Scent is an important part of human life. Our memories, our emotions, and even our perception of time are all influenced by the smells that surround us. But when it comes to skincare, it’s also a divisive issue. From the rise of food-scented makeup in the 1930s to Rihanna’s latest Fenty Skin launch, fragrance has inspired countless debates — along with allergic reactions and hormone disruption.
In a video explaining the inspiration behind her tropically-scented new line, Rihanna said that fragrance “is a crucial part of the experience” for her when it comes to beauty. “It’s a huge part of the texture, the lathering...I want you to always feel triggered and have an emotion connected to that experience.”
But not everyone is a fan. “Fragrance is a bit of a polarizing ingredient in skincare and makeup,” esthetician Nicole Hatfield says. “If people are sensitive to fragrance...it can cause them to react, especially if you are already prone to allergic reactions from other ingredients.”
From the earliest days of the modern beauty industry, cosmetic companies have been playing around with the smells of fruits and florals, the notes of woods and musks. Who can forget the fruity florals of Lancome’s Juicy Tube in the ‘90s, or the distinct vanilla cupcake fragrance of MAC Lipglass’s puzzling 2018 turn towards culinary inspiration. It’s no surprise that fragrance has found its way into the beauty aisle, where a luxe scent can be the thing that sets one moisturizer or eyeshadow palette apart from the many others. But for some people, it can also cause a skincare debacle.
“Allergies or sensitivities to fragrance are very common and can cause mild to severe health effects,” Blair Murphy-Rose, MD, says. One 2019 study found that, out of four countries surveyed, 32.2% of adults reported fragrance sensitivity. For 9.5% of people, the severity of the health effects was considered disabling. But even if you don’t notice the effects on your skin, fragrance can still be wreaking havoc under the surface throwing your hormones out of balance.
Synthetic vs. Natural Fragrances
There is a difference between synthetic and natural fragrances. While the two types of scent are distinct, one is not definitively safer than the other.
Essential oils (sometimes seen on ingredient labels as “extracts,” which are a diluted form of the oil) are obtained through plant material and often appear in products that bill themselves as “natural.” (Essential oils are just one type of “natural” scent, which, according to the International Fragrance Association, is defined as being extracted through physical means and not chemically changed in any way.)
But just because these oils are deemed “natural” doesn’t mean they’re safe for everyone. “Essential oils, including tea tree oil, ylang-ylang, lemongrass, sandalwood, clove lime seed oil, lemon peel oil, limonene, linalool, and citronellol, are common causes of allergic contact dermatitis,” says Hadley King, MD. Certain essential oils like lavender and tea tree oil are also now thought to be potential endocrine disruptors.
Synthetic fragrances contain chemicals that are not found in nature. These lab made fragrances can contain endocrine disruptors, such as parabens and phthalates, that mimic hormones or disrupt the production of certain hormones leading to imbalances, “but it’s important to note that synthetic fragrance can be made without these ingredients,” King adds.
This type of fragrance does not necessarily cause more allergic reactions than those considered “natural”; in fact, it may be the opposite. “Most dermatologists and allergists see more allergies due to the use of the mixtures of various essential oils than with the use of products containing synthetic fragrances,” King says.
If you’ve never had a reaction to a product containing essential oils, you may think you are in the clear. But according to King, the risk of sensitivity and hormone disruption appears to grow with repeated exposure to the oil, particularly among people like massage therapists who are consistently interacting with these products. (This is true of many allergens, according to Johns Hopkins’ Medicine.)
Allergic Reactions to Fragrance
Allergic reactions to fragrance fall into two categories: immediate hypersensitivity reactions and delayed hypersensitivity reactions. Immediate hypersensitivity reactions typically occur within minutes of applying a product. Signs of this type of reaction will vary by person but can include, “headaches, itchiness or redness around the area of application, sneezing, rashes, and muscle aches,” Hatfield says. In rare cases, fragrance can cause anaphylactic shock.
“The delayed type is also called contact dermatitis and typically occurs a few days after the exposure. It’s a reaction to the fragrance physically touching the skin,” Murphy-Rose says. “Possible signs and symptoms include redness, itching, burning, swelling, scaling, and blisters.” The American Academy Of Dermatology (AAD) notes that fragrance is a leading cause of contact dermatitis, as are poison ivy, latex, and cement.
One of the problems with fragrance allergies is that they can range in severity. If you suspect you are having a reaction, King says to wash your face or body immediately, apply hydrocortisone cream, and take Benadryl orally. If it becomes worse, seek medical attention.
Reactions that are more minor can pose a different set of problems as they are sometimes hard to pin on fragrance. In these cases, your skin may show symptoms of minor irritation like redness that can often be confused with acne or other skin issues. You can start to determine the cause by eliminating your fragranced product to see if your skin clears up, or seek more information about how your hormones are being impacted by doing things like hormonal testing.
The Problem with Labels
Labels are notoriously tricky to understand, and it doesn’t help that regulations vary from country to country, especially between products made in the U.S. and those in Europe. But once you know what to look out for, it is much easier to figure out if fragrance may be hiding in your lotions and glosses.
In Europe, these allergenic fragrances must be clearly marked (if they appear in concentrations greater than 0.001% in leave-on products and 0.01% in rinse-off products), but the same standard does not apply if you’re shopping in the United States, where the FDA does not require companies to label exactly what fragrances are in their product. Instead, fragrance molecules or essential oils can be listed under the umbrella-term “fragrance.”
“I don't think many consumers know that the word ‘fragrance’ or ‘perfume’ on a product label is a placeholder for another 10-20 fragrance molecules that make up that product's signature scent,” Skotnicki says.
This decision is one designed with business in mind, rather than health. The vagueness of the term is such that brands need not reveal their “trade secrets” or, more precisely, they can keep mum on the exact composition of their proprietary scent ingredients (though many companies will choose to make this information public anyway).
“Unscented” Doesn’t Mean “Fragrance Free”
To further complicate matters, the terms ‘unscented’ and ‘fragrance-free’ are not synonymous. Fragrance-free is a part of the EPA’s ‘Safer Choice’ label and it means that the product is, “verified to be free of chemicals that impart or mask a scent.” “Unscented,” on the other hand, means that, while a product has no discernible scent on the nose, it’s likely to contain chemicals that neutralize the odors of other ingredients, because beauty products don’t smell particularly appealing on their own.
Just take Biologique Recherche’s popular P-50 lotion, which is fragrance-free and known for its vinegary, spoiled milk, slightly garbagey scent. Author and former chairman of Chanel, Jill Kargman, told The New York Times, “[P50] smells beyond, like something you’d pour in your car engine. My husband actually hates it because of the smell, but I started using it a year ago and I haven’t had a blackhead since.”
While Rihanna might disagree, those sensitive to fragrance can take comfort in the fact that a pleasant scent isn’t everything.