Fragrance in Skin Care: Derms Weigh In on the Social Media Backlash Toward Scented Products

Tanyel Mustafa
·14-min read
Shop assistant helps customer to choose  blush, standing next to cosmeticsm shelfs
Shop assistant helps customer to choose blush, standing next to cosmeticsm shelfs

If you've spent any time perusing the online beauty community, be it a skin-care subreddit, YouTube channel, or Facebook group, you may have noticed a fearful, if not hostile, attitude toward fragrance in skin care emerging. Over the past couple of years, self-described "skintellectuals" (someone who has a good understanding of their own skin and its needs, but not necessarily anyone else's) are advising people across social media to ditch all traces of fragrance from their skin-care routines, warning that you will face skin irritation. The thing is, according to dermatologists and cosmetic chemists, it's really not that simple.

The Online War Against Fragrance in Skin Care

Several months ago, I joined a particular Facebook group that holds this view and is filled with passionate skintellectuals who read through any and all conversations happening around the subject of fragrance in skin care - interjecting regularly to criticize and warn people away from it. What struck me was how adamant some members were, which is why you'd be forgiven for mistaking their comments as fact. However, as London-based consultant dermatologist Emma Craythorne pointed out, these views are subjective. "For the most part, [fragrance in skin care] won't cause problems, but for a few people, it will."

The Facebook group I joined has over 40,000 members, and I've witnessed many antifragrance posts and comments. Regularly, I'd see people post pictures of their skin-care routine (often for fun), only to be met with frantic comments from people advising that they promptly take out any fragranced products. Knowing how active this particular community is, I decided to post a poll to find out just how uncomfortable people are with the presence of fragrance in their skin care, asking, "Does anyone in the group like fragrance in skin care sometimes?" I wanted to ensure that the gradual demonizing of fragrance I've seen wasn't only the view of a few loud voices dominating the feel of the group. The answer was pretty clear: Out of 202 responses, 107 people said "I try my best to avoid it most of the time," 52 people said it "depends on the product," 28 people said "I like fragrance!", while 15 people said "fragrance is always a turn-off."

Granted, my pool of responses was small, so I spoke to Tash, 24, who has been a part of this group for some time. Though she does her own research, she knows the group has partially influenced her skin-care experience. The group allows people to "have more knowledge at their fingertips," Tash explained, though it begs the question: how reliable is this knowledge? If people solely rely on influencers and community groups for information, they're going to be left intimidated by or put off of some ingredients due to word of mouth alone. Trained scientific voices are often missing.

"Word of mouth is important, but you and your friend may have different concerns," cosmetic chemist Ginger King told POPSUGAR, adding that "people ask me 'What do you use?' and what I'm using doesn't have anything to do with you because we have different skin." Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to be the ethos within these types of social groups, as Tash often sees members "jumping on the bandwagon" of other people's comments.

Tash has her suspicions that fragrance might irritate her skin with prolonged use but admitted she "couldn't tell you" if the culprit definitely is fragrance. And therein lies the major issue.

Why Are People So Afraid of Fragrance in Skin Care?

Allergen of the Year Award

The truth of the matter is that fragrance can be an irritant and cause negative reactions on the skin. "Fragrances are found in a wide variety of cosmetics, cleaning supplies, medications, foods, personal-hygiene products, and more," said Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Entière Dermatology in New York City. "Fragrances are known as one of the leading causes of allergic contact dermatitis (ACD) and can also cause other skin conditions such as irritant contact dermatitis, contact urticaria (hives from application of an allergen such as cinnamic aldehyde, menthol, balsam of Peru, cinnamates), photo-allergic reaction, [and] phototoxic reaction."

"There are strict regulations around ingredients, including fragrance, which is important to remember if messages like this are causing you to hesitate when using fragranced products." - Dr. Anjali Mahto

The association between fragrance and allergic contact dermatitis became publicized in 2007, when the American Contact Dermatitis Society (ACDS) named "fragrance" as the Allergen of the Year, said Shari Marchbein, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and clinical assistant professor of dermatology at NYU School of Medicine. And while it's true - "fragrances can absolutely be sensitizing and cause eczema and other skin reactions," explained Dr. Marchbein - the issue with calling out "fragrance" in general is that you're referring to a huge category comprising a lot of different kinds of ingredients and molecules. In skin care, there are natural fragrances and synthetic fragrances, and often times the fragrance used in a product is a mix of several different types of ingredients, making it hard to pinpoint exactly what someone may be allergic to.

The Clean Beauty Movement Has Come For Fragrance

Part of this antifragrance campaign has come from the clean beauty and "free-from" movements. With brands like Drunk Elephant labeling fragrance as one of their "Suspicious 6" and Paula's Choice claiming fragrance-free is "best for everyone," it's not surprising that people are anxious about using it.

"The problem with [the free-from trend] is it creates this idea that these ingredients must be dangerous because people are removing them," said Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist at Skin55 Dermatology in London. "But there are strict regulations around ingredients, including fragrance, which is important to remember if messages like this are causing you to hesitate when using fragranced products." This is especially true in the UK and the EU, where ingredient regulations are stricter than in America, and more ingredients are banned from being used in beauty products.

"The issue is that ingredients in skin care are complex and shouldn't be labeled as good or bad," Dr. Levin said. "With fragrances specifically, multiple fragrances can be added to a single skin-care product." Dr. Mahto reiterated this, adding that a product is more than its ingredient list; it's about the formulation and concentrations, too. "Isolating an ingredient list won't reveal everything there is to know about a product's suitability for your skin. What started off as useful to educate the consumer about certain ingredients has gone almost to a total extreme where people are so obsessed with the ingredient and what it does," she continued. "I think we've lost sight of what the function and purpose of the product is. If you pride yourself on being a skintellectual, that's great, but you don't need to be afraid of everything - there are social media trends, and then there's real life."

"The issue is that ingredients in skin care are complex and shouldn't be labeled as good or bad. With fragrances specifically, multiple fragrances can be added to a single skin-care product." - Dr. Melissa Levin

The complexity of skin-care formulations is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to why your skin might be reacting negatively to a product. There are many factors that can go into why a product has caused your skin to react, Dr. Levin said. "Whether or not it can cause an allergic contact dermatitis depends on a variety of factors such as the allergen concentration, how long the allergen is applied on the skin, the status of the skin barrier, and frequency of application - e.g., products that are leave-on products with fragrances are more likely to cause contact dermatitis than a wash-off product. More fragrance ingredients in a product are also more risky than a limited fragranced product."

A Lack of Transparency on the Packaging

Part of what's inciting fear is the fact that the language used on products can be misleading or unclear. "It's important that consumers understand that 'fragrance-free' or 'unscented' are not the same," Dr. Levin explained. "'Fragrance-free' refers to the lack of chemicals that are added to enhance aroma or mask an odor. 'Unscented' means that a product lacks a scent, however there may be masking fragrances to eliminate the odor. 'Natural' or 'green' products can also contain botanical essential oils, which can cause allergic contact dermatitis."

This lack of clarity and the need for "ingredient transparency" as championed by the clean beauty and free-from movement has also led to a mistrust of fragrance by consumers. "Fragrance is sometimes just listed as 'fragrance,' so you don't know what's actually in there," King explained. "For someone with particularly vulnerable skin, this is a valid concern, though it's in the interests of beauty brands to tell consumers what's good and bad for the skin in order to sell a product."

Adding to the confusion is the lack of regulation around how skin-care products are labeled, Dr. Marchbein said. Take, for example, the term hypoallergenic. "Hypoallergenic is a term used when pertaining to cosmetics that literally means the products/ingredients are unlikely to cause an allergic reaction. Using hypoallergenic or fragrance-free products are most important for those with sensitive or eczema-prone skin or those with multiple skin allergies," Dr. Marchbein said.

However, because the term hypoallergenic (and fragrance-free, for that matter) is unregulated, "it's up to the consumer to carefully read all labels and especially the ingredient list on the back of the package," Dr. Marchbein said. "An important article published in JAMA Dermatology this month uncovered that upwards of 83 percent of hypoallergenic whole-body moisturizers contain some potential allergic chemical and 45 percent of fragrance-free products have at least one ingredient that still has an allergic potential and can [cause] adverse reactions when used."

All in all, Dr. Marchbein sums up the issue that could clear up this fragrance debate once and for all: "There needs to be more standardization of how skin-care products are regulated and labeled."

Who Should Actually Be Concerned About Fragrance in Skin Care?

According to dermatologists, people with sensitive skin and/or compromised skin barriers are more susceptible to having problems with fragrance. "There is a small group of people who need to be careful with fragranced skin care," Dr. Mahto explained. "These are people with chronic inflammatory skin conditions where there's a problem with the skin barrier. If you've got a condition like eczema, psoriasis, or rosacea, then you may be more sensitive to fragrances."

Still, as we said earlier, the issue of fragrance in skin care is a complex one and the rules aren't always clear cut. "It's correct to say that those who have a compromised skin barrier with conditions such as eczema, rosacea, and psoriasis are at an increased risk of developing contact dermatitis to allergens such as fragrances. However, it does not mean that all persons with a compromised skin barrier will have a reaction to fragrances every time they use a fragranced product," Dr. Levin said. "With a lot of these conditions, it can be up and down," Dr. Mahto added. "If you're having an eczema flare-up, you're much more likely to be sensitive to fragrance. But actually, if [your skin is] stable and you're not experiencing a flare-up, you may be able to tolerate it."

People with sensitive skin - meaning their skin is overly reactive and feels burning or tingling sensations when products are applied - are also more at risk of having a negative reaction to fragrance in skin care. "Sensitive skin is almost universally found in the same people who may experience rosacea, eczema, dry skin, allergies, and asthma," Dr. Marchbein said. "If you have sensitive skin, you know how hard it is to find skin-care products that you not only tolerate but that feel good on the skin. For those with skin sensitivities, I recommend using fragrance-free products and being cautious with any product or chemical/ingredient that may exacerbate irritation or inflammation."

Those who suffer from acne may also want to proceed with caution, although the verdict is still out until more research is done. According to Dr. Craythorne, new studies have been released that suggest the potential for fragranced skin care to be irritating varies with different types of acne. Overall, Dr. Mahto - who specializes in acne - said that acne-prone skin tends to be resilient, not overly sensitive. A common problem she's seen in those with acne is a tendency to overwash in an attempt to strip away oil. This, in turn, makes the skin more vulnerable to irritation from fragrances and other allergens.

On the flip side, those without sensitive skin or a compromised skin barrier can also develop a reaction to fragrances, Dr. Levin said. It's why dermatologists generally tend to advocate for a simplified skin-care routine to minimize the risk of skin conditions that can develop from exposures to fragrances and recommend that anyone with a skin condition always exercise caution when it comes to fragranced skin care.

Doctors Weigh In on the Wash-Off Debate

There have been claims within these Facebook groups that wash-off fragranced products are less allergenic than leave-on products. This isn't strictly true, either, although the rules above still apply: if you have a skin-barrier issue, you still should avoid scented products, even in a wash-off formulation.

Dr. Mahto explained there are rules that dictate brands have to "have lower concentrations of certain ingredients that might otherwise cause irritation when left on the skin," and this concentration allowance increases for wash-off products to ensure their effectiveness. Dr. Craythorne advised that "if you can still smell it after washing, the residual molecules are still there."

If You're Concerned About Fragrance in Your Skin Care, the Key Is to Narrow Down the Culprits

If you are constantly experiencing reactions to skin-care products or suspect your skin might not like fragranced products, the best course of action is to get to a dermatologist who can help get to the bottom of exactly what ingredients are causing contact dermatitis.

"As board-certified dermatologists [in the United States], we perform allergy patch testing to assess for allergic contact dermatitis to allergens such as fragrances. Once diagnosed with an allergic contact dermatitis, avoidance is the treatment, which can be difficult and frustrating," Dr. Levin said.

When Fragrance in Skin Care Can Sometimes Be a Good Thing

There are plenty of reasons fragrance might be included in a formulation, the most obvious being how scent affects mood. Different fragrances will do different things for the mind and emotions - lavender, for example is relaxing, while peppermint is energizing - "so there is an aromatherapy benefited associated with scent," King said.

As well as having the potential to elevate the consumer's mood, fragrance can sometimes elevate the product itself. "A lot of people find that using fragrances adds luxury to the product," Dr. Mahto said. "It creates a much nicer user experience." Adding another sensorial layer to a product can emulate the feeling of being in a spa, treating oneself, or just simply making time for self-care and mindfulness. Within the luxury beauty market especially, consumers will judge a product on its fragrance.

On a practical level, adding fragrance is sometimes done to mask a bad scent cause by an active ingredient. The product without fragrance could smell unpleasant, which would surely cause some people to stop using it. "Fragrance in those situations is a really good idea," Dr. Craythorne said.

In the End, the Important Thing Is to Be Consistent

Many of the experts agreed that it is far better to regularly use a fragranced product than to inconsistently use a fragrance-free one. Dr. Craythorne believes that fragrances can help elevate creams, serums, and lotions so they become an "emotive experience," and that stimulation means someone is more likely to reuse it.

If you want to use a scented skin-care product but are still unsure, Dr. Craythorne noted that aloe vera, vanilla, melon, cucumber, mango, and coconut are good options to look out for. They smell fresh and pleasant (depending on your tastes) yet tend to be gentle. Some ingredients to avoid if you're in the sensitive category include limonene, cinnamyl, and citronella. These allergens are commonly used, but don't fall into the trap of thinking they will always cause problems for everyone. It's a myth.

There's a happy medium to be found between science and pleasure - even the most committed skin buffs need to find joy in their routines. In fact, Tash's favorite night cream - which she's been committed to for years - has fragrance, even though she has some reservations about it being in skin care. "I couldn't even tell you what it smells of . . . but it makes me happy," she said. In among her otherwise fragrance-free skin-care lineup, that mood-boosting cream isn't going anywhere.