Is fragrance bad for your skin?
Caroline Tompkins / Refinery29 for Getty Images

Beauty

How Bad Is Fragrance In Skincare, Really?

According to the experts, there's no clean-cut answer.

Indulging your skin in a deliciously scented toner or moisturizer feels like a key element of the self-care experience. Recent launches in skincare like Rihanna’s highly anticipated Fenty Skin have sparked a healthy debate around the use of fragrance in skincare products. For most consumers, scented beauty products are a part of the luxury experience and impact consumer purchasing decisions.

Still, skincare isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, and some consumers have a strong reaction to any scents in their personal care products — but it comes down to far more than just individual preferences. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, fragrances are considered the leading cause of allergic reactions on the skin, affecting around 1% of the general population. So, why do brands include fragrance in their formulations so often?

Ingredients are complex and cannot be simply labeled as “good” or “bad”. The hard truth is that truly non-fragranced products smell like chemicals or other raw ingredients and can often be unpleasant to the senses. “Fragrances can be used to appeal to the olfactory centers in our brain or sense of smell to create an emotional connection to a product, increase value perception, and enable for better brand recognition,” Dr. Adeline Kikam, Texas-based dermatologist and founder of BrownSkinDerm, tells NYLON. “If a product contains effective active ingredients that can help address an issue or problem, but which the consumer does not use because they can't stand the smell, then what good is it?”

The good news is that skincare companies can create formulations that avoid known fragrance ingredients that tend to trigger reactions. What’s more, the fragrance percentage in skincare products is usually less than 1%. “There is typically some sort of fragrance in any skincare product, even ‘fragrance-free’ products,” notes Dunni Odumosu, a former cosmetic chemist for beauty giant L’Oreal. Cosmetic chemists like Eunice Coffey-Obeng use non-synthetic fragrances like essential oils in her brand Nuekie. For brands like hers that combine traditional African medicine and modern science to meet the needs of people of color, the specific essential oils incorporated not only mask the odor of ingredients but also provide healing properties.

Ahead, experts break down everything you should know before proceeding with fragranced skincare — from irritation symptoms to how to spot fragrance in your products.

Who should absolutely avoid fragrances?

Shutterstock

Some folks with inflammatory skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, acne, or rosacea may see their condition worsen with fragranced products. Columbus-based esthetician Shona Gibson shared a list of symptoms associated with fragrance allergies, such as itching, small reddish bumps, and increased skin sensitivity. She emphasizes, “For those with darker skin types, this can mean having to deal with post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation or scarring, which can take months to fade.”

Atlanta-based content creator and skincare enthusiast Florence Williams suffers from eczema and avoids fragrances due to her previous experience with redness and flare-ups with using products that include them. “I don't mind [fragrances] in my cleansers because they do wash off, but I prefer them not to be in my serums, moisturizers, or SPF,” says Florence. Cleansers with fragrances are less likely to cause a reaction because the contact time is shorter than products that are left off the skin for longer, like toners, serums, and sunscreen.

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

Unfortunately, some brands hide the trade secrets of their full ingredient list under an FDA loophole that allows personal care brands to list ingredients as “fragrances” or “parfum.” To identify fragrant ingredients in your skincare products, look out for other words in the ingredient list like eugenol, geraniol, citronellol, and limonene. Odumosu — who recently founded House of Arewa, a consultancy for independent beauty brands looking to expand into Africa — calls for increased transparency around listing fragrance ingredients on labels, plus consumer education on these ingredients. Most skincare experts believe that consumers should know what ingredients are in their products so they can make more informed decisions about their use.

How do I find out if I have a fragrance allergy?

The most important thing you can do is proceed carefully with new products. A report in the American Journal of Clinical Dermatology shows that 1.7% to 4.1% of the general population is sensitized to fragrance mixes in cosmetic products. New York-based esthetician Ashley White recommends that her clients, especially those new to skincare, figure out if they have a fragrance allergy by either visiting an allergist to get tested for potential triggers or conducting a patch test before applying new products. To conduct a patch test, Ashley recommends applying a tiny amount of a product behind your ear or the inside of your arm because these areas are very delicate. If people with sensitive skin come in contact with fragrances and experience irritation, Ashley also suggests opting for more soothing and anti-inflammatory ingredients such as colloidal oatmeal, aloe vera, and panthenol.

Are “clean fragrances” a safer option?

Shutterstock

You can continue to expect new brands like Fenty Skin to incorporate fragrance into their formulations. The brand, which officially launched last week, claims to use globally sourced “clean fragrance.” However, according to Dr. Camille H-Verovic, New York dermatologist and founder of scalp treatment brand Girl + Hair, “there isn’t a consistent definition of ‘clean fragrance.’” Concepts like clean fragrance and clean beauty are labels that the skincare industry introduced to convey the idea that the fragrance in the product is free of harmful chemicals. Dr. Adeline emphasizes that a fragrance can be allergenic regardless of whether it is natural or synthetic. “In reality, consumers should be aware that there are no standardized or regulatory guidelines to validate ‘clean fragrance’ as an official trustworthy cosmetic label,” she says. “The consumer still needs to do their research when it comes to identifying potentially irritating fragrances as preservatives in skincare.”

The great thing about the current discussion around fragrance in skincare is that it is giving people empathy and space to talk about their skin conditions and how those conditions have impacted their life. New York-based acne specialist Lily Njoroge warns, “I don’t think brands should be as dismissive and lax about it as we’ve seen lately. Fragrances are a huge trigger for migraines, and especially in facial products, being so close to the nose means that the scent may be more pronounced which can rapidly trigger a migraine.” Hopefully, there will continue to be a move toward safe fragrance-free products that everyone can use.

As skincare experts have pointed out, individuals should do their research and speak to their dermatologist or esthetician before incorporating new skincare products, especially if they have sensitive skin. At the end of the day, skincare is a personal choice, and every consumer’s concern should be validated.

Studies referenced:

Johansen, J. D. (2012). Fragrance Contact Allergy. American Journal of Clinical Dermatology, 4, 789–798.

Experts:

Dr. Adeline Kikam, Texas-based dermatologist and founder of BrownSkinDerm

Dunni Odumosu, former cosmetic chemist for L’Oreal

Eunice Coffey-Obeng, cosmetic chemist

Ashley White, New York-based esthetician

Dr. Camille H-Verovic, New York dermatologist and founder of scalp treatment brand Girl + Hair,

Lily Njoroge, New York-based acne specialist

Sources:

Florence Williams, Atlanta-based content creator and skincare enthusiast