Opting for Fragrance-Free Skincare: A Skin-Friendly Choice

Is the smell of your skincare products hurting your skin? It’s a question we often don’t think about. Yes, the scents can be nice, but they can also cause problems. About one in three skin issues from cosmetics are because of fragrances, whether they’re natural or not. This post takes a balanced look at the pros and cons of fragranced skincare. While the sensory pleasure derived from fragrances cannot be denied, for many of us, the potential risks to our skin health outweigh these transient delights. Read on to discover why I, like many skincare consumers, have decided to opt for fragrance-free skincare.

Is fragrance free skincare better?

Fragrance in skincare: clear problems, cloudy causes

All fragrances are volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The term “volatile” means that the compounds easily become vapors or gases. In the context of fragrances, these are the compounds that evaporate from the skin or product, allowing the scent to be detected by our sense of smell.

This group of chemicals is wide-ranging and includes many different kinds. It goes from compounds that our own skin emits, to the ones that make strawberries or face cream smell nice, all the way to pollutants from car exhaust.

All reputable skincare brands ensure that the fragrances they use are tested for safety. Therefore, you can rest assured that these fragrances won’t cause any widespread health problems, and contrary to some rumors, they definitely don’t cause cancer. Yet, they do cause a huge share of skin reactions. 

According to studies, about 1 out of 3 sensitivity problems from cosmetics are caused by fragrances – either natural or made in a lab.

Just how common are sensitive reactions to skincare? While we don’t have a definitive percentage, recent surveys suggest that between 40% to 70% of skincare users believe they have sensitive skin. This means they’ve likely experienced some form of skin reaction in the past. In simple terms, fragrance in skincare is responsible for a significant share of perfectly avoidable skin troubles.

But why do fragrances cause skin problems? Well, science is still trying to figure this out. Recent studies have revealed that fragrances, when exposed to air, heat, and light, undergo certain changes. They initiate a process of reactions, creating what are known as “radical intermediates”.

Like unexpected guests, these compounds find a way to bond with our skin proteins. This connection triggers a response from our skin’s immune system, often leading to irritation or even allergic reactions. This seems to be the mechanism of how different classes of cosmetic fragrances, for example terpenes (linalool, citronellol, limonene, camphor) and benzene derivatives (vanillin, anisole, eugenol) cause skin sensitization.

The skincare fragrance problem: allergies and irritations

Skin reactions caused by fragrances can typically fall into two categories: irritant and allergic reactions.

Irritant reactions usually show up shortly after the skin is exposed to the offending substance, typically within a few minutes to a few hours. They tend to be limited to the specific area where the skin made contact with the irritant. An important thing to remember is that just because you’ve had an irritant reaction once, it doesn’t mean it will happen every time. However, repeated exposure to an irritant, even a mild one, can cause a gradual build-up of damage that can lead to dermatitis. For instance, continually applying a fragranced product could result in dry, inflamed skin over time. It’s interesting to note that most skin reactions from cosmetics fall into this category.

Allergic skin reactions, on the other hand, may take 24 to 72 hours to manifest after exposure. Unlike irritant reactions, allergic reactions can spread beyond the area that made contact with the allergen. Initially, exposure might not trigger a reaction, but your immune system is paying attention. With repeated exposure, your body starts to react, leading to symptoms that tend to become quicker and more intense with each subsequent exposure.

Despite their differences, irritant and allergic reactions share one important characteristic: they both trigger an immune response. This means that a substance causing a skin allergy is also likely to be an irritant, which is indeed the case with fragrances and essential oils.

Irritant reactions can be more deceptive than allergic ones. Allergic reactions often exhibit noticeable symptoms like redness, itching, and scaling. In contrast, irritation can be more subtle and thus harder to spot. This type of irritation, known as chronic or cumulative contact dermatitis, might show up as just some skin dryness or minor redness. Despite the mild symptoms, beneath the surface, inflammation may be brewing.

Inflammation: a foe to our skincare goals

Even without acute visible skin reaction, fragranced skincare has a risk of causing a continuous low-grade inflammation in our skin. If this happens, this spellls disaster for our skin goals. The inflammation can activate acne, compromise our skin barrier, and accelerate collagen destruction – essentially the opposite of what we want our skincare to do.

Interestingly, studies show that inflammation from skin allergies and irritations is far more likely to be triggered by fragrances in skincare products than by perfumes. A possible explanation is the problematic combination of other compounds in skincare, such as surfactants and preservatives, with fragrances.

The questionable trade-off

Are there any positive aspects of having fragrances in skincare? Well, unfortunately, the answer is no. Apart from providing a pleasing scent, fragrances, whether they are natural or synthetic, don’t provide any confirmed benefits for our skin. Given this, why not opt for a fragrant candle to enjoy the scent and skip the potential risks to our skin?

In conclusion, while fragrances in skincare might be pleasing to our senses, they come with a significant risk and don’t offer any clear benefits for our skin. Personally, I’ve chosen to steer clear of fragrances in my skincare routine (both natural and synthetic) to safeguard my skin’s health. But remember, skincare can be deeply personal, and what works for me might not work for you. Life involves making choices and taking risks – you may decide that the joy of a delightful scent is worth the potential skin issues. And that’s completely okay!  If you opt for fragranced skincare products, I hope this post helped you to do so with a good knowledge of the potential risks and rewards.

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    About The Author

    Maria Semykoz

    Science communicator. Co-founder at WIMJ