Fragrance Free Skincare: Everything You Need to Know

by | Last updated Apr 18, 2020 | 5 comments

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Fragrance in skincare. What’s the deal with it?

fragrance free skincare aveeno

On one hand we have companies and experts like Paula’s Choice that swear fragrance is satan in disguise, meanwhile dozens of beauty bloggers and Pinterest gurus say it’s not a problem altogether.

Heck, even the Environmental Working Group gives fragrance a nefarious 8/10 rating for health concerns citing allergies and immunotoxicity as the problem. It almost makes fragrance sound like cancer outright!

But what does science have to say about this whole ordeal? Let’s take an objective look to find out! We’ll be discussing why fragrance can be bad, who should stay clear of it and how, types of fragrances, and last but not least — give product recommendations to help steer those with sensitivities in the right direction.

The Bad About Fragrance.

I’ll keep this short and sweet. Contrary to what the skin experts at Paula’s Choice say, the idea that fragrance causes “invisible inflammation” is largely unsubstantiated. What is true however, is that fragrance is a fairly common allergy affecting 1-5% of the general population. It’s also the most common cause of contact dermatitis. (1)

Rest assured though, unless you specifically have an allergy to fragrance there’s no need to go through the rest of your life smelling like wet dog out of fear that flowery-smelling lotions will cause premature aging.

How will you know you’re allergic? Easy. You’ll turn into a red hot tomato. Just kidding… sort of. But in all seriousness, you’ll develop some form of inflammation — dermatitis, hives, and other rash-like conditions being the most common reactions. (2) In very rare cases anaphylaxis can occur.

Who Should Stay Clear of Fragrance?

Anyone with a compromised epidermal barrier. People with eczema are especially suspect. In fact, research has shown that fragrance allergy is most common among women with facial or hand eczema, or who have a history of rashes to perfume or deodorants. (3)

What makes this especially frustrating for eczema sufferers, is that fragrance is present in 15-100% of all cosmetic products. Even “fragrance free” products pose a threat because their use of preservatives or botanical extracts often include fragrant mixes. (4)

This isn’t to say cosmetic companies are purposely trying to give consumers allergic reactions (imagine though?). Part of the problem is that they simply don’t know because new ingredients that cause fragrance allergies are constantly being discovered, which leads to our next section….

Types of Fragrances.

There are two main groups of fragrances: Fragrance Mix 1 (FM I) and Fragrance Mix 2 (FM II).

A fragrance mix is simply a group of individual fragrances that are used to screen for fragrance allergies. FM I was first introduced in 1977, (5) and includes the following (listed from most to least problematic):

  • Oak moss
  • Isoeugenol
  • Eugenol
  • Cinnamic aldehyde
  • Geraniol
  • Hydroxycitronellal
  • Cinnamic alcohol
  • Alpha-amyl cinnamic aldehyde.

FM II is another subset of individual fragrances that cause allergic reactions, and was introduced in 2002 after researchers realized FM I only accounted for 70% of reported fragrance allergy cases. (6) Here’s the complete list of FM II fragrances (listed from most to least problematic):

  • Lyral
  • Citral
  • Farnesol
  • Coumarin
  • Citronellol
  • Alpha-hexyl cinnamal.

And there is another subset of fragrances out there which account for an even smaller percentage of reported allergic reactions. These include:

  • Alpha-isomethyl ionone
  • Amylcinnamyl alcohol
  • Anisyl alcohol
  • Benzyl alcohol
  • Benzyl benzoate
  • Benzyl cinnamate
  • Benzyl salicylate
  • Butylphenyl methylpropional (lilial)
  • Evernia furfuracea (tree moss) extract
  • Limonene
  • Linalool
  • Methyl 2-octymoate

This last group however, has only been formally adopted by Europe. In fact, as of 2005 cosmetics in Europe have been required to list these on the label if they’re in concentrations 0.001% or greater (10 ppm) for leave on products, and 0.01% (100 ppm) for rinse-off products. (7)

How to Avoid Fragrance:

Apart from checking the ingredient list for the fragrances listed above, look for products that say “fragrance free” or “hypoallergenic.” Hypoallergenic meaning, “relatively unlikely to cause allergic reactions.”

Like we discussed earlier however, just because a product says “fragrance free” or “hypoallergenic” does not mean it won’t contain fragrance! The best way to know for sure is simple — just smell it. If it smells like pretty flowers or something pleasant that would be a good indication that the product is fragranced.

With that said, here’s a short list of fragrance-free products that are safe. I have divided them into cleansers, exfoliants, moisturizers, and sunscreens. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but I’ve done my best to capture a wide array of products.

Product Recommendations.

Body Washes:

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