by Alexandra Nicole Nuralam

Is Fragrance in Beauty Products Really That Bad?

Image via @skinsitive

You might have heard from several skincare Youtubers that fragrance, whether natural or synthetic, is harmful to the skin. Yet, despite this, fragrance components are found in more skincare products than you can imagine. We check in with dermatologist and dermatopathologist Dr Mara Padilla Evangelista-Huber for the answers. 

Why are fragrances in skincare bad? 

“Fragrance is not necessarily bad,” says Dr Mara. “Although it is the number one allergen in cosmetics, it is not as common as you might think. While 1 in 10 patch-tested patients are positive for fragrance allergy, about 1 to 4 in 100 people are actually allergic to fragrance.”

As a potential allergen, fragrances can cause an itchy, scaly rash called allergic contact dermatitis. It’s an immunologic skin reaction that occurs if you’re genetically predisposed to develop reactions when exposed to such allergens. But you do need to be exposed to the allergen repeatedly for the body to develop an allergy.

“Allergies can develop at any time, even after using the same product for years without any issues. Once an allergy to a substance develops, this usually lasts for life,” explains Dr Mara.

It’s also important to note that not all reactions to skincare products are true allergies; the vast majority are simply irritant reactions. And while fragrance may cause adverse reactions in some individuals, it can also be caused by different components of the formulations, such as active ingredients, preservatives and emulsifiers.

Do fragrances only cause issues for those with sensitive skin?

For the vast majority of people, fragrance and other substances that cause contact dermatitis are harmless. The risk of allergic contact dermatitis goes up when you’re constantly exposed to these substances, say if you’re a hairdresser or massage therapist, and if you suffer from skincare conditions like atopic dermatitis or rosacea.

How do I know what type of fragrance is in my skincare product?

According to Dr Mara, more than 5000 different fragrance ingredients are used in beauty products, but not all have the same risk of causing allergic contact dermatitis. The European Commission (EC), which has conducted extensive research on fragrance allergens, has listed 26 fragrance ingredients that have a high risk of causing allergies, which includes common ones like citronellol and linalool. 

While some regulating bodies (like the EC) require that the presence of any of the 26 substances be indicated in the ingredient list, this is not required in all countries. Certain ingredients could simply be listed as “fragrance,” or “perfume”, which could be hundreds of fragrance ingredients mixed together, without identifying the specific ingredients. Why? Because the formulations are usually proprietary and the government cannot compel companies to reveal their trade secrets. 

And if you’re wondering if natural fragrances are better, the answer is no. “Both natural and synthetic fragrances can cause allergies,” says Dr Mara. “In fact, some essential oils are common culprits of allergic contact dermatitis, so no, natural isn’t always better.” 

To identify fragrant ingredients in your skincare products, look out for other words in the ingredient list like eugenol, geraniol, citronellol, and limonene. “There is no such thing as a “non-allergenic” product,” reminds Dr Mara. “Ingredient lists are most helpful if you already know if you are allergic to or cannot tolerate a specific ingredient. If you do not have any known or documented allergies, there is no need to avoid specific ingredients when you do not experience any issues with them.”

How do you know if you’re allergic to fragrances?

Some warning signs of allergic contact dermatitis to look out for include rashes (which may occur with no prior history of skin conditions), eczema that keeps coming back, or if you have a history of eczema, a rash that may not look like a usual flare-up. 

As they say, prevention is better than cure. Dr Mara recommends visiting an allergist to get tested for potential triggers, especially if you’re experiencing recurrent rashes or repeated reactions to skincare products. “Physicians will test for reactions to a standard set of common allergens (which include different types of fragrance) and monitor reactions over several days. Patch testing does not test for every potential allergen, since there are about 3000. The patches stay in place for 48 hours (remember, it’s a delayed hypersensitivity response), after which they will remove them and a reading is done, she explains.

So, does this mean that fragrance-free is best?

Not necessarily. According to Dr Mara, “fragrance-free” means no ingredient has been added with the purpose of imparting scent, but some products like essential oils are inherently made of fragrant ingredients. If a moisturiser is made with an ingredient that has a smell, it could still be labelled as fragrance-free, since the purpose of the oil is to act as an emollient and not as a scent.

Products labelled “unscented” may also contain fragrance ingredients. The manufacturer may add a small amount of fragrance to mask the unpleasant smell of other ingredients. “A gentle reminder that there is no need for everyone to avoid specific ingredients if your skin has not reacted to these,” says Dr Mara.

A simple way to assess your skin’s tolerability and test for reactions to a skincare product is by doing a patch test before you commit to using the product regularly.

Dr Mara’s Fragrance-Free Picks

EltaMD® | SPF 46 UV Clear | Sensitive Skin Sunscreen | Facial Sunscreen
EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46, SGD50
Hydrating Facial Cleanser | Cleansers | CeraVe
CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser, SGD19.90
SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic - Reviews | MakeupAlley
SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic Vitamin C Serum, SGD248
Micro-Dose Anti-Aging Retinol Serum with Ceramides and Peptide – Kiehl's
Kiehl’s Micro-Dose Anti-Aging Retinol Serum with Ceramides and Peptide, SGD130
La Roche-Posay Cicaplast Baume B5, SGD21.90

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