Is Fragrance in Skincare Really That Bad?
Indulging in a floral scented face mask might seem like a routine act of self-care, but it's actually a controversial choice. In recent years, fragrance has become one of the most polarizing skincare ingredients. There are a number of YouTube videos, Subreddit threads, and Facebook Group on this very subject, with notable members of the online skincare community suggesting people toss out all of their scented products because they will cause irritation.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, fragrance is one of the most common causes of contact dermatitis, affecting roughly 1% of the population. So while there is a direct connection between fragrance and skin irritation, the answer to whether scented skincare products are bad for you, is actually quite complex.
Ahead, Dr. Shari Marchbein, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, and Krupa Koestline, clean cosmetic chemist and founder of KKT Consultants, answer every burning question about one of the most hotly debated topics in skincare.
How Do You Know What Fragrance Is in a Skincare Product?
Due to lack of regulations, brands don't have to disclose individual fragrant ingredients, and instead, they can just list "fragrance" on their inkey list.
"Pretty much anything can be encompassed in a fragrance; because it is labeled as 'fragrance,'" Koestline explains. "This includes synthetic fragrances, animal-derived fragrances (animal derived musks, ambergris (as a stabilizer) from sperm whales' digestive system), insect-derived fragrances, and natural fragrances." The chemist points out that California recently passed a law requiring brands to disclose fragrance ingredients beginning in 2022, but it doesn't specify where they have to disclose them. This means they can include the entire list on their website to fulfill this requirement.
As for natural fragrances, brands take the molecules that give plants their scents and combine them together. "Also note that unless a brand specifics that is a natural fragrance, anything can be used," Koestline adds.
It's tough to know how much fragrance is in a product, mostly due to lack of regulations. The FDA allows any ingredient under 1% to be listed in any order on a product. "That means just because fragrance is listed last, even after preservatives, it doesn't mean that it necessarily is the last amount," says Koestline.
However, there is guidance for brands on how much fragrance to use. "The IFRA Standards advises how much fragrance should be used in particular products so it's at a safe level. However, it is not a requirement or a regulation, just a set of guidelines," the chemist adds.
Who Experiences Irritation From Fragrance?
The bad news is that there's no way to predict if the fragrance in a skincare product will irritate your skin. There's even a chance one of your go-to skincare products can irritate you after you've been using it for years.
"Anyone can develop an allergy or sensitivity to any skincare product or its ingredients at any time (called allergic contact dermatitis) even if it has been used multiple times in the past without an issue," Dr. Marchbein further explains. A patch test administered by a dermatologist can determine whether you should avoid the product all together to prevent future rashes.
However, because fragrances are connected to eczema and skin irritation, those with sensitive skin can be more prone to experience contact dermatitis from scented products. "Sensitive skin is almost universally found in the same people who may experience rosacea, eczema, dry skin, allergies and asthma," says Dr. Marchbein. "For those with skin sensitivities, I recommend using fragrance-free products and being cautious with any product or chemical/ingredient that may exacerbate irritation or inflammation."
Hypoallergenic products are also safer options, however, it's important to read labels to ensure these formulas don't contain potential ingredients. "Hypoallergenic is a term used when pertaining to cosmetics that literally means the products/ingredients are unlikely to cause an allergic reaction," Dr. Marchbein explains. "However, an important article published in JAMA Dermatology uncovered that upwards of 83% of hypoallergenic whole-body moisturizers contain some potential allergic chemical and 45% of fragrance-free products have at least one ingredient that still has an allergic potential and can adverse reactions when used."
What's the Difference Between "Fragrance-Free" and "Unscented" Skincare Products?
"Products are labeled as "fragrance-free" when they don't contain added fragrance. Thus it is possible to have a completely fragrance-free product that still has a scent," says Koestline. "Sometimes the chemicals and botanicals that brands use have a scent of its own. For example, if something is made with cucumber water, it'll smell like cucumber even if it doesn't have fragrance in it."
Unscented products don't have an aroma, but this doesn't mean they don't contain fragrance chemicals.
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Are "Natural" Fragrances Safer Than Synthetic Fragrances?
The short answer? No. While natural essential oils have become commonly used in the clean beauty space and touted by many brands as being "safer" than synthetic fragrance, they can still cause irritation.
"Natural does not always mean better — after all, poison ivy is natural but we all know what happens when we rub it all over ourselves — so using 'all natural products' in no way decreases your chance of having a fragrance allergy," says Dr. Marchbein. The dermatologist points out that she often sees more reactions in patients who've used products with ingredients like pine, limonene, and other often irritating fragrances.
Koestline points out that while natural fragrances can be irritating, if the brand uses IFRA guidelines and follow the maximum recommended concentration, they are generally safe. She also says, it's important to remember that preservatives can be fragrant and be triggers, too.
The bottom line? When it doubt about any product or ingredient, consult a dermatologist. And if you do experience any irritation, make an appointment with them for a prescription steroid cream to relieve the discomfort.
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