequently in skincare. This is why, in an attempt to make a product feel more elegant and pleasant to use, skincare brands will mask bad smells with fragrances that are commonly perceived as ‘good.’  

Fragrance is more than just a smell, however; it’s about the whole experience that comes with it. Many cosmetic manufacturers factor scent into their branding because of its strong relationship with your emotions. And if you’ve ever taken a sniff of a coconut scented body cream and instantly been transported to a tropical beach, you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about. 

Take shower gel as another example. Most of you generally shower in the morning, when you want to feel awake and invigorated, right? Well, this is the reason shower products are often scented with citrus or mint fragrances – because they invoke a feeling of freshness and energy. 

And what about classic skincare products like Pond’s Cold Cream? We don’t know about you, but one whiff of this and we’re instantly transported to childhood and watching our moms/grandmas remove their makeup as part of their nightly skincare routines… Fond memories.

But, Is Fragrance Bad For Your Skin?

Not always, no. Granted, fragrance is among the most common causes of skin sensitivities and negative reactions in skincare products, but for the most part it’s well tolerated. Some experts believe they could still cause damage to your skin in the long-term – even if you don’t notice a reaction immediately – but most studies have been carried out in labs using extremely high concentrations of fragrances, which is not real life, of course.

Also, certain fragrances can offer real benefits for many skin conditions.

“Some fragrance ingredients may have antimicrobial, antiviral or antifungal properties,” says David A. Mays, PharmD, MBA.

“These effects are often concentration-dependent, but things like patchouli, peppermint, sage, rosemary, grapefruit, orange oil, benzyl alcohol, sandalwood, thyme, ginger and tea tree oil can offer significant benefits for many,” he adds.

As with all cosmetic ingredients, fragrances must meet safety requirements by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and, although the law doesn’t require any cosmetic product to have FDA approval before it goes on the market, it must be safe to use according to its directions. 

But when all is said and done, just like food, fabric, metal and medicine, fragrance in cosmetics is not a case of one-size-fits-all. If you can tolerate synthetically (and even naturally) scented products then good on you, but for a lot of people even a hint of a scent can trigger concerns like redness and itching as well as more serious conditions such as hives, eczema, nausea, itchy eyes, migraine and even difficulties in breathing which may require medical intervention.

How Can You Tell If You Have A Fragrance Allergy?

“Fragrance tends to be in the top two classes of ingredients associated with allergies and irritation, and with over 70 percent of people believing they have sensitive skin, it’s important to know if fragrance is something your skin cannot tolerate,” says David Mays.

If your skin has started to flare up for no apparent reason – think redness, inflammation, itching, bumps – you may have an allergy to a certain fragrance in your beauty routine. And if your symptoms aren’t too serious, you could try self-diagnosing by eliminating products one at a time. But this is labor-intensive and doesn’t guarantee results. Plus, who honestly has the time for that? Instead, your best bet is to have a consultation with a board-certified allergist or dermatologist who can perform various skin, patch and/or blood tests to check for your skin’s reactivity levels to a whole host of different ingredients. Your results and diagnosis can then be programmed into our SkinSAFE app or website which will automatically compile a shopping list of fragrance-free products to help you find safe formulations for your skin type. We know, clever stuff.

What Does Fragrance-Free Really Mean?

In theory, fragrance-free should mean that no chemicals have been added to a product with the sole purpose of adding scent. We take this term very seriously at SkinSAFE, but sadly, this is not always the case. The term ‘fragrance-free’ has no legal definition nor FDA regulation which means many manufacturers get around it by adding fragrant ingredients like linalool or geraniol to their formulations and listing them specifically rather than as the blanket term of ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum.’ Worryingly, our SkinSAFE research team has revealed that a massive number of beauty and household products claiming to be fragrance-free still contain botanicals or natural ingredients that are scented. And another survey carried out by the American Journal of Managed Care showed that of 174 moisturizers tested, almost half of those claiming to be free of fragrance contained at least one scented ingredient. 

Mind. Blown. 

Don’t be fooled by the word ‘unscented’ on your product label either. This term might make you think your product contains no added fragrance, but this is not necessarily the case. It may still contain fragrant masking chemicals which neutralize or hide unpleasant odors caused by other ingredients to help create a neutral fragrance. 

The only real way to get around all this confusion and guarantee your products are truly free of fragrance is to look for the Fragrance Free marker on the SkinSAFE website or app.

Are Natural Fragrances Better Than Synthetic Ones?

Not necessarily, in fact botanical ingredients like fragrant essential oils are top of the list of ingredients to avoid if you have sensitive skin. Essential oils and plant extracts are complex little beasts and contain many potentially unpredictable components. Basil, clove, and cinnamon, for example, can be very problematic for sensitive skin.

“There is an inherent bias toward natural fragrances and fragrant ingredients, but for those with a fragrance allergy, your body cannot tell the difference,” says David Mays.

Yes folks, fragrance can be super allergenic even if it’s as natural and pure as the driven snow. This is why you must always be vigilant and know what’s going on your skin.

So, Is There A Fail-Safe Way To Avoid ALL Fragrance In Skincare?

Obviously, any product label bearing the words ‘fragrance’ and ‘parfum’ should be given a large berth, but it doesn’t stop there. 

“There is an increased use of botanicals and essential oils in cosmetics which may still cause reactions in certain consumers. And when these ingredients are listed, you will not always see the word fragrance or parfum added,” explains David Mays.

To truly avoid fragrance ingredients, here’s a list of common terms to look out for…

  • Fragrance
  • Parfum
  • All essential oils, fruit distillates and flower extracts
  • Cinnamal
  • Citronellol
  • Eugenol
  • Geraniol
  • Limonene
  • Linalool

Our SkinSAFE website lists every single product according to whether it’s fragrance-free or not. And when we say ‘fragrance-free’ we truly mean than it contains no fragrances or allergy-causing botanicals such as essential oils. Like, nothing. You could even go one step further by only ever choosing products that bear the Top Allergen Free marker which is the best standard for sensitive skin and means a product is totally free of all the top common allergy causing ingredients – fragrance included. 

As with any new skincare product, it’s also wise to perform a patch test before using it properly for the first time. Simply apply a small amount behind your ear or on the inside of your wrist, leave it for 48 hours, then check for anything unusual like redness, scaling, bumps or a rash. Any noticeable and uncomfortable changes in your skin could be signs of an allergic reaction, so stop using the product immediately and contact your healthcare provider for advice.

Fragrance: it’s a tricky subject, for sure, but thankfully we’re here to help.

Hang tight. We're thinking.