#SkincareVillain: Is Fragrance In Skincare Really THAT Bad? We Investigate

fragrance in skincare safety

The skincare community can often be too quick to judge; a lowly Reddit thread can turn an ingredient, a routine, hack or a product into a villain overnight. I write this while patiently waiting for toners to make a comeback! But the ‘cancel culture’ that exists in beauty is a tad bit unfair, especially when it comes to eliminating ‘nice things’ like sweet-smelling creams and lotions that are currently being blamed for overly sensitising everybody’s skin. Yep, fragrance in skincare has a major image problem in beauty, at times fueled by influencer reviews and opinions, which doesn’t always hold true because beauty routines are personalised and subjective.

We wish to settle the debate on fragrance in skincare. Personally, I keep my daily routine fragrance-free to suit my acne-prone skin but sometimes do indulge in splurge-worthy luxury picks that are coveted for their signature scents. Clearly, I am biased; so who better to cut through the chatter than dermatologists who do not nurture such biases. Here’s what the experts have to say about it.

Fragrance In Skincare – The Villain Origin Story

So what is it that gives fragrance in skincare such a bad rep? Experts believe that the hate around fragrance, especially artificial, is irrelevant. Dr Madhuri Agarwal, Aesthetic Dermatologist, Medical Director and CEO of Yavana Aesthetics Clinic says, “While in a small percentage of the population, fragrance can cause unwanted problems, it is not applicable to the larger population.” She goes on to explain that due to social media trends, there is an unwarranted fear about terms like fragrances in products. “The truth is products are made of complex ingredients and just attributing fragrance to be the villain of the piece is unfair,” she adds.

So who constitutes this limited group of people affected by fragrance in skincare? Artificial fragrances that are chemically synthesised in labs can affect people with very sensitive skin, eczema, psoriasis, or rosacea patients. Fragrances also trigger or aggravate existing issues like chronic migraines and allergic reactions that can result in hyperpigmentation and rashes.

So, Are There ‘Good’ Fragrances?

If artificial fragrance in skincare has got a bad rep, what’s the real deal with natural fragrances?  Dr Sravya C Tipirneni, MBBS MD D.V.L., AMPH (ISB), consultant dermatologist & cosmetologist, Columbia Asia Hospital reveals, “There are no good fragrances; if your skin type is sensitive fragrances will be a cause for concerns.  I’d suggest looking for natural fragrances if at all one can find labels that honestly list the ingredients.”

The labels might mention natural additives by name, like citronella, and artificial ones with a number. Individuals can react differently to the same fragrance. Your skin’s sensitivity and tolerance levels will be a good indicator of what’s good for you.

A normal skin type with an uncompromised barrier will be able to deal with fragranced products. People with skin problems such as psoriasis, eczema, rosacea and dry atopic skin have to be cautious since they have higher chances of an allergic reaction. Using fragranced products on broken, cracked or skin with an active inflammation can also lead to burning or irritation. 

The Unjust Shunning Of Fragranced Skincare Products

Dr Madhuri strongly believes that fragranced skincare products need a PR intervention. “Fragrances – synthetic or natural –  are complex. There are products that can even have unscented fragrances,” she says. She also explains that the International Fragrance Association (IFRA), a global organisation, has rules set in place for perfumers to calculate product and situational cumulative exposures to the fragrance. They have prepared a list of more than 4000 fragrances that are safe to use. “It is relatively safer to use IFRA certified fragrances and this can assist the manufacturers and consumers to pick the least reactive fragrances,” she adds.

Dr Sravya further elaborated on the thought and confessed that skincare products should be appealing to your olfactory senses, in addition to having the right composition suited to your skin’s sensitivity. “Also there is nothing called an odour-free product; even without perfumes in a product it’s still going to smell of the chemicals that it’s made of,” she says. Case in point: sometimes fragrances are added to cancel chemical or overpowering smells with something nicer. 

How To Deal With Fragranced Skincare Products

Fragranced skincare products do not need any special treatment and should just be patch-tested prior to usage like any other skincare product. Rub a small amount of the product on the inner side of your arm or behind the ear because these two areas tend to be more sensitive. If you are prone to a reaction, it will immediately show in these areas. 

You can also experiment with them by factoring in the amount of time the product is left on, the layering of products, keeping in mind the skin barrier condition, and the type and amount of fragrance. Dr Madhuri recommends introducing fragrance in skincare by starting with cleansers as they are less likely to cause skin issues as compared to leave-on products such as creams. Use products that have a single fragrance as compared to multiple ones as the latter is more likely to cause adverse effects. Consult a dermatologist in case you are unsure of the product but keen to use it.

Photos: Pexels

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