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Fragrance In Skincare: Should You Avoid It?


At one point or another, we have probably all interacted with deliciously sweet-smelling, or otherwise strongly scented skincare products. They’re especially common during the fall and holiday seasons, as scents such as “pumpkin spice” and “sugar cookies” hit the shelves in every form of skincare imaginable. But did you know that these scented products are often full of synthetic chemicals? While tempting at first glance, those delicious scents often include a bevy of hidden dangers, and it all comes down to one innocuous term: fragrance. Often overlooked, the term “fragrance” on a product label is a deceptive, blanket term that can be used to describe a host of synthetic, chemical, and otherwise harmful ingredients. Linked to worsening skin conditions, irritation, and other adverse health effects, “fragrance” is one term every skincare and cosmetics consumer should be aware of. If you have sensitive skin, or simply want to reduce your chemical exposure, read on for the low down on fragrance and decide for yourself if using fragranced products is right for you.


What Is Fragrance?

First, let’s take a look at what fragrance actually is. The term itself is an extremely common ingredient listed in skincare, beauty, and other personal care products, due to the FDA’s labeling laws. Unfortunately, there are no laws in existence today that require transparency when it comes to fragrance ingredients. According to the FDA, companies are permitted to preserve “trade secrets” by not disclosing a complete list of ingredients used to scent products. Instead, a company can choose to voluntarily disclose ingredients in their products, or simply list “fragrance” or a similar term. The option for voluntary disclosure creates a loophole that allows companies to include their choice of ingredients – even concerning ones – in the product under an umbrella term. This lack of transparency is especially concerning at a time when many consumers are reading labels and attempting to choose products free from harmful ingredients like synthetic chemicals, phthalates, VOCs, and more.


The International Fragrance Association reports that there are 3,059 documented fragrance ingredients, most of which are synthetic compounds. Disturbingly, a 2018 report from WVE flagged over 1200 of these as “chemicals of concern”. This list included seven carcinogens, chemicals listed on international warning lists, and endocrine disruptors.


But these ingredients aren’t the only concern – the sheer amount of hidden and possibly concerning ingredients that make up a fragrance is also worrisome. A 2003 study found that “fragrance” is comprised of, on average, anywhere from dozens to hundreds of chemicals. Moreover, the FDA itself has stated that even some “unscented” products may contain fragrance, because it is permissible for a manufacturer to add enough fragrance to cover the smell of other ingredients, without giving the product itself a noticeable scent. The bottom line here is clear: if you’re seeking transparency when it comes to skincare ingredients, it’s best to avoid anything that includes fragrance terms on the label. You may find these listed as fragrance, parfum, geraniol, eugenol, or limonene.


Is Fragrance Really Bad for You?

Fragranced products have been able to fly largely under the radar for many years. Stunningly, the fragrance industry is primarily self-regulated, with the International Fragrance Association setting voluntary safe use standards. Voluntary is a key word here, and while fragrance advocates are adamant that their ingredients are safe based on exposure, there have been significant gaps in safety testing. For instance, a lot of toxicological research is done using one chemical at a time – but in a fragrance compound, as we now know, hundreds of chemicals might be combined. Beyond that, we are often exposed throughout our lifetime, and it’s hard to account for how this might add up over a lifetime.


However, there is a growing body of research documenting some of the harmful effects these products might have. For instance, a 2016 study found that over 30% of participants suffered some form of severe negative health consequence after being exposed to fragrance, including migraines, neurological symptoms, respiratory issues, and more. The study also found that while it has been well-established through research that fragranced products emit hazardous air pollutants, over two-thirds of participants were not aware of this.


One area of growing concern to researchers is the inclusion of endocrine disruptors in fragrance. A 2010 study by the Brest Cancer Prevention Partners found that across the 17 fragrances they looked at, each contained an average of four hormone-disrupting chemicals. Endocrine disruptors specifically are cause for concern because even in very small doses, they can have significant health consequences, ranging from immune and nervous system issues to altered fertility.

In addition, fragrance can be bad for your skin. Fragrances are one of the leading causes of contact dermatitis (skin irritation) in the United States, and up to one-third of adults deal with some type of fragrance sensitivity upon contact with the skin. Additionally, if you already suffer from sensitive skin or have a skin condition, a fragranced product can cause further irritation. In fact, fragrance won a special award in 2007, when the American Contact Dermatitis Society named it “Allergen of the Year”.


Fragrance isn’t just an issue in skincare – it’s also present in cosmetics, air fresheners, household products, and cleaners. If you’re looking for more information on fragrance in these products and others, we suggest you start with the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and continue your research from there.


A Better Way

Ultimately, it is up to you, as the consumer, to determine if fragranced products are right for you or not, and at what level of exposure. Fortunately, though, fragrance is not the only option to help you smell (and feel!) great. A growing number of products are available that are scented naturally, with whole ingredients such as essential oils and other non-toxic ingredients. Even better, essential oils may provide aromatherapy benefits in addition to their natural scent!


Finally, if you are searching for fragrance-free skincare products, you might be interested in our goat milk soap, lotion, and lip balms. At Madd House Hill, we are entirely fragrance-free, using only pure essential oils that are rigorously tested for quality and certified organic, free-trade, and cruelty-free. Many of our customers who have previously experienced skin sensitivity and irritation with commercial products have found great success when switching to our natural options.


Until Next Time,

Madd House Hill

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