The Great Skincare Debate: Is Fragrance in Your Skincare Products Okay?
In the skincare world, few topics are known to ignite controversy like the debate on fragrance in skincare. While some people are okay with fragranced skincare products, for many others any added fragrance in their skincare is an absolute no-no.
As you can imagine, there’s a huge demand for fragrance-free skincare, with many brands such as The Ordinary and the Inkey List that have amassed a cult following for their fragrance-free skincare products. But is fragrance in your skincare products really bad for you? Or is it just one of those things that have turned into taboos for no good reason other than unfounded rumours?
To find out, we tuned in to Cassandra Bankson’s excellent and extremely comprehensive video addressing the contentious issue of fragrance in skincare. For those of you who don't know, Cassandra is a medical esthetician and skincare enthusiast known for her informative and science-based YouTube videos explaining complex concepts skin and skincare ingredients.
As it turns out, there’s more to fragrance in your skincare than simply its most obvious function: which is to make your product smell good. Manufacturers will sometimes list chemical compounds as simply ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ on their ingredient lists to protect something called IP, i.e. Intellectual Property. A compound labelled as ‘fragrance’ on the ingredient list on your skincare product can contain up to hundreds of different ingredients. Companies will do this in order to prevent their competitors from copying their cosmetic formulas, so that no competitor will be able to create a product quite like theirs.
Plant extracts and essential oils are also added to products for their fragrance, but many such ingredients serve a purpose beyond just making your serum smell nice. For instance, green tea, jasmine extract, and centella asiatica are all examples of plant extracts that can add fragrance to the product while also acting as antioxidants, stabilizers and preservatives.
Phenoxyethanol, a colourless, aromatic alcohol which is used as a fragrance in many skincare products, also doubles as a preservative. Japanese honeysuckle, also known as radish root ferment filtrate, acts as a preservative, stopping the growth of mould and bacterial growth in your skincare and prolonging the shelf-life of your products. Plus, fragrance in beauty products is usually present in concentrations of less than one percent: a whole tub of a scented face cream can have only a drop of fragrance.
So is fragrance in skincare actually bad news for anyone? It can be. Some people have hypersensitivity, which is a condition where the body is hypersensitive to foreign compounds called antigens, which when introduced to the body trigger an immune response. When the body reacts like this to a certain ingredient, it can result in the skin developing an itch or a rash. However, our skin functions like a barrier, not a sponge. It is designed to repel anything that’s topically applied. Besides, hypersensitive skin is something that affects only a tiny part of the world's population; most people who use products that are fragranced will be fine.
The bottom line is this: the issue of fragrance in skincare is more complex than simply yes, all fragrance in skincare is bad or no, fragrance in skincare isn’t anything to worry about. If you’re worried that a fragranced product might cause a bad reaction, you can always patch-test it on your wrist and wait for a day or two before deciding to use it on your face or the rest of your body.
You should avoid fragrance if you have sensitive skin or a condition like eczema, which might be aggravated by fragrance. If you like your skincare products to smell nice, you can keep enjoying nice smelling products without being too worried. When fragrance is present in skincare, it’s usually present in safe quantities that will help the product smell pleasant. Because after all, we'd all rather that what we put on our skin didn't smell like old socks!