Is Fragrance Really the Villain in Skincare?

From moisturizers to a foundation, fragrance or essence is dominating the beauty world today. Sure, they make our skin smell absolutely heavenly, but at what cost? does our skin pay the price for smelling unnaturally delicious?

Well, let us delve deeper into the ocean of fragrance and find out for ourselves!

But let us first begin by broadly understanding the term ‘Fragrance’

The FDA defines fragrance as a chemical combination that gives each scent its unique aroma. Fragrances are being used in a wide range of goods to give a pleasant odor, disguise the natural stench of some substances, and improve the overall user experience.

Our sense of scent is strongly linked to the limbic system of the brain, which stores our memories and emotions. Numerous studies show that scents improve mood and have a favorable effect on the mind. A certain aroma is frequently related to product identification and acceptance.

Fragrance chemistry is a highly specialized area that needs a thorough understanding of the numerous components and how they combine to form the scent. When creating a fragrance, several additional factors must be taken into account, including the intensity of the scent, component compatibility, light and heat stability, and even their connection with product packaging.

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It’s also crucial to think about the qualities of the ingredients once they’ve been applied to the skin. Some aromatic ingredients dissipate quickly, while others linger on the skin for much longer. The interaction of these features over time is critical for attaining the intended end result, which is an aesthetically beautiful product.

Fragrance elements in cosmetics must fulfill the same safety requirements as other cosmetic components: they must really be safe for customers when used as directed on the label or as people normally use. The fragrance industry and firms that employ perfumes in their goods must take this obligation extremely seriously.

The International Fragrance Association has a thorough program that evaluates the safety of fragrance compounds. Since 1973, this comprehensive program has included a Code of Practice (the Code), which contains suggestions for good manufacturing procedures and guidance on fragrance component safety, as well as fragrance safety requirements that limit or prohibit the use of specific scent ingredients.

Types of Fragrance

On a worldwide scale, the “green movement” is thriving, increasing, and profoundly altering consumer behaviors. Many people are scrutinizing labels and demanding transparency of the substances used as a means of ensuring the planet’s long-term viability.

The reason is because people are becoming more aware of the necessity of safeguarding the natural life on earth, and their personal safety and well-being.

Consumers are opting for fragrances and scented items that contain ingredients labeled as plant-based, natural, or “organic,” and this trend is affecting the fragrance industry as well.

As a result, the fragrance industry has lately begun to move toward “green” perfumes.

Fragrances can either be Synthetic or Natural (such as Peruvian balsams and some concretes/absolutes). 

The fragrance of various skin care products is created by a cocktail of chemicals. It’s regarded as a trade secret. Ingredients derived from natural raw materials and petroleum may find their way into various fragrances. It may also contain solvents, stabilizers, UV-absorbers, preservatives, and dyes, in addition to the “scent” ingredients that form the aroma.

Fragrance can be categorized into two overarching types: synthetic and natural.

Synthetic Fragrance

What precisely does the term “synthetic scent” imply? Put simply,  a synthetic scent is created in a laboratory. Synthetic perfumes are chemical molecules that have a distinct odor. Until the 19th century, scents were made from plant-derived alcohol extracts and essential oils. For purposes of cost, compatibility, purity, and quality control, synthetic compounds are now more commonly utilized; they may make up for a whopping 90% of the fragrance composition.

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Semi-synthetic scents are those in which just a fraction of the compounds are synthetic and the rest are natural. Some ingredients are fully synthetic as well. One of the main reasons a brand would pick a synthetic scent over a natural smell is that it will stay much longer.

Natural fragrances are essentially short-lived, whereas synthetic fragrances can last up to 5 years. Because synthetic-fragranced products may last longer, it’s critical to carefully verify the expiration limits or dates of products before incorporating them into your regime.

The subdivisions of synthetic fragrance are as follows:

Full synthetics: Petroleum by-products account for nearly all of the aroma.

Semi-synthetics: The scent is only semi-synthetic, as the name implies; it can be made from intentionally modified components. These are artificially altered to incorporate a particular note in them.

Natural isolates: Because they are created by isolating one smell from a more intricate aromatic foundation, like that of a rose, they fall midway between synthetic and natural.

Natural Fragrances

Natural perfumes come from natural sources like lavender or lemon. Natural scents are derived from their natural origin or source rather than being created in a lab. In contrast to synthetic fragrances, there is just one sort of natural fragrance: all-natural. A natural scent comprises hundreds of distinct compounds, with a few prominent and several minor ones, that contribute to the odor’s complexity.

While the natural fragrance may not be as long-lasting as artificial or synthetic, there are lesser hidden side effects than that of synthetic. The absence of transparency in skincare products is the main issue with fragrance.

Due to a want of proper regulation, companies can declare “fragrance” as an element without revealing the components that create the fragrance.

Natural Fragrance Synthetic Fragrance
Natural fragrances are derived from the natural world. Synthetic fragrances are curated in laboratories, using natural and artificial ingredients
Natural notes are, heartbreakingly, short-lived. Even if you receive the scent from the same sources, replicating the same natural aromas is tough. Synthetic fragrances imitate natural accords without affecting the environment, rather than obtaining notes from forestry and animals.
There is only one type of natural scent. This can be subdivided into 3 categories.

Do Essential oils fit in?

Essential oils are produced by mechanically extracting components from plants (using processes such as cold pressing) or by distillation (using water or steam). These oils can be used in aromatherapy or applied to the skin directly.

The chemicals are then separated from these compounds and mixed with a carrier oil to create a useful product. Many people believe that essential oils are completely natural, however, this is only true if the elements are extracted without the use of chemicals.

Cosmetics such as lotions, soaps, and face washing products include natural oils. The oils are not only recognized for being soothing, but they may also have energizing properties, however, if the medication is given incorrectly, it might cause a rash and other unwanted effects. Most importantly, to avoid negative responses, essential oils must be diluted.

Essential oil concentration levels should be kept below 5% as a general rule. Popular odors like almond, coconut, and lavender are frequently combined with carrier oils and perfumes.

Is there a reason behind using fragrance in skincare products?

Fragrances are used in a variety of cosmetic goods, including perfumes, aftershave, deodorant, Eaux de cologne, and toilette. Fragrance components are found in almost all cosmetics and toiletries; even “unscented” or “fragrance-free” goods may contain a “masking” perfume.

While we appear to be moving toward a more fragrance-conscious society (think fragrance-free offices and other allergen-conscious decisions), there is still a sizable market for consumers who buy products only for their aroma.

The brand strategy behind selling scented products is to cover up an undesirable odor that might arise naturally with certain components. The use of a pleasant-smelling product might enhance the whole experience.

So, should you assent to the scent?

Before we go into the negative impacts of perfumes on our skin, it’s worth noting that this also applies to natural odors. 

Both natural and synthetic perfumes have the potential to irritate your skin. Artificial scents are made up of a combination of chemicals that might irritate your skin, such as solvents and preservatives. Because of the volatility of the ingredients used to produce them, they have even been proved to induce skin disorders including eczema and psoriasis. In excessive quantities, all perfumes can cause skin irritation. Even natural ones.

According to some studies, perfumes are the most prevalent cause of allergic responses to cosmetic items, therefore if your skin is sensitive, it’s better to use fragrance-free products.

Some scented goods may be more harmful to your skin than others. Soaps and other skincare items that can be rinsed off are more bearable. However, items that remain on the skin, like lotions and creams, should have extremely low scent concentrations or none at all.

Adverse effects of fragrance

Fragrances are one of the principal contributors of contact dermatitis, a skin disease in which your skin gets red and irritated after coming into touch with an irritant, according to the ADA or Academy of Dermatology Association. This can be caused by airborne or “connubial” particles and is one of the major skin conditions caused by the excessive use of fragrance. Given the widespread use of fragrance components, the danger of side effects is minimal.

In terms of absolute numbers, however, perfume allergy is prevalent, affecting around 1% of the population. Dermatitis of the face (including the eyelids), as well as neck, well-circumscribed patches in regions of “dabbing-on” fragrance (wrists, behind the ears), and (aggravation of) hand eczema and axillary dermatitis, are all common features of contact allergy, though a detailed profile of patients sensitized to fragrances is still required.

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The degree of dermatitis can range from moderate to severe, with erythroderma and even dissemination, depending on the extent of sensitivity. Photocontact dermatitis, rapid contact responses, and pigmentary alterations are some of the less common adverse reactions to perfumes.

Although beneficial for detecting sensitive individuals, the fragrance combination induces both false-positive and false-negative responses, and only detects 70% of perfume-allergic patients. As a result, future studies should focus on improving the mix’s sensitivity and specificity.

Allergic or not, how to find out?

If you’re not sure if you’re allergic to a fragranced product, conduct a patch test by dabbing a tiny quantity behind your ear or on your arm, much like you would with hair color. It should be okay to use on your face if there are no symptoms of irritation. It is to be noted that, the adverse effects or negative impacts of a patch exam usually take approximately 24 hours to appear.

Tips on doing a Patch test

The following are simple instructions for conducting your patch test:

  1. As a beginning point, start along the inside of either your elbow or wrist. The skin in these locations is finer than the remainder of the body.  Another good place to check for suitability is on the side or back of the neck.
  2. A tiny quantity of the substance should be applied to any of these regions.
  3. Apply a bandage to the affected region.
  4. Don’t be concerned if a response emerges, such as a little color change, but disappears within 10-15 minutes. A transient sensitivity to some substances, such as AHAs or other compounds, is possible.

If there isn’t response after 24 hours, the product is safe to use.


Try applying a tiny quantity on your wrist or elbow and covering it. Rinse it off after 24 hours and reapply. Repeat for a total of seven days. If you don’t have any reactions, you should be alright with this item. As previously said, patch testing should always be discussed with a physician before administering a new substance.

What does the label say?

The fact that product wording might be deceptive or confusing contributes to the fear factor. Customers must grasp the difference between ‘fragrance-free’ and ‘unscented.  The term “fragrance-free” refers to the absence of chemicals used to enhance scent or disguise stink. ‘Unscented’ refers to a product that has no aroma but may contain masking scents to conceal the stench. Essential oils, that can induce allergic contact dermatitis, can be found in “natural” or “green” goods.

Read more: How To Read Labels In Skin Care Effectively

Tea tree oil is perhaps the most generally associated essential oil with dermatitis. In some people, even a few drops might cause an allergic response. Peppermint, clove, ylang-ylang, cassia, and cinnamon essential oils are among those that are more prone to irritate sensitive skin. It is crucial to read labels properly.

The phrases parfum and fragrance are extensively used. There is also a slew of hazardous essential oils that might cause skin problems, including Lavender, Rose, Orange, Eucalyptus, and Geraniol. Linalool, cinnamal, eugenol, limonene, and citronellol are recurring irritants, so keep an eye out for these as well.

Fragrance-Free Unscented
Fragrances are anything that is applied to a product that gives it a distinct odor. Some are created entirely of natural substances, while others are composed entirely of synthetic chemicals. A fragrance-free item can yet have a fragrance, but it will most likely originate from the particular components stated on the label, rather than the generic term “fragrance,” which might mean ‘anything’. Fragrances can be present in unscented items as well. Some of the substances used in cosmetic products may give off a pungent stench. Fragrances are used to conceal these odors. Some companies will label this as “unscented” when this happens.

What about regulations?

The fragrance business is mostly self-regulated. Most worldwide fragrance providers, on the other hand, are members of the IFRA or International Fragrance Association. The IFRA is a non-profit organization that develops and executes consumer and environmental safety guidelines across the world.

These are based on the findings of the RIFM or Research Institute for Fragrance Materials, which is made up of non-commercial toxicologists, pharmacologists, and dermatologists. The findings and conclusions of the RIFM are published in a peer-reviewed and approved scientific publication.

This isn’t the ideal answer, but it’s the best we have at the moment. However, the usage of essential oils in cosmetics is governed by laws. If a business wishes to use essential oils in its goods, it must list all of the ingredients. And the volume they can utilize in their formula is limited. Furthermore, consumers must opt for IFRA regulated products since they are in charge of regulating scents in all items that come into touch with human skin.

Should you avoid fragrances altogether?

People having sensitive skin are more likely to get an adverse reaction to perfume in skincare because their skin is highly reactive when fragranced products are applied,  according to dermatologists.  There is a limited number of folks who need to be cautious with fragranced skincare.  These are individuals who have chronic skin disorders and severe inflammation. You may be more sensitive to perfumes if you have a skin problem like psoriasis, eczema, or rosacea.

What should you use instead?

The majority of individuals like their skincare products to have a pleasant scent. Cosmetic businesses are well aware of this, which is why they include scents in their products to attract customers. The scent, on the other hand, is more likely to include dangerous substances that might irritate the nose. Without the addition of fragrance, skincare products do not have a pleasant odor. A pleasant scent helps to disguise the product’s unpleasant odor.

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Added fragrance can also help mask the odor of a product that has been stored in a jar for a long time, especially if the components are entirely natural.

Because part of the critical chemicals are exposed to the air every time the jar is unsealed, substances deteriorate faster and lose potency.

Certain natural products have a nice scent yet do not irritate the skin and are beneficial to it. Melon, cucumber, vanilla, almond, coconut, mango,  and cocoa butter are instances of such fragrances. Many natural skin care items have organic ingredients with a pleasant scent, making them appealing to the senses.

Is Fragrance-free better?

Fragrance-free products are less likely to irritate or create an allergic response.

According to several studies, both synthetic and natural perfumes can irritate all skin types. For organic skincare to be appropriate for sensitive skin types, the proportion of essential oils must be carefully studied.

Organic or Herbal products

Organic skincare items are manufactured with natural vegetable oils, kinds of butter, waxes, herbal extracts, and essential oils, among other ingredients that are excellent for your skin.  However, as beneficial to the skin as they are, some organic extracts, oils, and tinctures have an aroma that is more akin to a compost heap than the bouquet of sweet-smelling flowers or herbs from which they were derived. This is due to the lack of harmful fragrances used in them, as a result of which most of these are generally rendered safe to use.

The usage of the cleanest, freshest, most natural components in organic skincare items produces fragrance as a byproduct. Rather than adding artificial scents only for the sake of aroma, the emphasis has been on developing formulae with components that provide the most advantage to skin and hair. Everything is prepared in the traditional method, according to Ayurvedic teachings, and if feasible, by hand, ranging from organically cultivated Cold Pressed Oils, to raw and untreated Cane Sugar, and steam-distilled unadulterated Essential Oils.

‘All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand’

Any product intended for use on the neck, face, or eyes should be fragrance-free as much as feasible. It’s not that horrible to have perfumes in your body lotions if they’re used on skin that isn’t as sensitive. The skin around the neck and eyes is thinner and more susceptible to perfumes. Some of the most commonly reported allergens by consumers are as follows:

  1. Benzyl salicylate: is a perfume allergen and a potential disruptor of the endocrine. Its usage is restricted in the European Union, and it is stated that companies must indicate its name or usage on product labels.
  2. Butylated hydroxytoluene: BHT irritation to the eyes and skin, and it may have a negative impact on one’s development rate and liver function.
  3. Benzyl benzoate: Benzyl benzoate causes irritation to the eyes and skin and can cause severe genital discomfort, burning, and stinging.
  4. Butylphenyl methylpropional: also recognized by its brand label Lilial, is a fragrance chemical that is prohibited in the European Union. The International Scent Association banned its usage in fragrance goods due to the risk of dermal sensitization.