Ingredient Spotlight – Fragrance


Sorry for the lack of blog posts everyone! It’s been a crazy 2 weeks, I’ve been in Vietnam organising wedding things, catching up with family and having some time to enjoy the food and my surroundings. Getting sick a few days ago didn’t help either but I think I am now back on track. I have been busy working on some upcoming Ingredient Spotlight posts! Today’s Ingredient Spotlight, looks at the addition of fragrance in our skincare and beauty products. 

Fragrance is one of those ingredients that many of our products that we currently own contain, some of us sensitive skincare types will try to avoid and beauty guru Paula Begoin of Paula’s Choice (and many other beauty gurus) are strongly against. But what is fragrance exactly? And what does it mean when it is listed in our personal care products? 

What is Fragrance:
According to the EWG (Envrionmental Working Group), the term fragrance or ‘parfum’ refers to undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals and ingredients used as fragrance dispersants such as diethyl phthalate. Fragrance can be made up of both synthetic materials or natural essential oils and is generally used to replicate a smell of a particular ingredient or to mask the smell of others. Unfortunately since the ingredient list for the fragrance itself isn’t disclosed, we will not know what ‘fragrance’ is actually compromised of. In many cases, the ingredient list of ‘fragrance’ itself can actually be longer than the actual product itself! 

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Fragrance is generally used to mask other scents or can be used to give a product a particular smell or create a sense of luxury or indulgement. However, there is no functional purpose to the ingredient fragrance. It basically means, that whilst it may be added into our skincare or personal care products, it doesn’t serve an active purpose and in some cases can cause irritation to the skin. 

The Fragrance Loophole
So why are companies allowed to just list ‘fragrance’ as an ingredient and get away with it? The simple answer is that there is a loophole in personal care manufacturing whereby companies can just use the term fragrance to protect their intellectual property or ‘trade secrets’. The American FDA made this loophole for perfume companies back in 1966 under the Fair Packaging and Labelling Act, whereby the regulation aimed to protect companies from their competitor. Nowadays, it not only protects them from their competitors but also doesn’t allow us as consumers to make informed choices about the products that we use. 

In 2003, the EU Cosmetics Directive stated after a report was conducted that 26 fragrance substances must be listed in product ingredient listings due to number of positive reactions shown in previous scientific research. This is only applicable to products in the European Union and not those in the United States. This directive is a stepping stone in to more clearer and transparent ingredient listings. 

What Are Some of the Chemicals That are Used in ‘Fragrance’?
After some research on fragrance, I have discovered some scary facts on what fragrance can be compromised of. As mentioned earlier, the ingredient ‘fragrance’ can be compromised of many different ingredients, some spanning 200-500 different ingredients both of natural and synthetic origin. Synthetic fragrance ingredients are often derived from petroleum (mineral/crude oil) in fact a total of 95% of synthetic fragrances are derived from this which is scary considering that I am generally so against mineral oil in many of my skincare products. 

Fragrance used in skincare products also have been found to contain some extremely irritating ingredients to the skin such as the list of chemicals below:

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That list above is just skimming the surface, the American Academy of Dermatology confirms that there are about 5000 different molecules that are currently used by companies in their ‘fragrance’ formulations. The list above only covers 55 different types, but 5000 different components to make ‘fragrance’ is a scary of cocktail of ingredients. 

Many of the above ingredients are known ingredients to cause allergic reactions in test subjects in scientific research. The worst culprits are hydroxyisohexyl-3-cyclohexane carboxaldehyde, atranol and chloroatranol which since 2011, are being/have been phased out in the European Union but not yet in the US. 

Studies on the Effect of Products that Contain ‘Fragrance’ on the Skin
The Environmental Working Group lists the ingredient Fragrance as an 8/10, with 10 being the most toxic and dangerous to human health. The reason for this rating is there are many scientific studies in regards to fragrance and the impact it might have on human health. It has been confirmed by many studies that human are more likely to develop or get contact dermatitis. In a clinical review published in the American Journal of Dermatology published in 2003, 1-3% of tested patients had a reaction to the compound hydroxyisohexyl-3-cyclohexane carboxaldehyde, which is commonly found in ‘fragrance’. It also states that at that time, out of the 2500 compounds that fragrance can be compromised of, 100 of those compounds are actually known allergens. The same review also looked at another study whereby it explores that 10% of eczema patients tested had a reaction to fragrance or a fragrance mix when patch tested. 

In a study published this year, Thai scientists looked at the effect of 26 fragrance compounds and their effect on humans. The study compromised of 312 participants who were patch tested with these 26 ingredients. The results from the study showed that there were a positive allergic reaction of contact dermatitis to 84 of the 312 ingredients, the most common being cinnamyl alcohol. It is also important to note that 26 of the fragrance compounds are ingredients that have been listed by the EU Cosmetics Directive that must show on ingredient listings, these ingredients are not required in the US. 

Another study conducted in Korea and published in 2005, looked at the frequency of allergic responses of patients across 9 dermatology departments in a span of one year to certain fragrance compounds. The study showed that there was a high frequency of allergic reactions to popular fragrance compounds such as cinnamic alcohol and sandalwood essential oil. It also found that most cases of allergic reactions were patch tests on the face in comparison to other parts of the body. 

A detailed report complied by the European Commission in 2011 called ‘Opinion on Fragrance Allergens in Cosmetics’, also looked at many different studies with reference to fragrance and the allergies and reactions associated fragrance. The study looked at several scientific studies both in Europe but also in other continents such as Asia and the US. It concluded that contact allergies to ‘fragrances is a common, significant and relevant problem in Europe’. It was found that European residents, around 16% of European eczema sufferers are sensitive to fragrance ingredients. According to the report, 12 ingredients were of special interest as patients generally were most sensitive to the below ingredients:

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Overall, there are many, many studies that show the frequency or the likelihood of contact dermatitis or allergic reaction that people can have to these undisclosed chemical fragrance ingredients. However, despite this, companies are able to continue to hide these ingredients from consumers using one word on their ingredient listing – ‘fragrance’. Companies choose to use fragrance to mask certain smells in the products or to attract a certain customer. For example, a more luxurious body cream may contain some floral notes which may attract a lady in her 40s or 50s, the smell is more refined and more sophisticated, whereas a product marketed for teens may smell more ‘sweet’ and ‘fruity’ which gives it the allure of fun and youth. 

What About Fragrance Free?

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Fragrance free isn’t all what it is cracked up to be either and as a consumer, we must be really careful and check the ingredients! Fragrance free simply means that the ingredient ‘fragrance’ is not listed in the ingredients listing. Like the term ‘natural’ it doesn’t really mean much legally, it just means that ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ is not listed. Fragrance free products may have a scent still. Sometimes, these fragrance free products may contain irritating essential oils (such as sandalwood or lavender) or some of the fragrance compounds listed above which can potentially irritate the skin. It in fact might not be ‘fragrance free’ at all as it contains certain synthetic fragrance compounds. If you are sensitive to fragrances, double check those ingredient lists! The good thing about fragrance free is even though there may be a fragrance compound in there, it is listed and from there, an educated choice can be made by the consumer. 

Unscented products also are not completely devoid of fragrance. It could be quite the opposite actually. The term unscented means that the product may contain a compound classified as a fragrance and is used as a masking agent. Bottomline, is that is prevents the nose from smelling any unpleasant odours from the actual ingredients.  

If you are allergic to fragrance, its actually best to stick with the ‘fragrance free’ products and double check the ingredient listings for any potential triggers. Even though it may contain fragrance compounds, they are at least listed and you are able to avoid them if needed. Also trust your nose, if you smell a product and it smells extremely flowery or citrusy when stated it is fragrance free or unscented – then clearly the smell is coming from somewhere. 

Why I Can’t Quit Fragrance
After doing research of fragrance, I am really surprised with just how inaccurate my trusted ingredient listing can be on my personal care products due to ‘fragrance’. It’s quite scary to know the potential cocktail of ingredients that are not listed in my products and how much conclusive data there is out there with regards to how these ingredients react to the skin and cause allergic reactions. 

Despite this, I can’t help but sometimes enjoy the pleasant smell that I get from some of the products that I use. I know that I won’t be throwing out any of the products that I use that contain fragrance any time soon. The reason? Some of my favourite tried and tested products contain fragrance and yes, whilst I do have sensitive skin, I have’t reacted and these products just work for me. I am fully aware myself of the dangers that fragrance products contain and whilst I have read the research (and trust me there is ALOT out there), I choose to continue to use products with fragrance or parfum listed in the ingredients as I do believe the concentrations are low (generally one of the last on the ingredients list) and the smell of a product actually brings me some happiness and joy.

I believe that whilst you should be careful of what you put on your skin (and believe me I am!) you must also enjoy it. My skincare routine in an experience. Skincare for me is a luxury, a hobby, an enjoyment and something that I look forward to in the morning and evening. If I took away all the products that contained fragrance, or smells that I love, then I think a lot of the enjoyment of skincare will be gone for me! Continuing to use products with fragrance is my own educated choice and as long as I do not react to the products or the smell isn’t so strong, then I will most likely continue to use products with fragrance. Yes, I know I probably will get a lot of backlash from saying that, but it is my own personal choice and I am fully aware of the reactions fragrance can cause. 

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I guess, what I really do dislike is the fact that companies continuously hide what they put in their products and that ingredients are not completely transparent to the consumer. This annoys me greatly and the fact I have now just read that in the ingredient ‘fragrance’ itself can contain up to 200-500 different ingredients astounds me. I also am really quite shocked at how some companies are able to hide ingredients such as cinnamyl alcohol which clearly through studies show that there is a high frequency of reactions in people. 

Despite the fact that I will continue to use products with a scent, I wanted to share and summarise with everyone the terms fragrance, what it meant, the scientific studies and how it can effect many people out there. Going forward, I will look for certain ingredients and if I can, I will try to opt for the fragrance free version or try my best to avoid products with synthetic fragrances and steer towards those that use essential oils more. After reading this, I hope I am able to give you some insight on what fragrance is and from there, you are able to make your own choices on the ingredient.

Do you avoid fragrance in products? What are your thoughts on fragrance? Are you allergic to certain fragrances? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!


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