How Fragrance In Skincare Can Damage Your Skin (+ A List Of Fragrant Ingredients To Avoid)

Do you use skincare products that contain fragrance? Have you ever wondered if fragrance is potentially damaging to your skin?

I recently wrote an article about how damaging essential oils (natural fragrant ingredients) can be for your skin. But, what about synthetic (AKA artificial) fragrances? Are they just as bad for your skin?

What if you don’t have sensitive or redness-prone skin? Should you be avoiding fragrance no matter what your skin type?

The simple answer is yes – any type of fragrance is potentially damaging to your skin and can result in sensitizing reactions. Even if you don’t see any damage occurring to your skin, the damage is still likely taking place and will reveal itself on the surface of the skin after some time (even years).

Read on if you’d like to know why so many skincare products still contain fragrance, and how to spot fragrances in ingredient lists – since it’s not always listed so clearly.

Why Do So Many Skincare Products Contain Fragrance?

Yes, it’s true – most products do contain some form of fragrance, even if it’s in minute amounts. Some brands are even a bit sneaky about it and don’t list fragrance ingredients as clearly as the term “fragrance” (see below for a guide to ingredients to look out for).

The main reason that so many skincare products contain fragrance is simply to mask the unpleasant scent of other skincare ingredients. The truth is that although many skincare ingredients are odourless, there are also some that naturally have quite an unpleasant odor.

Take the COSRX AHA Whitehead Power Liquid for example (which I really like and use regularly in my routine now). This chemical exfoliant doesn’t contain any fragrance.

In fact, it only contains 10 ingredients:

Pyrus Malus (Apple) Fruit Water, Butylene Glycol, Glycolic Acid, Niacinamide, Sodium Hydroxide, 1,2-Hexanediol, Panthenol, Sodium Hyaluronate, Xanthan Gum, Ethyl Hexanediol

But, it smells a bit…ummm…funky. I’ve just pumped a bit of it onto the back of my hand to sniff and try to describe the smell to you. It has a very slight fishy smell, with a hint of rubber.

cosrx aha 7 whitehead power liquid korean skincare products fragrance free
Some ingredients have an unpleasant smell, which is why fragrance is often added to skincare products. This is one of my essentials in my skincare routine, and it smells a little bit fishy/rubbery, but the smell does dissipate very quickly.

I’ve looked up the odors of the individual ingredients and I think this smell is due to the 1,2-Hexanediol in this product, which apparently has an undesirable odor according to a few cosmetic ingredient suppliers online.

And just in case you were wondering, 1,2-Hexanediol is a commonly used synthetic preservative with humectant properties, but it is also often used as a solvent to dissolve other ingredients in skincare products.

Okay, so my point here is that fragrance is mostly used to cover the unpleasant natural odors of some ingredients (that we really can’t do without if we want to formulate quality skincare products).

For me, the faint fishy odor of the COSRX AHA Whitehead Power Liquid isn’t enough to deter me from using a product that I’ve seen some pretty big improvements in my skin with. Plus, the smell dissipates very quickly once applied to the skin.

AND, funnily enough, I actually find the smell of the Heimish All Clean (cleansing) Balm MUCH more overpowering, and it contains a LOT of various essential (aromatic) oils and fragrant plant extracts.

I have only used this product once, because I made a common novice skincare mistake and bought a best-selling product without reading the ingredients list first. The smell of all the essential oils in this balm was so overpowering that it made me feel a bit sick (probably also because I knew the potential damage I had just done to my skin barrier, not to mention the $32 a had just thrown down the drain).

As you can see, I’ve only used the Heimish All Clean (Cleansing) Balm once, as it contains a lot of essential oils. It was a lesson learned to always check ingredient lists before I buy a new skincare product!

REASON #2: Of course, there is another reason why so many skincare products contain fragrance (and it’s the same reason why other products such as shampoo, conditioner, baby care products and household cleaning products contain added fragrance). We are simply more inclined to buy something if it smells nice (it’s actually been scientifically proven).

But, I don’t think that this reason applies to Korean skincare so much anymore since (especially in the West) most people buy their skincare products online these days. We therefore don’t use the scent of products as a deciding factor for what we purchase.

There is also a current trend of people self-educating about skincare ingredients and avoiding ingredients that may be harmful to their skin (including fragrance). That’s why there are currently so many great Korean skincare brands offering fragrance-free products (see which ones I’ve listed below). Some established brands are even choosing to release “fragrance-free” versions of some of their best-selling products.

Synthetic Fragrance Vs. Essential Oils

It can get a bit confusing when it comes to skincare ingredients – and fragrances are no exception!

There are many, many different fragrant ingredients used in skincare products, but you can divide them into two main categories – synthetic fragrances and essential oils.

What is the difference between these different types of fragrances?

Synthetic fragrances are those that aren’t derived from plant materials, and are often made to ‘recreate’ natural scents. They are derived from various sorts of chemical compounds, including petrochemicals, phthalates and benzene-derivatives.

Due to laws that were put into place to protect the secret formulations of perfumes – skincare companies do not need to disclose how many and which compounds make up the synthetic fragrance added to their products.

This is why you will often only see the word “fragrance” in an ingredients list if the product is formulated with synthetic fragrance. And as I found out while researching for this article – products actually contain a complex mixture of several dozen to several hundred synthetic compounds. AND there are currently more than 3000 compounds documented as fragrance ingredients by The International Fragrance Association (IFRA)!

Without even getting into how damaging these compounds can be for your skin and overall health (see about that below), those figures are enough to make me avoid any skincare products that contain synthetic fragrance.

So what are essential oils then? I explain this is much more detail a previous post, but essential oils are concentrated oils that contain easily evaporating aromatic chemical compounds from plants and are often used as a natural alternative to synthetic fragrance. They can be derived from any aromatic parts of various plants – such as flowers, leaves, bark, stems or even roots.

essential oils bad for skin sensitizing skincare ingredients fragrance free skincare
I like using lavender oil in an oil burner for its relaxing aroma, but the tiny volatile organic compounds that make it smell so nice can also be extremely sensitizing on the skin.

Although essential oils have a natural-based origin (and have therefore become preferred over synthetic fragrances), they are definitely not a safer alternative. In fact, they may actually be worse for your skin (see below why they are so bad for your skin).

How Does Fragrance In Skincare Products Damage Your Skin?

So although synthetic fragrances and essential oils have different chemical origins, they are both used for giving skincare products nice scents (or for covering the unpleasant smells of some other ingredients). And, they are both potentially damaging for your skin – even if you don’t have sensitive skin or any current allergies.

The reason that fragrance is potentially damaging for your skin is because both synthetic fragrances and essential oils emit a range of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These types of compounds undergo what are known as volatile reactions when exposed to air, heat or light – which is what gives them a scent.

And these volatile reactions actually very easily convert fragrant compounds into other chemical compounds that may be extremely sensitizing to the skin. This means that even if you don’t have any current skin sensitivities or allergies, fragrant ingredients can still result in contact allergy or contact dermatitis on your skin.

essential oils bad for skin fragrance free skincare volatile organic compounds fragrance
An example of just some of the volatile organic compounds found in rosemary oil (a type of essential oil). These types of compounds easily convert into other chemical compounds upon contact with oxygen, light or heat.

Interestingly, scientific research has shown that fragrance ingredients are one of the most frequent causes of contact allergic reactions.

This study found that 10% of people with eczema had a positive patch-test to a mixture of fragrance ingredients. The authors also stated that 1.7-4.1% of the general population is allergic to fragrance ingredients.

Another study, investigated the frequencies of sensitization to 26 individual fragrances (in 1508 eczema patients). The study found that 7.6% of the patients showed skin sensitivities to one or more of the 26 fragrances tested. Additionally, 75.7% of these cases were of clinical significance (meaning they required medical attention).

Lastly, this study found that a whopping 9.4% (of 821 patients) had positive patch test reactions to hydroperoxides of limonene and to hydroperoxides of linalool. Limonene and linalool are natural components found in some essential oils, however they are commonly used to fragrance personal care and household products.

Why Essential Oils Are Particularly Bad For Your Skin

Although synthetic fragrances can also be potentially damaging for your skin (and are actually often derived from components of essential oils), essential oils are particularly bad for your skin in terms of the damage they can cause.

This is because each type of essential oil is made up of hundreds of compounds. Some essential oils (such as rosemary, geranium and lavender oils) contain 450 to 500 compounds!

essential oils bad for skin volatile organic compounds skin sensitization
A nice table showing just how many compounds have been identified in different types of essential oils. Rosemary oil, geranium oil and lavender oil contain the most compounds out of all essential oils.

Because all of these compounds are volatile organic compounds (mostly terpenes), it means that the chances are quite high that your skin will become sensitized.

Even if you have been using an essential oil on your skin for some time with no negative effects, your skin can still suddenly become sensitized at any time. This is because each of the volatile organic compounds found in essential oils very easily convert into other compounds in the presence of light, oxygen or heat.

Additionally, the compounds found in essential oils are extremely small (on a molecular scale) and they readily dissolve in fats and lipids – allowing them to easily cross the epidermis and enter the dermis layer of the skin.

Once these compounds are in the dermis, they can enter the bloodstream where they elicit an immune response. The resultant allergic contact dermatitis is similar to what occurs when our skin comes in contact with poison ivy.

Fragrance Ingredients To Look Out For (Why You Shouldn’t Rely On “Fragrance-Free” Labelling)

Avoiding fragrance ingredients in skincare products is not as simple as just looking for products labelled as “fragrance-free”.

Apart from the simple term “fragrance” or “perfume”, there many other ingredient names to look for on skincare ingredient lists. Also, I’ve noticed that a lot of skincare products marketed as “clean”, “natural” or “green” actually contain fragrant ingredients that can do damage to your skin.

And even worse, when a skincare product is labelled as “fragrance-free”, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the product contains no fragrance ingredients. It just simply implies that the product has no perceptible odor (masking fragrances are sometimes used to cover up the unpleasant odor of other ingredients).

Below is a list of common fragrance ingredients to watch out for on skincare product ingredient lists. I know there are quite a lot, and I could honestly never remember them all without referring to this list. Remember, that I haven’t included ALL fragrant ingredients (just the most commonly used ones) and I haven’t included essential oils in this list either, as they are all sensitizing (regardless from which plant they are derived).

To make sure I’m avoiding as many fragrant ingredients as possible, I always prefer to use skincare products that have minimal ingredient lists and are suitable for people with sensitive skin (even though I don’t have sensitive skin). I also like to refer to the CosDNA website for a breakdown of a product’s ingredient list to see whether it contains either any potentially pore-clogging or skin-sensitizing ingredients.

An Extensive List Of Fragrant Ingredients That Are Potentially Sensitizing To The Skin (Excludes Essential Oils)

  • Alpha isomethyl ionone (AKA isomethylionone, a synthetic fragrance with a floral-woody scent that can cause a sensitized reaction at concentations as low as 0.001%)
  • Amyl salicylate (a synthetic fragrance with a sweet, floral odor derived from the esterification of salicylic acid with benzyl alcohol)
  • Anisaldehyde (organic compound naturally found in anise seed)
  • Anise (AKA aniseed, which contains fragrant components that are potentially sensitizing to the skin)
  • Balm mint extract (AKA lemon balm, Melissa officinalis)
  • Balsam of Peru (a sticky aromatic liquid that comes from cutting the bark of the tree Myroxolon balsamum. It smells of vanilla and cinnamon and is a standard used in patch tests for skin sensitivity due to its high incidence of causing reactions)
  • Benzoin resin extract (balsamic resin with a vanilla scent, extracted from several trees in the styrax genus)
  • Benzyl salicylate (a synthetic fragrance compound with a floral scent used both as a fragrance and UV light absorber)
  • Butylphenyl methylpropional (a synthetic fragrance with a strong floral scent)
  • Cananga extract (derived from the leaves or flowers of the perfume tree – Cananga ordata)
  • Cardamon (plant in the ginger family – main constituent is terpene)
  • Cinnamon, Cinnamyl alcohol, hexyl cinnamal and cinnamic aldehyde (mainly derived from cinnamon leaves and cinnamon oil)
  • Citronellol (mainly derived from geranium and rose)
  • Any citrus-related ingredients (including lemon, orange, mandarin, lime and grapefruit juices, peels and oils)
  • Coriander (contains many fragrant components)
  • Cyclamen aldehyde (synthetic fragrance that gives strong floral-green/floral-stem odor, with pronounced cucumber/melon scent)
  • Eucalyptus extract (contains many fragrant components – hence the wonderful aroma)
  • Eugenol (mainly derived from oils of clove and cinnamon leaves, but also found in roses, carnations, hyacinths and violets)
  • Farnesol (occurs naturally in the oils of citronella, cyclamen, lemongrass, rose, musk and balsam – gives delicate, green floral scent)
  • Fennel seed and leaf extracts (AKA Foeniculum vulgare extract)
  • Floralozone (synthetic fragrance with a floral/fresh scent)
  • Fragrance
  • Frankincense extract (has a woody/earthy/spicy scent, AKA olibanum extract)
  • Galbanum (fragrant gum resin extracted from Asiatic plant species, mainly Ferula galbaniflua – with a fresh/green scent)
  • Gardenia florida extract (and hydrolyzed gardenia florida extract – derived from gardenia flowers. High in flavonoids and ferulic acid but potentially sensitizing to the skin)
  • Geraniol (constitutes a large portion of rose and palmarosa oil, geranium oil, lavender oil, jasmine oil and citronella oil)
  • Hedione (AKA methyl dihydrojasmonate, a synthetic fragrance that gives an elegant floral scent with a note of jasmine and citrus)
  • Hydroxycitronellal (a synthetic fragrance with a sweet fresh odor of lily of the valley)
  • Iris extract (AKA Iris florentina, has a strong violet scent)
  • Isoeugenol (mainly derived from nutmeg oil and ylang-ylang oil)
  • Jasmine extract (derived from the flowers of various Jasminum species, gives a sweet, rich floral fragrance)
  • Jonquil extract (extracted from the fragrant yellow flowers of the Narcissus jonquilla, common in the French countryside)
  • Laurus nobilis leaf extract (derived from an aromatic evergreen tree also known as sweet bay, which is also used as bay leaf in cooking)
  • Lavender extract (AKA Lavendula angustifolia and Lavendula officinalis – contains fragrant components including linalool and linalyl acetate)
  • Lemongrass extract (contains fragrant components including limonene and citral)
  • Limonene (major component of the oils found in citrus fruit peels including lemon, orange, mandarin, lime, and grapefruit)
  • Linalool (mainly derived fromlavender and coriander oils, but can be produced synthetically)
  • Litsea cubeba (AKA Chinese pepper, has a crisp, citrus scent)
  • Lovage root extract (AKA Levisticum officinale, celery-like scent)
  • Menthol (derived from peppermint and has the same sensitizing effect. It’s used in products to produce a cooling sensation on the skin)
  • Menthone (a major constituent of peppermint and many essential oils. It is used to produce a cooling sensation, but is sensitizing to the skin)
  • Menthoxypropanediol (a synthetic derivative of menthone. Its cooling effect has been shown to be 2.0 to 2.5 times stronger than that of menthol. It’s often used in lip-plumping products)
  • Menthyl lactate (the ester of menthol and lactic acid, it also has a cooling effect on the skin. It may be synthetic, plant-derived, or animal-derived)
  • Mint (an umbrella term for plants belonging to the mentha family, which includes, spearmint, peppermint, orange mint, apple mint and more)
  • Myrrh (a fragrant gum resin. Main constituents include limonene, a-pinene and eugenol)
  • Myrtus communis (AKA myrtle extract)
  • Narcissus poeticus flower extract and flower wax (a type of daffodil, used mostly in French skincare products)
  • Neroli (an essential oil derived from orange blossoms)
  • Orchid (although this extract contains many phenolic compounds and flavonoids, it can be sensitizing since it is a fragrant flower)
  • Oregano (another fragrant herb that contains a large amount of terpenes, which can cause skin sensitization)
  • Origanum majorana (AKA marjoram, a herb closely related to oregano)
  • Orris root (a term used for the roots of Iris germanica and Iris pallida that have a violet-like scent)
  • Pentadecalactone (synthetic fragrance with a musk scent)
  • Peppermint and spearmint extracts (includes Mentha piperita, Mentha spicata and Mentha viridis)
  • Perfume (also sometimes listed as parfum or aroma)
  • Pogostemon cablin extract (AKA patchouli shrub, has a musky-earthy aroma)
  • Rosa gallica (AKA the Gallic rose, a species in the rose family)
  • Rose flower extract (contains fragrant components that can be sensitizing to the skin)
  • Santalum album seed extract (AKA sandalwood. Although this seed extract has a high fatty acid content, sandalwood extract can be sensitizing as it contains fragrant components)
  • Sclareolide (a fragrant ingredient derived from various plant sources, including clary sage)
  • Verbena extract (a fragrant plant extract that is a rich source of antioxidants, but can be sensitizing)
  • Vetiver extract (from the dense, clumping grass native to India, it’s fragrance has a calming effect, but can be sensitizing to the skin)
  • Ylang Ylang (a potent antioxidant that may help improve uneven skin tone, but can also be sensitizing to the skin due to the fragrant constituents it contains)

In Summary

No matter how fragrance is derived (synthetically or from essential oils), it’s best to try to avoid these ingredients in your skincare products. Even if you don’t have sensitive skin, the volatile organic compounds found in fragrant ingredients can cause skin sensitization (and even contact allergy or contact dermatitis).

Of course, there are an extremely large number of fragrant ingredients commonly used in skincare products (including synthetic compounds, fragrant plant extracts and essential oils). Also, many skincare products today still contain some sort of fragrance, that it can actually be difficult to avoid fragrance all-together (although you can minimize the amount you’re exposing your skin to every day).

It’s best not to rely on “fragrance-free” marketing and always check ingredient lists before using a product on your skin. This is because skincare products can be free of fragrance (as in they have no scent), but contain fragrant ingredients to mask or neutralize any unpleasant odors of other skincare ingredients.