Is ALL Fragrance Bad in Your Beauty Products?
This blog has not been approved by your local health department and is not intended to provide diagnosis, treatment, or medical advice.
In this article:
- What Is Fragrance?
- Is All Fragrance Bad?
- Fragrance Ingredients to Watch Out For
- Final Thoughts on Fragrance
Fragrance seems like a wonderful thing in the world of beauty products–I mean, who doesn’t want their hair to smell like a tropical paradise? Unfortunately, not all fragrances are created equal. Some products are scented with pure essential oils or safe synthetics, while others use questionable ingredients under the vague term “fragrance.”
As a lover of non-toxic, clean beauty and skincare products, I’m here to share my view on added fragrance, whether or not it should all be considered bad, and how you can choose a scent that’s safe for you and your body.
What Is Fragrance?
So, what exactly is “fragrance” anyway? According to the FDA, fragrance is a “combination of chemicals that gives each perfume or cologne (including those used in other products) its distinct scent.”
Added fragrances can be found in personal care products like shampoo, soap, sunscreen, deodorant, lotion, makeup, and more. You can find these scents labeled on the back of packages as “fragrance,” “perfume,” “parfum,” “essential oil blend,” or “aroma.”
If you’re wondering if these labels sound a bit too general, that’s exactly the problem that many consumers have. The FDA considers fragrances to be a “trade secret,” meaning that brands do not legally need to disclose their ingredients individually on labels.
This has caused concern for many people who want to avoid allergens and other chemicals that can negatively impact their health. This lack of transparency has caused many brands to get away with putting toxic chemicals in their scents–some of which have been linked to cancer, hormonal disruption, developmental issues, skin sensitivities, and more.
If you’re someone like me with sensitive skin, knowing what fragrances are in your beauty products is crucial. Before I started my non-toxic journey, I had numerous breakouts and rashes from skincare and beauty products with mysterious “fragrances.”
I recently went on a trip where I got an unexpected headache from artificially scented bath products. All this goes to show, you never know where these scents may be lurking!
Is All Fragrance Bad?
You might be thinking that I’m parked in the “all fragrances are bad” camp. However, that’s not exactly true! I believe there are great brands out there with fresh smelling, safe fragrances. In fact, there are many pros when it comes to indulging in fragrances, such as:
- Feeling fresh and clean
- Enhancing mood
- Boosting self-confidence
- A signature smell unique to you
However, it’s important to keep in mind that there are cons when it comes to using toxic perfumes that are ridden with chemicals, including:
- Respiratory issues
- Hormonal disruption
- Poor concentration
- Harm to the environment
Fragrance Ingredients to Watch Out For
With all of this in mind, we should educate ourselves about the added fragrances in our favorite beauty products and cosmetics. But how exactly do we know what’s good and what’s bad?
First and foremost, when shopping for a new product, always check the label. If a brand is hiding its ingredients behind the word “fragrance,” you have every reason to be concerned.
In my opinion, we have every right to know the ingredients in the products we’re using. Some brands may display their fragrance blend with a long list of ingredients, which may seem alarming, but this doesn’t by nature mean they’re “unclean.”
If a brand decides to be transparent about its fragrance ingredients, great! However, that’s just the first step. From here, you’ll need to do a bit of detective work to see whether or not their fragrance is truly safe. When in doubt, stick to fragrance-free products. Below, I’ll list a few of the most toxic ingredients found in fragrances and why you should steer clear of them for health reasons.
A chemical found in many synthetic fragrances is phthalates, which first appeared in the 1930s and have since been used in an abundance of materials from PVC plastics to solvents.
If that isn’t already causing concern, a study from 2000 found abnormally high levels of phthalates in human subjects’ blood. Studies have since discovered that they can also negatively impact the reproductive system and trigger asthma and allergies. Today, you can find these pesky chemicals not just in your favorite fragrance but also nail polish, paint, air fresheners, candles, vinyl, children’s toys, and more.
According to the CDC, styrene is a chemical used to make many products like latex and synthetic rubber. Some everyday products you’ll find styrene in include plastic packaging, disposable cups, insulation, and of course, fragrances!
The National Toxicology Program and the Nation Academy of Science even declared that styrene is an anticipated human carcinogen. Studies show that those exposed to large quantities can suffer from eye irritations, breathing issues, and even damage to their nervous system.
If you’ve ever gotten a whiff of a bittersweet almond smell in your cosmetics or personal care products, you might be smelling an oily, colorless liquid called benzaldehyde. Although it may smell innocent, it’s definitely a chemical in added fragrances you’ll want to stay away from.
Found in perfumes, shampoo, and bath products, benzaldehyde is toxic when breathed in or put on the skin. Not only can it irritate the nose and throat by causing shortness of breath and coughing, but it can also cause itchy skin rashes and inflammation of the eyes.
Banned by the FDA in 1989 for its severe toxic effects, methylene chloride is still found in products with labels listing “fragrance” as an ingredient. You can still find it in shampoos, perfumes and colognes, and more.
Today, it’s labeled as one of the most common chemicals found in fragranced products, even though it can cause headaches, fatigue, eye and skin irritations, and damage to the central nervous system.
Who doesn’t love the sweet, floral scent of jasmine? You may be surprised to hear that the jasmine smell in some of your products isn’t actually jasmine, it’s an aliphatic flavor ester called benzyl acetate.
Benzyl acetate and linalool (another chemical to stay away from in fragrances!) are the main ingredients used in synthetic jasmine oils. You can find this in an abundance of products from perfume, shampoo, air fresheners, detergent, hairspray, and more.
The problem is that it’s a carcinogen linked to pancreatic cancer, as well as a substance that can irritate eyes, and cause breathing issues and coughing. It’s also absorbed directly into the skin, which can cause serious systemic effects.
Another unsafe synthetic ingredient found in many modern fragrances is musk ketone. Musk is a popular scent that gives off a soft, warm, sweet smell when paired with other added fragrances. The problem? The musk you’re smelling isn’t actual musk.
Musk ketone, a synthetic musk, can be found in most fragrances since it is much cheaper to produce than the real thing. Some people can experience contact dermatitis from musk ketone, where others don’t experience any effects at all. However, this doesn’t mean it’s safe!
Substances like musk ketone accumulate in your body over a period of time and deposit into fat tissue. Over the past ten years, research shows that musk ketone has been present in breast milk, body fat, blood, and more. The point? You don’t want to be breathing this stuff in!
Essential Oil Fragrances
Now, you might be wondering where essential oils come into play in all of this. Aren’t they a safer, healthier fragrance option? The answer is yes–especially if they’re organic! However, some essential oils can cause irritation depending on the person.
A common reaction caused by essential oils is contact dermatitis, which can be seen in the form of a skin rash. Some essential oils that can cause allergic contact dermatitis are:
- Cinnamon Bark
- Tea tree
- Balsam of Peru
I personally love essential oils–especially in my beauty products. However, I’ve unfortunately had some breakouts here and there from them. I’ve learned to always test a product on my forearm before using it on other areas of my body. This has saved me from what could have been some serious potential breakouts.
Final Thoughts on Fragrance
Added fragrances can be a great thing that can help us smell and feel better! However, some fragrances out there can do more harm than good.
Many companies that aren’t transparent about fragrances use toxic chemicals, which can be linked to health issues–especially for those who struggle with allergies.
For the betterment of our health, I don’t think we should trust any brand that hides its scented ingredients under the general term “fragrance.” If you’re questioning a product that includes fragrance use a helpful resource like the ThinkDirty App or the EWG Skin Deep Database to get more insight into the toxicity of the product.
Even if you have found a safe synthetic or essential oil, I always recommend testing it first on a patch of skin to make sure you don’t have an allergic reaction. So, in conclusion, all fragrances aren’t harmful, but some you may want to turn your nose up to!