What's the Big Deal About Fragrance? (and Why You Shouldn't Use it on Your Skin)

Hi, there. A new week calls for a new blog, and this week we’re talking about fragrance.


If you have used any of the following popular skincare products, you have at some point come in contact with fragrance: 


  • Neutrogena Pink Grapefruit Acne Wash
  • Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser
  • Aveeno Clear Complexion Foaming Cleanser
  • St. Ives Fresh Skin Apricot Scrub
  • Clean & Clear Morning Burst Facial Cleanser
  • Noxzema Original Cream Cleanser

    (needless to say, this is not an exhaustive list, just a good starting point)


So what exactly is fragrance? Put simply, fragrance is any combination of chemicals or substances intended to make a product smell a certain way. It is found in everything from body washes to eye creams to facial exfoliants to enhance the experience of using these products. Research has shown that fragrance is actually a major point of preference for many consumers when buying cosmetics—scents can evoke emotion and affect a person’s sense of individuality and self-esteem. Also, on a more basic level, people just like things that smell nice. Although it is not hard to see why fragrance is such a popular ingredient in skincare products today, there are some things you should know about fragrance in order to make educated decisions about using it on your skin.


The issue with fragrance is that it does a lot more than simply make products smell good—fragrance can sensitize the skin over time and cause fragrance allergy, also known as contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis is an inflammatory skin disease triggered by direct contact with an offensive substance (i.e.: a facial cream containing fragrance). It causes a red, itchy rash over the affected area and can be highly uncomfortable. Although contact dermatitis can have several causes, fragrance is one of the top five major contact allergens and it is responsible for nearly 18% of instances of the disease. Another thing worth noting is that fragrance allergy can be developed at any point, so lack of issues with fragrance in the past does not necessarily mean they won’t arise in the future.


Furthermore, there are over 3,000 ingredients that can listed under the term ‘fragrance’ on skincare labels. That means that when you use a product with fragrance as an ingredient, you could actually be putting any of more than 3,000 unnamed chemicals on your skin.  Many of these chemicals have been scientifically linked to health issues.


Couple all of that with the fact that fragrance provides absolutely no benefit to the skin, and it becomes easy to see why this fun addition to skincare products might actually be worth avoiding. Check product labels for fragrance and if you find it, walk away. But be careful— what many consumers don't know is that fragrances can lurk even in products without “fragrance” listed as an ingredient. To make sure you’re actually in the clear, look out for these other sneaky names for fragrance you might find on ingredient labels: 


  • Balsam of peru (myroxylon pereirae)
  • Cinnamic aldehyde
  • Cinnamic alcohol
  • Sweet basil
  • Hydroxy-citronellal
  • Eugenol
  • Oak moss absolute
  • Lemon peel
  • Oil of Bergamot
  • Alpha-amyl cinnamic aldehyde
  • Aroma
  • Linalool
  • Geraniol
  • Citrus
  • Lavender
  • Perfumes
  • Colognes
  • Masking perfumes
  • Masking fragrance
  • Isoeugenol
  • Unscented perfumes
  • Aroma chemicals
  • Essential oils
  • Limonene
  • Sweet orange
  • Cassia oil
  • Cinnamon
  • Rose
  • Cloves
  • Citronella 
  • Ethylene bassylate


We know—yikes. Researchers at Northwestern University found that a staggering 45% of seemingly fragrance-free products actually do contain fragrance, often disguised under alternative names like the ones listed above. We’re not saying you can’t trust anyone, but we do ask that you be cautious when shopping for your skincare and watch out for suspicious ingredients. 


Have a question about an ingredient on a skincare label? We recommend using EWG’s Cosmetics Database, which has a mountain of information about different skincare products and the ingredients they contain.

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