Smell is the strongest sense tied to memory, and a pleasant scent has the potential to enrich our day in a subtle, yet valuable, way. Therefore, it’s no surprise that when we’re choosing our skin care and beauty products, scent and added fragrances play a role.
Unfortunately, not all skin care ingredients smell like roses — some even have less-than-pleasant odors. In these instances, fragrance may be added to increase the likelihood that people will be drawn to that product. Or, a company may add specific scents to target a certain age group or type of consumer. Sometimes, products sell well just because they smell incredible, not because they’re particularly effective or powerful.
In other words, the use of added fragrances in the beauty industry is incredibly common. But it’s also a hot topic — and for good reason. It’s always important to know what’s in the products you use, and added fragrances aren’t as simple as they seem. The root of the problem lies in this question: Do added fragrances cause harm? The answer is more complicated than you might expect.
What does “added fragrance” really mean?
Let’s break it down. Fragrances can be synthetic, meaning they’re created in a lab from unnatural, manmade materials, or naturally derived.
Many of the nearly 3,000 chemicals used in synthetic fragrances are derived from petrochemicals, including aldehydes, benzene derivatives, and phthalates, specifically diethyl phthalate (DEP). Companies label added scent on their ingredient list with general terms like “fragrance” or “floral” because they don’t have to disclose which chemicals are used to create that scent.
“Synthetic fragrances contain man-made materials, possibly petrochemicals. There is no transparency to the consumer — they could contain anything, including ingredients that someone is allergic to, or phthalates, a synthetic chemical that makes a fragrance last longer but may impact the body’s hormones,” explains Emilie Davidson Hoyt, the founder of LATHER Skincare. “Generally, synthetic fragrances are used to deliver aromas that cannot be created using 100% natural ingredients and because they’re available at a much lower cost than 100% natural versions,” she explains.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates fragrances used in some cosmetics, added scents are allowed to be listed as “fragrance” because requiring a company to disclose the specific chemicals they use would be considered asking them to reveal a “trade secret”, and these trade secrets are protected by other laws.
Natural fragrances are typically found in three forms: singular molecules containing smells, called aromachemicals; pure, distilled plant extracts, called essential oils; or a combination of the two, called fragrance oils. But again, manufactures aren’t required to disclose what exactly that fragrance oil is made of.
“While there is no transparency to the consumer about what makes up a natural fragrance blend, they can be assured that there are no synthetic ingredients such as phthalates or petrochemicals,” says Hoyt. “A natural fragrance blend can include essential oils, fractions of essential oils, isolates, and other plant-derived materials, but will never contain phthalates or petrochemicals.”
There are also plenty of “unscented” skincare products. But, contrary to what you might think, these formulas aren’t necessarily scent free. In fact, they may contain additional fragrances that are added to neutralize or balance out the smell of other ingredients and make the product seem unscented.
Are added fragrances bad for people and the environment?
This is a harder question to answer. Studies have exposed certain products to contain fragrances created from harmful, cancer-causing chemicals. The International Fragrance Association (IFRA) published a Transparency List outlining 2947 fragrance compounds.
This popularly cited study from the Environmental Working Group breaks down the hidden chemicals found in 17 popular perfumes and colognes. And The National Academies of Sciences presented a study several years ago outlining the dangers of styrene. This chemical building block is found in Styrofoam, cigarette smoke and liquid sprays and is a known human carcinogen, meaning it’s capable of causing cancer in living tissues.
In these cases, yes, chemically derived fragrances are potentially harmful.
Generally, how bad synthetic fragrances really are for us is a widely-debated issue. For instance, the FDA claims that phthalates, which are commonly used in fragrances, are not known to cause health risks, but according to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, extensive studies on humans have not been conducted.
Why are chemical fragrances still used if some of them are known to be dangerous?
Simply put, because it’s still legal, cheaper, and easier for companies. The bottom line is, people are highly unlikely to purchase a cosmetic product if it doesn’t smell good. Whether that requires a formulator to mask unpleasant smells with better smells, or just add smells to make the product more appealing, chemically derived scents wind up being the simpler, easier option.
Should I avoid all products with added fragrances?
Realistically, this is nearly impossible, as added fragrances are in millions of products: perfumes, lotions, shampoos, cleansers, laundry detergents, air fresheners, candles, makeup, sunscreens, and deodorants, to name just some.
For those with multiple allergies or skin conditions (such as dry or sensitive skin, rosacea, or eczema), using beauty products applied directly to the skin that have added scents is risky, as sensitive and allergy-prone skin is much more likely to have a negative reaction.
It’s also important to note that many people have allergies to plants or flowers, some of which they may be unaware of. Even if a 100% pure, organically harvested essential oil is used, someone who’s allergic will have a severe reaction.
Because every company’s fragrance differs slightly, you may react very differently to certain chemical or natural scents.
What’s the bottom line?
The final word on added fragrance may come down to personal preference and, in some regard, paranoia. Some take an attitude that avoiding anything that may be bad for the body is the best way to stay healthy, while others believe that living so cautiously is pointless and tedious.
Whichever your attitude, keep in mind that the skin is the body’s largest organ. Though it works hard to keep environmental toxins out of the body, when products with any type of added chemicals are applied directly to the skin it’s likely that many of those chemicals will be absorbed and enter the blood stream.
Ultimately, it’s important to be aware of what you’re putting on your body. Read the ingredient lists of your skin care before you purchase — and maybe think twice when you see the words “floral fragrance” on the back of a product.