It’s National Fragrance Day and to celebrate, we wanted to shine a spotlight on fragrance in skincare. Especially now that Spring is officially here and you may be thinking about switching up your routine.
While it may be the perfect opportunity to stock up on new perfumes and reminisce old scents, it’s also a good opportunity to discuss its divisive reputation in skincare.
In recent years, it’s gained somewhat of a bad name. Mainly because it has the ability to irritate the skin and provoke reactions. But, is it really all that bad and can you still have fragrance in a product without causing irritation?
Here’s our low-down with expert comments from our Scientific Skincare Advisor, Tracey Ryan.
WHAT IS FRAGRANCE?
Fragrance is the umbrella term for a cocktail of ingredients that are often used to scent a skincare product. These can be both natural or synthetic.
The cosmetic industry does not have to list every ingredient used and can therefore just label the cocktail of scents as either ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’.
Tracey says: “Skincare can either be scented with either fragrance oils and essential oil or maybe unscented.
“But bear in mind that unscented skincare can often use extracts that smell nice to scent the product or use ingredients that mask the scent of the product.”
WHY DO WE HAVE FRAGRANCE IN SKINCARE?
Let’s be honest, when applying something that close to our nose, we want it to smell nice. That’s why fragrance made its way into skincare in the first place, as a way to mask the often medical smell it would otherwise have.
Tracey says: “A lot of ingredients don’t actually smell very nice. A completely unscented formulation will often smell like vegetable oil or crayons!
“Despite the fact, consumers say they mostly prefer unscented skincare the vast majority of consumers will smell their hands after applying skincare and have an option on the “scent”
“Brands know that consumers will not repurchase products if they actively dislike the scent so they either create a scent or they hide the scent and try to achieve a neutral scent.”
SHOULD I AVOID ESSENTIAL OILS?
Often, when attempting to avoid fragrance in skincare, we tend to brand essential oils as the culprit. This has led to a big argument within the industry about whether essential oils or fragrance oils are better to scent a product.
Tracey says: “The pro for essential oils is that they are “natural” ingredients and they may have some benefits for the consumer. For instance, they are often packed with antioxidants and also offer aromatherapy benefits.
“However, the cons for essential oils are that many of them contain sensitizing constituents that can irritate the skin or even make it more prone to sun damage.”
On top of this, some essential oils pose a question mark around sustainability too. That’s because large amounts of plants need to be harvested in order to create the oil. During this process, there are often fluctuations within them as different growing conditions mean the material is not the same every single time.
Nature-identical versions of these essential oils are being created using constituents from easy-to-obtain plants, a proactive step to protect endangered plants.
Tracey adds: “There are strict regulations around using essential oils in cosmetics and you can be assured that any product on the market from a reputable company has passed all of these stringent tests and abides by the regulations.”
WHAT ABOUT FRAGRANCE OILS?
Fragrance oils are mostly artificial versions, although there are some completely naturally derived fragrance oils on the market, they are typically created using mixes of natural and synthetic aroma compounds.
Tracey says: “The pros are that you can create a fragrance using only non-sensitising constituents so you make a fragrance to be much less irritating to the skin. B
“As it is synthetic you get the exact same material every time and you use a lot less of the material in a product to get the same level of scent.
“The cons are that the rise of clean beauty marketing has meant that a lot of people want to avoid “fragrance” or “parfum” in their products.
“While it’s true that some synthetic fragrances can be irritating, it’s not always the case.”
SO, IS FRAGRANCE REALLY THAT BAD?
Scents are likely in the majority of your skincare products. Chances are, most will continue to go unnoticed without causing any harm.
In fact, fragrance likely contributes to part of the reason for liking certain products. Without these masking scents, the product would smell a lot worse. Something many of us may think we would not mind until we come face-to-face with it.
But, as with any new skincare product, and particularly if you are someone with sensitive skin, it’s always important to patch-test the product behind your ear first.
If you are someone with allergies to fragrance then, of course, it is best to avoid products with fragrance.
Keep an eye out for the following ingredients: cinnamal, isoeugenol, limonene, and linalool. These are some of the most commonly associated ingredients with irritation.
WHAT SHOULD I LOOK OUT FOR?
A common misconception is assuming a product has less fragrance if it’s listed further down on the INCI list.
You can often use the position to tell how much of that ingredient is included, but not for things like fragrance.
The fragrance will never be included over 1%, so it will therefore always fall under the 1% line. Anything at 1% or under can be listed in whatever order the company wants. So, you would therefore have no idea whether it’s in there at 1%, 0.5%, or 0.1%!
In a leave-on product for the face, the fragrance would generally be around 0.2 – 0.3% though.
IS FRAGRANCE BAD FOR YOUR SKIN MICROBIOME?
Fragrance can often be judged as not being microbiome-friendly. That could be due to often being associated with essential oils – an ingredient that has been known to negatively disrupt the skin microbiome and irritate the barrier.
Otherwise, the fragrance is unlikely to cause any problems for those with a balanced skin microbiome. The issue instead, would be for those with an already vulnerable skin microbiome and barrier.
For instance, if your skin microbiome is imbalanced and you are experiencing inflammatory skin conditions like eczema or acne, then you are already more susceptible to potential irritation and inflammation that fragrance might provoke.
That’s because your skin is already more sensitive and vulnerable. This puts it at a higher risk of reacting to the fragrance. But, when your skin microbiome is at its best, it’s highly unlikely that a fragrance will come along and wreak havoc.
FRAGRANCE IS EXTREMELY COMMON IN SKINCARE
While the ‘anti-fragrance’ movement shows no signs of slowing down, it’s equally important to remember that an element of fragrance is often always included in skincare products.
Rather than shunning it completely, it’s important to swot up on your scent knowledge. By doing your research, you can better understand the type of fragrance it is. That way, you can figure out for yourself whether it will work for you before labeling it a ‘no’.
To be on the safe side, always do a patch test.
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