Natural or synthetic substances classified as “fragrances” include chemicals and are often used to make skincare products more appealing or to mask an unpleasant smell. Because the sense of smell is connected to the part of the brain that stores memory and emotions, many manufacturers of perfumes and personal care products draw on this connection and use fragrance as a marketing tool.
While skincare products with fragrance might be appealing, this seemingly innocent addition may be doing more harm than good; many people — nearly a third of Americans, according to one survey — find scented products irritating. [Prevalence of fragrance sensitivity in the American population - PubMed (nih.gov)] Fragrances are one of the most common causes of allergic contact dermatitis, which is a skin reaction, like a rash or itching, from an ingredient applied to the skin. [Eczema types: Contact dermatitis causes (aad.org)]
This article will overview the benefits of using fragrance-free products and how to find them as you shop for skincare.
What Does Fragrance-Free Mean — and Is It Better?
The term “fragrance-free” can be confusing and deceiving. It does not mean that a product will smell like nothing. Your fragrance-free lotion will still have a scent; it just won’t be an additional chemical that was added to make it smell good. It still has a fragrance because almost everything we encounter has a natural scent. If the product you are using is made from ingredients with a naturally pleasing aroma, the product can have a scent and still be considered fragrance-free.
The difference between fragrance-free and unscented products is whether or not fragrance is added to the product. The United States Environmental Protection Agency describes the difference this way: “Fragrance-free means that fragrance materials or masking scents are not used in the product. Unscented generally means that the product may contain chemicals that neutralize or mask the odors of other ingredients.” Because fragrance-free doesn’t add additional chemicals to your product, it is better for your skin than unscented products.
So, in short, yes — fragrance-free is better! Fragrance-free products are better for your skin’s overall health, as it means that additional chemicals have not been added to the product to give it a scent. Additionally, when fragrances cause an allergic reaction, getting rid of the offending products is likely well worth the effort. Continued use of an irritating fragrance-containing product can lead to chronic skin problems. [Fragrance allergy | DermNet (dermnetnz.org)]
How Skin Reacts to Fragrance?
Fragrance chemicals can be a mild skin irritant, meaning they can cause rash, itching, dryness, or redness — and it’s not hard to understand why; products impart their scent via a volatile reaction of chemicals. You don’t have to have sensitive skin to have irritation from fragrance chemicals, either, as it can happen to people with normal skin. But skin aside, fragrances can cause other health problems, including asthma attacks, headaches, coughing, eye irritation, and many other symptoms.
Sensitizing Reaction on Skin
Fragrances are one of the most common causes of allergic contact dermatitis, which is a skin reaction, like a rash or itching, from an ingredient applied to the skin. [Eczema types: Contact dermatitis causes (aad.org)] This can result in red, itchy skin, and you may form a bumpy rash. While these symptoms will disappear as the product dissipates on the skin, it is important to note the allergy to the product.
Negative Skin Responses
A negative skin response happens when your skin reacts to a product used on it, as described above. The irritation may be mild at the time, but continuing to use the product could have long-term consequences. It’s like sun damage. Every time your skin is exposed to the sun, it gets damaged. You can’t see it, but it happens. There can be long-term effects of exposing your skin to the sun regularly, from something minor such as additional wrinkles to something as severe as skin cancer.
The main benefit of fragrance-free products is not adding potentially harmful fragrance chemicals to your skincare, cosmetics, and hair care products. Adding fragrance to these products can have potentially harmful effects, especially if your skin is sensitive or you have allergies. Your skin can react negatively to the fragrance chemicals added to products, and you may not even know it because your skin isn’t showing signs of irritation.
How to Tell If a Product Includes Fragrance
It can be tricky to determine if a skincare product includes fragrance. Sometimes, smelling a product doesn’t help because the fragrance ingredients used don’t cause a scent but rather mask an unpleasant smell.
Another reason that it’s difficult to tell if some products include fragrances is these ingredients might be listed individually or in combination with their chemical names (making them harder to identify).
Yet another reason (and there are others) is that a skincare product might not list fragrance ingredients if those substances have been added for reasons other than the aroma. Some fragrance ingredients are used as preservatives, oils, or emulsifiers (which bind skincare components).
Looking for products that claim to be fragrance-free is a good start but not a guarantee that a product is truly free of fragrance ingredients.
What About Essential Oils and Other Products Labeled as “Natural?”
“Natural” doesn’t mean less irritating; just because an ingredient is natural doesn’t mean your skin won’t react to it. Even essential oils, widely touted for their health benefits, can wreak havoc on the skin. Similar to artificial fragrances, essential oils can cause your skin to become dry, cracked, and even form blisters from an allergic reaction to the essential oil. A mixture of the oil with something else, such as the sun, can cause other responses in your skin. When you go outside after using an essential oil such as lemon or orange, your skin may become photosensitive, and you may have a reaction because of the combination of the oil and the sun.
Scientists have found that nearly 80 different essential oils cause allergic contact dermatitis. According to Essential Oils as Natural Sources of Fragrance Compounds for Cosmetics and Cosmeceuticals, “Among the high-valued essential oils used as fragrances are citrus, lavender, eucalyptus, tea tree, and other floral oils, among others, while linalool, geraniol, limonene, citronellol, and citral are much-appreciated fragrance components used in different cosmetics.”
As a result, essential oils, which are used in not only wellness products but also “clean beauty” skincare, are one of today’s most relevant skin allergens. (Thedermdigest.com) While these natural oils are great for making products smell good, it’s still possible to have an adverse reaction.
So, Why Do Products Still Contain Fragrance?
Most products wouldn’t smell as nice as they do without fragrance — a clay mask smells nothing like the lump of clay it was derived from. That is because of the fragrance added to it. Many beauty products would not smell very appealing without the use of fragrance. In fact, they would likely give off an unpleasant aroma.
Cosmetic companies understand this and use fragrances to make their products more appealing; consumers would be less likely to purchase products with an unpleasant odor or taste. Without the flavoring of mint in our toothpaste, it would have an unpleasant, bitter, astringent flavor, says Catalina Lee, Colgate Worldwide Director, Global Flavors and Fragrances. Consumers have decided that they prefer toothpaste that leaves their mouths feeling clean and fresh. Therefore, cosmetic companies use fragrances to give the consumer what they want.
How to Avoid Artificial Fragrances
A surefire way to avoid artificial fragrances is to check the label and verify that a skincare product does not include fragrance. You’ll know it’s fragrance-free if the manufacturer specifically lists that it does not include fragrances in its products. Skincare brands like DefenAge go out of their way to stress what’s NOT in their products.
According to Defenage.com, “Our guarantee — you will NOT find these ingredients and compounds in our products:
Abrasives, aluminum salts, animal-derived ingredients, BPA, BHT/BHA, chemical sunscreens (oxybenzone, avobenzone, and octinoxate), coal tar, colorants, formaldehyde-releasing agents, formaldehyde, gluten ingredients (no wheat, oats, barley), growth factors, human-derived ingredients, hydroquinone, irritating acids, mineral oil, parabens, paraffin, petrolatum, phthalates, polyethylene and polypropylene (microbeads), propylene glycol, retinyl palmitate, sodium laureth sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate, strong emulsifiers, sulfates (SLS and SLES), talc, triclocarban, triclosan, triethanolamine.”
The brand emphasizes at the end of its guarantee: “All DefenAge formulas are fragrance-free.” [What is Clean Beauty in DefenAge? | Clean Products and Clean Ingredients]
The FDA and Fragrances
There are more than 2,500 fragrances, but not all are singled out as contact allergens. [allergologieselect-1-190.pdf (nih.gov)] In cosmetics, including skincare specifically, the FDA states, “… these specific ingredients may not be identified on the cosmetic product label. The European Commission, which has conducted extensive research on fragrance allergens, lists the following 26 fragrance ingredients listed as allergens….” [Allergens in Cosmetics | FDA]
- Amyl cinnamal
- Amylcinnamyl alcohol
- Anisyl alcohol
- Benzyl alcohol
- Benzyl benzoate
- Benzyl cinnamate
- Benzyl salicylate
- Cinnamyl alcohol
- Hexyl cinnamaldehyde
- Hydroxyisohexyl 3-cyclohexene carboxaldehyde (HICC), (also known as Lyral)
- Methyl 2-octynoate
- g-Methyl ionone
- Oak moss extract
- Tree moss extract
Does DefenAge Use Fragrances in Its Formulas?
No! DefenAge proudly formulates its products without the use of irritating artificial fragrances. We have committed ourselves to high standards of clean beauty and strive to exceed industry standards of skincare. Refer to our clean beauty page to read our pledge, or visit our blog to learn more about our naturally formulated, highly effective skincare line.