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What’s the Deal With Fragrance?

Ok - let’s talk about fragrance. In the world of clean skincare, the term fragrance has become a big yellow flag (to say the least) for a lot of reasons.

But, at the same time, who doesn’tlove something that smells fresh and delicious? And what exactly makes fragrance “bad”?

Let’s break it down and explain the problem with fragrance, what to keep in mind, and where you can still enjoy a good scent.

Defining Fragrance

What are we even talking about when we use the term “fragrance?” Well, the term actually applies to a few different things - and that contributes to both the confusion and the problem.

1: Fragrance = Smell

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On one hand - and on the “safest” side of this conversation - fragrance refers to the naturally occurring scent you’d find in a flower, a fruit, or essential oil.

For many, these natural scents are part of what attracts them to many skincare products. It smells so great. It smells fresh. I love it! Smells so good!

That’s part of why this kind of fragrance is incorporated into products in the first place.

But, as innocent as this seems (particularly when the fragrance comes from such “green” sources) there is a degree of risk here.

Most fragrant ingredients impart scent through a volatile reaction of some sort - and, as you probably could guess, “volatile reactions” aren’t really good news for the skin. In fact, research has shown that fragrance is one of the most common skin irritants, often causing sensitization or other negative reactions. And this is true for all skin types -not just sensitive or acne-prone skin.

Specifically, doctors often see significant issues with citrus oils - including lemon, lime, tangerine, grapefruit, mandarin, and bergamot - and mint oils such as peppermint, wintergreen, pennyroyal, and balm mint. What’s worse, the skin can hide this irritation so you won’t be able to see that there’s a problem.

That’s why many experts maintain that the cons are much more substantial than the pros when it comes to highly fragrant, essential oil-rich skincare products.

2. Fragrance = Chemicals

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On the other side of the coin, there’s also synthetic fragrance.Additionally, the term “fragrance” itself is often a cop-out used by many companies that don’twant to admit to all the chemicals that they have in their products. And this is a huge problem.

At their most basic, these “fragrances” are engineered scents or flavoring agents that may contain any combination of 3,000-plus stock chemical ingredients, including hormone disruptors and allergens. That's why they're on our list of harmful ingredients we don't use.  

What’s worse - these fragrance formulas are protected under federal law’s classification of trade secrets and therefore can remain undisclosed. Yikes!

Once again, the biggest problem here is that, if you don’t pay attention, you might think that you’re in the clear because your skin isn’t showing obvious signs of irritation. But the reality is that the skin is really good at hiding when it’s being aggravated - so while you may not notice any concerns right away, the damage can be adding up over time.

It’s kind of like a sunburn. Usually, you don’t really noticea sunburn while it’s happening, but hours later you’ll start to get red - and YEARS later, you’ll start seeing sunspots, wrinkles, and other signs of accumulated damage.

It’s the same thing with fragrance-caused irritation.

How to Spot Fragrances That Irritate the Skin

So what should you do? Your best bet is to keep a lookout for ingredients that are known to cause irritation and go fragrance-free when you can. These known irritants include:

And remember - you won’t be able to tell if a product contains irritants just by smelling it. You can’t identify all hidden ingredients from a whiff alone. Plus, an offending product may actually have no aroma because the fragrance is actually included to mask the odor of the real skincare ingredients which don’t smell agreeable.

In other words, the fragrance is added to get rid of a bad scent!

The Silver Lining: Not All Scents Cause Irritation

The good news? Not allfragrances will cause sensitization, so you don’t have to nix everythingthat smells nice. Some natural ingredients have a pleasant fragrance but cause no irritation and are great for the skin. These include:

  • Melon
  • Vanilla
  • Cucumber
  • Aloe vera
  • Almond
  • Mango
  • Coconut
  • Cocoa butter
  • Shea butter

Key Takeaways

  • The word "fragrance" is often a blanket term for bad chemicals hiding in a product
  • Even natural fragrances can be irritating to the skin
  • Not all fragranced products cause irritation, so there’s still a lot you can enjoy