Is It Time To Switch To A Fragrance-Free Beauty Routine?
When you hear the word ‘fragrance,’ what comes to mind? A perfume or cologne, perhaps? Depending on your beauty routine, there is likely fragrance hiding in many places. From skincare (think: creams, serums, and oils for face and body) and makeup to sunscreen and haircare, scents are often added to products to create a more sensorial experience.
For people with skin sensitivities, fragrance can exacerbate such conditions. For people who are looking to clean up their beauty routine, fragrance can be a source of consternation due to the lack of transparency surrounding it. Regardless of your reasoning, it’s important to understand what you are putting on your skin, and we’re breaking down everything you need to know about fragrance in the beauty industry.
Fragrance in the Beauty Products
Fragrance is not inherently dangerous. “The International Fragrance Association (IFRA) is the global representative body of the fragrance industry that promotes the safe use of fragrances. They take into consideration the published safety data and define the safe parameters for using fragrances created by perfume houses,” says Valerie George, a cosmetic chemist and co-host of The Beauty Brains podcast. “Every fragrance raw material comes with an allergen statement and an IFRA statement that defines the maximum use level given the application of product being used. The onus is on the brand to understand the regulations and use the fragrance material properly.”
Like any ingredient used in makeup, skincare, and personal care products, sensitivities and allergies are possible. “The chemical components of fragrances — like any natural or synthetic chemical compound — can evoke an allergic response by the consumer when smelled or applied to the skin,” George explains. “These allergens in fragrances are well documented and are required to be listed on the packaging when they exceed a certain threshold of safety.”
Even so, ingredient labels can cause confusion. For the sake of consumer clarity, beauty companies are required to use the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) when listing what is in a product, but fragrance largely gets a pass under the policies set forth by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The term 'fragrance' can actually refer to thousands of molecules, even though it only takes up one spot on an ingredient list.
What Is Fragrance-Free Beauty?
First things first: 'fragrance-free' beauty products smell. Not to be confused with ‘unscented’ products, ‘fragrance-free’ indicates that no additional aromas have been added to a product to mask the natural scent of other ingredients. To the contrary, ‘unscented’ refers to a product that may contain chemicals to neutralize or mask odors.
With consumer preferences shifting toward cleaner ingredients and more transparent ingredient labels, Ron Robinson, a cosmetic chemist and founder of BeautyStat Cosmetics, says companies are taking notice and responding to the market accordingly. “Fragrances are great in the right context, [but they] are known to cause irritation in those with sensitive skin,” he explains. “Consumers know that fragrance can cause irritation, so they have pushed manufacturers to offer fragrance-free options — particularly with facial skincare products.”
Potential Side Effects of Fragrance
According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), fragrance is a leading cause of contact dermatitis in the same way nickel and poison ivy are. Fragrant ingredients can cause rashes, itchiness, and hives. And while anyone can have a reaction, Cheryl Karcher, MD, a board certified dermatologist and co-founder of Center Aesthetic in New York City, explains that it is often linked to skin type. She finds that patients with dry skin are more prone to fragrance sensitivities than those with oily skin.
“The most common type of adverse reaction from fragrance is called an allergic contact dermatitis. This condition occurs when your skin comes in contact with the product that has the fragrance in it,” Dr. Karcher says. “You may not have a reaction the first time you use the product, however, you may form a reaction after future exposures. It’s even possible to have no problem with the product whatsoever until after years of using it.”
Additionally, research indicates fragranced consumer products can trigger adverse health effects, especially for asthmatics, beyond just the skin sensitivity. In 2009, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) implemented an indoor environmental quality policy for their offices that banned fragranced consumer products because “the use of some products with fragrance may be detrimental to the health of workers with chemical sensitivities, allergies, asthma, and chronic headaches/migraines.”
While consumer behavior may ultimately lead to more fragrance-free beauty options, Robinson maintains that customer safety and satisfaction has always been a priority. “I worked for several large global beauty brands and safety always came first. If the product was not safe, we did not launch it,” he explains. “Most brands do safety testing on their products to confirm that they don’t cause any major irritations in consumers, so I don’t think any additional regulation, as it relates to fragranced products, is necessary.”
How to Read the Label
It may feel like you need a PhD in order to understand beauty product labeling, but there are certain things to keep an eye out for. According to Paula’s Choice, these are some of the most common fragrant ingredients that show up in skincare products:
- Lavender oil (Lavandula angustifolia)
- Rose flower extract (Rosa damascena)
- Bergamot oil (Citrus bergamia)
- Ylang-ylang oil (Canaga odorata)
- Lemon (Citrus limon)
- Lime (Citrus aurantifolia or Citrus medica)
- Orange (Citrus sinensis)
- Tangerine (Citrus tangerine)
- Peppermint (Mentha piperita)
- Spearmint (Mentha spicata)
- Cinnamon (Cinnamomum)
It should also be noted that both natural and synthetic aromas can be irritating. “Natural fragrances carry the same risk as synthetic fragrances,” George cautions. “Natural fragrances are complex mixtures of many components, whereas synthetic fragrances have specific purities. The more complex the mixtures, the more challenges for adverse reaction.”
Furthermore, it’s important to not be fooled by a lack of the term ‘fragrance’ on a label. To confirm whether or not scent has been added, be sure to also review the ingredient list for the other terms listed above. Brands are known to add botanical extracts and oils solely for the purpose of enhancing the formula’s scent.
“[Companies] will simply list the extract on the packaging, and you will not see ‘fragrance’ appear anywhere,” George explains. “This is deceptive because the product still has fragrance. Botanical extracts have allergens just like fragrances do. They’re complex, just like fragrance. Not all botanical extracts have an aroma, but they all have tons of compounds that can cause irritation.”
Fragrance-Free Beauty Brands
If you are interested in switching to a fragrance-free beauty routine, there are several brands on the market that formulate either their entire line or certain products sans scent. Dr. Karcher shares some of her favorites below:
- CeraVe: “One of my favorite fragrance-free facial cleansers is CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser,” she says. “It cleans the skin without drying it out, and it has a number of gradients that are really good for your skin.”
- Clinique: The brand has long been a pioneer in developing products specifically for sensitive skin, and Clinique products are allergy tested and fragrance free.
- Jane Iredale: If you’re looking for makeup swaps, Dr. Karcher says Jane Iredale makes products that are mineral-based and fragrance-free. “They have great colors available,” she adds.
- Neutrogena: “Neutrogena also makes fragrance-free products,” Dr. Karcher shares. “I love the MoistureShine Lip Soother SPF 20 and hand cream. It’s nice and thick and a great relief for dry hands without having any irritant fragrance.”
- Olay: “One of my favorite serums is the Olay Regenerist Micro-Sculpting Serum,” Dr. Karcher says. “It uses peptides to regenerate the skin. It’s very soothing and lightweight, and it has no fragrance.”
- Paula’s Choice: Many of the brand’s product offerings are fragrance free, but Dr. Karcher especially recommends the PC4Men Shave Cream. “It’s fragrance-free, calms and smoothes the skin, and allows for a close shave,” she explains.
It’s important to remember that any beauty product can cause skin sensitivity or allergies. As a general rule of thumb, Dr. Karcher recommends testing a new skincare product on your wrist before applying to your face or body. If there is no reaction after two days, you can move forward with regular use of the product. When in doubt, consult with a board certified dermatologist to ensure you are using the safest and most efficacious products for your skin type.