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Let's talk about fragrance in skincare, why some people avoid it and why figuring out if a product contains it isn't as straightforward as you might think...
There's a small proportion of the population who develop fragrance allergies, making even walking into a room where someone just sprayed perfume an uncomfortable experience. Bona fide fragrance allergies are very rare, but it's true they are on the increase, and it can be caused by years of layering lots of different fragrances onto your face. Other people just find it a bit irritating and I personally tend to avoid it if my skin is sensitised or compromised. I'm not super obsessed with being fragrance-free personally; if the same product came in a scented and unscented version then I'd choose the latter but I wouldn't avoid under all circumstances a product containing it, it really depends on the other ingredients and how my skin is feeling. To me, we all take calculated risks every day, and that's one I'm taking. Sure, you're more likely to die in a car accident if you're a taxi driver vs. someone who walks everywhere, but does that mean every time an office worker drives to the supermarket they're risking their lives in a meaningful way? I don't really think so... It's up to you to decide where your line is and I'm not here to tell you what to do with your skin, but I review products with and without fragrance and flag this up for those who want to know.
Fragrance with a capital 'F'
Since there's been this demonisation of fragrance, I've seen a bit of a worrying trend of products marked as 'Fragrance-free' or 'suitable for sensitive skin' still containing potentially irritating fragrant extracts. I personally really loved using both the Glow Recipe Ceramide Recovery Serum and the Tata Harper Fortifying Moisturiser* but I am a little concerned about them being targeted at sensitive and compromised skin and marketed as Fragrance-free when the former contains sandalwood and lavender extracts and the latter contains lavender extract.
You might be asking how brands can make these claims; well, in the industry there's an agreement that all fragrant ingredients can be grouped together under 'Fragrance' or 'Parfum' in the INCI list. It's considered like a trade secret; for example, when you buy your favourite perfume, you aren't expecting them to give you every single ingredient in there on the back of the bottle. However, this causes a problem: you don't know what's in there. Conceivably there could be 100 ingredients used to create that fragrance and you only have to react to one of them for all products containing Fragrance to be off-limits to you in case they contain that one ingredient. However, I don't like it when brands label their products as 'fragrance-free' when they don't contain Fragrance / Parfum (or capital-F Fragrance, as I'll refer to it) but do contain other potentially problematic fragrant ingredients. If you have a true fragrance allergy: you're probably going to react to them.
Essential oils and fragrant extracts
Essential oils are widely-considered to be the 'problematic' part of an extract, as they're incredibly volatile and therefore can cause irritation in the skin. I do actually use a lot of products in my routine where they're mixes of oils, some of which are fragrant / essential, but they're listed out individually so on the off-chance I have an issue, I would be able to figure out what to avoid. This is where it gets a little more complex: the extracts like those used in the Glow Recipe and Tata Harper products aren't as problematic as the pure essential oils, and likewise: rosewater is a lot less problematic than rose essential oil, however they're going to have traces of this potential irritants. I have no issue with fragrance in skincare personally, but I think we should all be able to make informed choices based on the correct information, and I personally find it misleading to advertise something as free from fragrance if it contains trace amounts of volatile fragrant essential oils.
Aroma isn't fragrance
To round it out and add another layer of confusion: all smells aren't fragrance! I use products with ingredients like cumin, turmeric and cucumber extract, all of which can give a product a particular smell, however they are great ingredients that don't have the volatility that causes skin irritation. You might be puzzled as to how you're supposed to know the difference and it is confusing. I personally use the Paula's Choice ingredient dictionary. I don't take everything on there at face value or use it as The Law when it comes to deciding if an ingredient is 'good' or 'bad', however if you want to know whether an ingredient is fragrant or not, you can look it up on there and it will tell you if it's sensitising fragrance or if it's simply the aroma of a beneficial ingredient that you're catching a whiff of!
Ultimately, your stance on fragrance in skincare is your choice: some people avoid it altogether, others find it ok as long as all the ingredients are listed out individually, others might find it ok in a wash-off product like a cleanser but not in a leave-on product like a moisturiser, others find it fine in general but would avoid it with a more potentially-irritating ingredient like ascorbic acid or glycolic acid and I'm sure there are many more variations! I'm personally fine with it but avoid it if my skin is feeling tender, just like I'd avoid some of my heavier-duty actives under those circumstances, as I'm focusing on zero irritation and really rebuilding my skin's resilience. And, this post isn't intended to fear-monger over fragrance: as you can see, I use it in my routine. I just feel we should have transparent marketing and be empowered with knowledge to make decisions for our skin!
Do you use fragrance in your skincare routine?