The Truth About Fragrance-Free and Scented Beauty Products, According to Derms

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I’m a sucker for self-care as much as the next girl, so I understand the allure of indulging your skin in a deliciously scented moisturizer. For a lot of consumers, scented beauty products are an integral part of the skincare experience.

But here’s the thing: It’s difficult enough to understand the soup of ingredients listed on most beauty products, let alone the complicated terms that brands use to describe fragrances. If you struggle with sensitive skin, the presence of fragrance raises a lot of questions. What are fragrances exactly and do they change the effectiveness of the beauty product itself? What does unscented and fragrance-free really mean? And, perhaps most importantly, how can we choose the products that work well with our skin—and still smell good? Below, we’re breaking down every little thing you need to know about fragrances in your beauty products.

Red Flags to Identify

First things first: How do you know if your beauty product has fragrances? Well, the simple rule of thumb is that if the product has any smell, there is definitely some kind of fragrance present. Anything that has an identifiable smell is solely added to formulas for a sensorial effect, not to contribute to the health of the skin.

“When you see the single word ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ on a label, it is actually hiding a recipe comprised of hundreds of proprietary chemicals,” says Marilee Nelson, environmental consultant and co-founder of Branch Basics.

To make matters worse, the FDA gives fragrances a free pass when it comes to transparency. Beauty companies are required to use the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) when listing what’s in a product. For example, lavender extract must always be listed as lavandula angustifolia (lavender extract), regardless of whether a company thinks theirs is a better, more exotic version.

But fragrance is an exception—it’s the only ingredient that is exempt from having to be more specific, even if it contains suspicious substances you want to know about.

This shady regulation has a reason: It was originally developed to protect a company’s proprietary perfume blend or trade secrets, under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1966, so that other places can’t steal a brand’s secret fragrance recipe.

This obviously comes with a huge caveat on the consumer side. The solution? Since the ingredients list isn’t always a reliable place to turn to, the EWG Skin Deep Cosmetics Database is a great source for identifying how much fragrance your product actually has. Any product that has ingredients rated at 1 or 2 are safe to use. The list is also expanded with essential oils that are not always safe for the skin. These will sometimes come with their appropriate Latin names, like mentha, citrus, eugenol, etc.

The Difference Between Fragrance-Free and Unscented

Be warned: Just because something is unscented doesn’t mean it is fragrance-free.

“Fragrance-free means that no fragrance materials—synthetic or natural—are used in the product,” says Frauke Neuser, PhD, principal scientist at Olay Skin Care at P&G. “On the other hand, unscented generally means that the product doesn’t have an obvious fragrance, but may contain substances that neutralize or mask the odors of other active ingredients (which don’t always smell too great).”

If you must use skincare products with fragrances, your best bet is turning to ones containing natural fragrances—like essential oils—provided that you’re not allergic to the stuff. Keep in mind that essential oils are volatile components, which can break down easily and are difficult to purify. In order to stay on the safe side, you’ll want to identify blends created with 100 percent wildcrafted or organic essential oils (i.e., processed without solvents).

The Effects of Fragrance on Skin

“There are three categories of fragrances—synthetic fragrances, natural fragrances, and essential oils,” says Debra Jaliman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. “All of these fragrances can cause a problem if you have sensitive skin or are sensitive to fragrance.”

However, synthetic fragrances are the leading cause of irritation and contact dermatitis in beauty products. Having a synthetic fragrance as an ingredient usually defeats the purpose of a skincare product as it creates a counterintuitive risk of irritation, says Dr. Jaliman. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), these fragrances are the biggest cause of cosmetic contact dermatitis. It’s up there with nickel and poison ivy, which most people know to avoid.

So, what kind of consequences are we dealing with? “Although it doesn’t reverse the effects of the intended benefit of the product, fragrance can be very irritating, even if you’re not allergic to the chemical. This can come out as redness, itching, hives, and eczema flareups,” says Dr. Jaliman. And that’s not all—the AAD also lists asthmagens, carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, neurotoxins, and obesogens amongst the many side effects.

In other words, any product with a synthetic fragrance—even if it’s chock-full of skin-loving ingredients—can do your skin more harm than good.

But don’t worry—that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy fragrances as part of the overall skincare experience. “If you are not one of the few people sensitive to specific fragrance ingredients, there’s no reason to avoid them,” notes Neuser. “It’s really about individuals’ personal sensitivities and knowing which specific ingredients to avoid, if any.”

The takeaway: The shorter the ingredients list (and the less fragrances), the better. Always make sure to do your research—or better yet, speak to your dermatologist—before incorporating a new skincare product, especially if you have sensitive skin.