Is fragrance bad for skin?

Fragrance in your skincare can undo all the benefits you hoped to get from it in the first place. This is because fragrances, both natural and synthetic, are some of the most frequent sources of skin reactions and allergy

It’s estimated that about 1/3 of all cosmetic-related skin reactions are related to fragrances, either natural or synthetic. Women are more likely to suffer from dermatitis caused by fragrances than men. This is mostly explained by the fact that women use more fragranced cosmetics.

So how does fragrance harm the skin?

The disappointing answer is: scientists don’t fully understand the mechanism. It might have something to do with the fact that all fragrances used in skincare are volatile organic compounds (VOCs). But this chemical “family” is very broad and ranges from compounds that our own skin emits, to those causing strawberries or face creams to smell heavenly, to road traffic pollutants. Another reason why fragrances often cause the skin problems is their small particle size (small molecules can penetrate the skin deeper) combined with the fact that people's skin gets exposed to fragrances a lot, especially if they like skincare.

In general, fragrant compounds can set off an alarm for our immune system after a series of chemical reactions.

Allergic and irritant reactions in the skin are different, but they seem related. Both involve an immune response, and, if a compound is known to cause skin allergy, it is likely to be a skin irritant as well. This is definitely the case with fragrances & essential oils.

The distinction between skin allergy and irritation is useful to keep in mind. Allergies tend show up with acute symptoms (redness, itching, scaling), but skin irritation might have very mild symptoms and can be harder to notice. This condition is called chronic or cumulative contact dermatitis (a medical term for skin irritation).

Keep in mind that allergic reactions do not happen on the first exposure to a substance. People can use a fragranced cream or shampoo for years before they develop an allergy. The more frequent the exposure is, the more likely one to develop a reaction.

Interesting fact: studies find that skin allergies and irritations are way more frequently caused by fragrances in skincare rather than in perfumes. It’s likely that a combination of other compounds in skincare (like surfactants and preservatives) with fragrances are to blame.

Is there a benefit of having fragrance in your skincare?

There isn’t one really - apart from indulging our senses. If you are after the sensual indulgence though, there is no reason to rub the aromatic substance in your skin risking a reaction - you can simply light a candle. Fragrances, natural or synthetic, do not have any proven benefits for our skin. That’s why it is a good idea to avoid fragrance in skincare as much as possible, especially if you have sensitive skin.