The truth about harmful fragrance in skincare products
Knowledge, Beauty, Skincare

The Truth About Harmful Fragrance in Skincare Products

In this post, we’re breaking down the truth on fragrance, including what fragrance is, how fragrance is hidden in your everyday products – and last, but not least, what to look out for when you want to avoid fragrance in skincare products and live life fragrance-free.

What is fragrance?

First, let’s start with the basics. When you see the words “fragrance” or “perfume” on a product label, you would think it’s just one ingredient. However, fragrance, also known as perfume, is a chemical combination that in each unique combination produces a distinct scent. There are actually over 4,000 different fragrance chemicals currently used in products today, and one single scented product may contain anywhere from 50-300 chemicals.

The history of fragrances

Historically, perfume was used to cover unwanted and foul smells. Later, as personal and other hygienic factors improved, perfume use has increasingly become unnecessary and is now more about making products (and people) smell pleasurable as opposed to just having a neutral smell. A bit of indulgence.

So why is there fragrance in skincare products? As we have become used to products smelling pleasant, perfume and fragrances can be found in a wide range of items. This includes shampoos, shower gels, deodorants, body lotions, cleaning products, personal hygiene products, and many other products you might not guess contain fragrances.

In fact, perfume has been so widely used that it can be found almost everywhere, even in everyday products that most people don’t notice, such as diapers, cosmetics, and even medicine. Indeed, fragrances in products have become so common that customers cannot do without a pleasing smell and are unused to products that smell like…nothing.

So what’s the problem with wanting things smelling nice? What’s the harm? We’ll tell you.

Why is fragrance bad? What’s the problem with perfume?

The truth of the matter is that fragranced products are full of ingredients that consumers will never know about. A fragranced product can contain anywhere from a handful to several hundred ingredients. And some of these fragrance chemicals may be toxic and harmful.

Several studies have linked various chemicals used to manufacture scents to allergies, contact dermatitis, hormone disruptors, asthma triggers, neurotoxins, and carcinogens. So it’s better to avoid fragrances when you can. (you can actually avoid fragrances altogether if you want – we’ll teach you how to start living life fragrance-free.)

Today, more people than ever are suffering from and developing perfume allergies and sensitivity. When you do, being exposed to fragranced products can lead to various adverse conditions (see next section). And the more you are exposed to perfume, the more you increase the risk of developing perfume allergies. So even if you are not allergic or sensitive to fragrances, it’s advisable to avoid perfume whenever you can.

The problem with fragrance in skincare products
Photo: Pexel/Anna Shvets

Allergic reactions to fragrance in skincare products

Fragrance allergy is the leading cause of cosmetic contact dermatitis in the United States. The National Eczema Association estimates that

almost 20% of the general population is sensitized to at least one allergen and fragrance is one of the most frequently cited substances causing reactions. 

National Eczema Association

Specifically, studies and research show that exposure to fragrance chemicals can cause:

  • Migraine headaches
  • Contact dermatitis (red, itchy, inflammation and irritation of the skin)
  • Mucosal symptoms (such as congestion and watery eyes)
  • Respiratory problems (coughing and shortness of breath)
  • Rashes and hives
  • Asthma attacks

The rise of fragrance-free skincare products

Because manufacturers can withhold fragrance ingredients from labels and simply use the generic category “fragrance” or “perfume” on labels, consumers have no idea what they’re being exposed to. In fact, harmful chemicals are frequently discovered when analyzing perfumed products.

Several studies have shown how manufacturers, per U.S. regulations, omit chemicals on the ingredient list. For example, one study of fragranced products discovered that:

The average fragrance product tested contained 14 secret chemicals not listed on the label. Among them are chemicals associated with hormone disruption and allergic reactions, and many substances that have not been assessed for safety in personal care products.

Environmental Working Group (EWG)

Suffice to say, more consumers have become aware and skeptical of fragrance in skincare products. And rightly so. Many have experienced, the hard way, that fragrance can lead to allergies and sensitivities, and cause skin reactions. As a result, more and more are ditching their scented products, realizing that it’s not necessary with scented products – especially when they leave you with a headache or a runny nose.

Enter fragrance-free products. They are gaining traction on store shelves across the United States and the world. But which fragrance-free items should you buy? And what do the “unscented” labels on skincare products mean?

Fortunately, we’re here to help. Continue reading to learn more about choosing the right fragrance-free skincare products and avoiding fragrances.

How do I avoid fragrance in skincare products?

If you want to avoid fragrance in skincare products, look for products labeled fragrance-free. However, keep in mind that a product labeled fragrance-free or unscented cannot be relied on to be completely fragrance-free.

Confused? Because terms like “fragrance-free” and “unscented” are unregulated and can be used freely, marketers are very creative in using these terms. Unfortunately, few people realize that “fragrance-free” and “unscented” don’t mean the same thing, and you can’t rely on either to be completely perfume-free.

Even more confused? Lucky for you, we’ve got it down and are ready to tell you about sensitive and hypoallergenic products and guide you on how to live life fragrance-free. To get you started, here are the basic terms you need to familiarize yourself with.

Fragrance-free

“Fragrance-free” refers to the lack of added chemicals to enhance aroma or mask an odor. Notice that it generally just means “added” chemicals. A lot of skincare and other products contain fragrances that are “natural” but can cause exactly the same allergic reactions that “added” perfume can.

Unscented

Products labeled “unscented” are generally used to describe a product that lacks a scent. But not having a smell discernable smell does not mean that fragrances are not present. In fact, often so-called masking fragrances are used to cover up unwanted smells from other ingredients that may not have a pleasing odor. Instead of removing or replacing those ingredients in the first place.

Organic, natural and green

Be aware that “organic,” “natural,” and “green” products also may contain fragrances. Often, these are botanical extracts and essential oils, which sound harmful. However, whether manufactured or naturally occurring, these substances can cause perfume-allergic reactions and irritation

Ingredients to avoid when you have perfume allergies or sensitivity

When you want to avoid fragrance in skincare products and are searching for fragrance-free products, make sure to read the ingredient list carefully. Keep an eye out for the following fragrance-related substances that are often hidden well on the labels of skincare products:

  • 3-Cyclohexene Carboxaldehyde
  • Alpha Amyl Cinnamic Alcohol
  • Amyl Cinnamal
  • Anisyl Alcohol
  • Anthemis Nobilis (Chamomile)
  • Balsam of Peru (Myroxylon Pereirae)
  • Benzaldehyde
  • Benzyl Alcohol
  • Benzyl Benzoate
  • Benzyl Cinnamate
  • Benzyl Salicylate B
  • Cassia Oil
  • Chamomile (Anthemis Nobilis)
  • Cinnamal
  • Cinnamic Alcohol
  • Cinnamic Aldehyde
  • Cinnamon Leaf Oil
  • Cinnamyl Alcohol
  • Citral
  • Citronellol
  • Clove Oil
  • Cologne
  • Coumarin
  • Ethylene Brassylate
  • Eugenol
  • Evernia Furfuracea
  • Evernia Prunastri
  • Farnesol
  • Geraniol
  • Herbal Extracts
  • Hexyl Cinnamal
  • Hydroxycitronellal Hydroxylisohexyl 3-Cyclohexene Carboxaldehyde
  • Isoeugenol
  • Isomethyl Ionone
  • Limonene
  • Linalool
  • Lyral
  • Masking Fragrance
  • Methyl 2-Octynoate
  • Oakmoss absolute
  • Perfume
  • Phenoxyethanol
  • Plant, flower, fruit, nut oils Yarrow (Achillea Millefolium)
  • Utylphenyl Methylpropional

More examples from one of our favorite actually fragrance-free brands Vanicream.

More references:

Bickers et. al., (2003) The Safety Assessment of Fragrance Materials. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, 37 pp. 218–273

EWG, Environmental Working Group, Not So Sexy: Hidden Chemicals in Perfume and Cologne (2010).

Steinemann, A. (2017), Health and societal effects from exposure to fragranced consumer products,
Preventive Medicine Reports, Volume 5, pp. 45-47.

Xu S, Kwa M, Lohman ME, Evers-Meltzer R, Silverberg JI. (2017). Consumer Preferences, Product Characteristics, and Potentially Allergenic Ingredients in Best-selling Moisturizers. JAMA Dermatol. 153(11) pp. 1099–1105.

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