Is Fragrance Bad for Your Skin?

There are two polarizing opinions on fragrance:
“I hate it” vs. “If I put something on my face, it needs to smell good, not like nothing or crap.”


Here are the facts.


What is “Fragrance,” and Why Is it Put into Products?


Fragrance is an umbrella term. In skincare, “fragrance” can be labeled as parfum as well, and these terms can actually indicate a variety of ingredients. Corporations don’t disclose these ingredients because they want to protect their formula or their intellectual property. However, this leaves consumers without true insight into what they’re putting onto their skin.


Cassandra explains in her video "What people get wrong about fragrance" how consumers don’t know that essential oils and plant extracts can be considered fragrances as well. Fragrances are often formulated into products because we associate different scents with memories, thoughts, or emotions with smells. Fragrance is part of the product experience, and a good experience makes consumers attached and want to rebuy the product.


Tonya S Layne, a cosmetic chemist who works in product development explains how “there are fragrance chemists who design and create fragrances from scratch. Therefore, fragrances are trade secrets and are formulas within a formula. The presence of fragrance is more for the consumer and for marketing. I’ve smelt some products that would not sell if they didn’t have fragrance.”


Conversely, fragrances can do more than just help a product smell good. They can also stabilize products, treat inflammation, and product penetration on the skin. Fragrances like centella asiatica are actually anti-inflammatory, and pungent plants like green tea can give the product antioxidants.


Is Fragrance Bad?


Firstly, just because a product is fragrance-free doesn’t mean it’s allergen-free. There may be other sensitizing ingredients to be aware of. No ingredient is allergy-proof. However, the more fragrance something has, the more likely it is to cause allergic contact dermatitis.


Dr. Michelle Wong, who has a Ph.D. in cosmetic chemistry, says that “there are 3,000 different fragrance ingredients, and only about 200 of them are associated with skin reactions. Some of those fragrances are quite common though. So, if you see the word “fragrance” on a label, there’s a high chance it could have them and cause sensitivity. At the same time, sensitivity can’t be generalized to everyone. People say “no fragrance” because it’s a rule of thumb to get products that work for your skin. From a consumer’s perspective, it’s advantageous given that fragrance allergens aren’t labeled in the US. That’s a problem. Fortunately, if you have a low concentration of that fragrance, it most likely won’t do anything or cause contact dermatitis.”


Allergic contact dermatitis is caused by cells in your immune system called T-cells. After you’ve exposed your skin to allergens, your immune system can become sensitive to it and have a reaction. Moreover, using fragrances over and over again can cause you to react poorly to it and to ingredients like it. Your immune system forms a memory of the harmful ingredient, and if there’s a substance that’s reminiscent of that ingredient around your skin, your immune system gets triggered, and you can have a flair-up. That’s called hypersensitivity, a condition where your body is extra sensitive to something when it doesn’t need to be. Hypersensitivity can also be attributed to the fact that some fragrances react badly with UV rays and become photosensitive. This can also cause a reaction.


Another thing to be cautious of is the fact that fragrance ingredients dilate blood vessels, and they trigger a lot of pathways that release histamine. A release of histamine can make you itchy, have watery eyes, or have a runny nose.


While irritation like this from fragrance is on the rise, it’s not insanely common, and you don’t have to fear fragrance all the time. For example, phenoxyethanol is a fragrance that we often see on labels on skincare ingredients. When you look at its structure and what it is, it’s a volatile substance, it’s an aromatic alcohol, and it’s been used as a fragrance in skincare for some time. However, it’s also a preservative. Therefore, fragrances can help stop yeast or other bad things from growing in the product.


Fragrances serve a multitude of purposes, and Dr. Michelle Wong also further describes how fragrances are often helpful. She says, “many fragrances have terpenes. “Terpenes” are fragrant isoprene units or more simply little Lego building blocks in plants that can be used to make a ton of compounds. Terpenes or isoprene units have double bonds anatomically so they can also soak up electrons. So, that makes it a good antioxidant of free radicals.”


From this, it’s very clear that fragrance has its pros and cons. We just have to be wary about whether or not marketing claims make sense based on the actual ingredients.


Skincare companies are not required to prove the efficaciousness of their product like pharmaceutical companies. Plant extracts, essential oils, and vitamin supplements are not regulated by the FDA, and they don’t have to go through that process. They don’t have to be tested. They can just be put into a bottle and sold as an “amazing product.” That’s why we must turn and learn ingredients, know our skin, (go get a patch test to see if you’re allergic to anything), and empower ourselves to make the best decisions for our bodies.