Scents and Fragrances in Skincare: Natural vs Synthetic

Scents and Fragrances in Skincare: Natural vs. Synthetic

After I published my last blog post about beauty memories and the history of cold cream, I was so flattered by all the responses I got from members of my social media and email community who loved the feeling of nostalgia they felt from the post. Many of the emails contained readers’ own happy beauty memories associated with their mothers and grandmothers using cold cream.

What was really interesting though was the amount of scent memories that had to do with their mothers,’ grandmothers,’ or favorite aunts’ perfumes. My own scent memories are filled with the aroma of Chanel #5, Opium, Giorgio, and even Love’s Baby Soft. Aside from perfumes themselves, the scent of Avon’s lipsticks, Oil of Olay, Nivea, Noxema, and Coty’s loose powder are forever etched into my psyche.

assorted vintage perfume bottlesThe not-so-pleasant part of perfumes and fragrances in our skincare and makeup memories is that the vast majority of the scents are synthetic fragrance blends. Though the product descriptions and ads might state things like “complex notes of mandarin and bergamot,” or “essence of jasmine and myrrh,” what they don’t tell you is that these notes and essences are not from the actual plants themselves. They are blends of synthetic chemicals that mimic the aromatic constituents of the plants, and also have strong fixative properties. But of course, it’s far sexier to leave that part out.

Many people have negative reactions to synthetic fragrances in skincare, perfumes, hair care, personal care, and household cleaning products. Common reactions include lightheadedness, headaches, and nausea; but some people experience more severe symptoms such as hives, rashes, eye irritation, and anaphylaxis. Their reactions are so severe that they experience symptoms even if someone is wearing a strong perfume on the opposite side of the room. Even so, they might still choose to continue using scented products because they enjoy the olfactory experience so much.

Why is scent so important?

Scents are powerful, and whether we like them or not, they stay with us forever through memories. Scent has the power to transport us more than any of our other senses. Scent is the bridge between the physical and the spiritual, as well as the physiological and the emotional. Even if we haven’t smelled a scent in decades, a single whiff can take us right back to our grandmother’s warm hug.

Sacred incense in ceremonyAroma has the ability to connect us to different times and places through memories, and also to help us reach higher states of consciousness. This is why nearly every religious and spiritual tradition uses scent in some way to help facilitate prayer, meditation, and even divination.

Scent is HIGHLY subjective, even more so than art or music. What smells like heaven to one person completely repulses another, and they will likely remember that experience forever. The fragrances in skincare and other products we use every day have a huge effect on our overall experience of using that product. The product could be made with the highest quality ingredients, and formulated to perfection; but if the scent is not pleasing to the person, they will likely never use it or buy it again. Conversely, the product could be mass produced with cheap ingredients, with little to no therapeutic value. But if the scent is pleasing, the person will be more likely to use it religiously, buy it frequently, and identify it as part of their own signature scent.

Do all fragrances in skincare and personal care products cause allergic or irritant reactions?

The word I’d love to tell you that if you skip synthetic fragrances and perfumes completely, and only use essential oil blends, you’ll be fine. Unfortunately that’s not true, because some people still experience similar reactions to essential oils as they do to synthetic fragrances.

Whether or not a person reacts to a scent, be it 100% botanical, 100% synthetic, or a blend of the two depends on several factors:

  • What specific constituents are in the blend and whether the person is allergic or sensitized to them or not
  • The person’s individual sensitivity–some people have no noticeable issues with scent whatsoever, others cannot tolerate them even at a distance.
  • The intended use of the product–the eye area is extremely delicate and aromatic constituents are likely to irritate that tissue. The lips or area around the mount can also be problematic, because it’s highly likely that the fragrance will get ingested. Even if something is labeled as a cosmetic or perfume “for external use only,” if it’s applied on or around the mouth, a percentage of it WILL be ingested.

Can’t someone just avoid the perfumes and fragrances in skincare that they’re allergic to?

It is possible for an allergist or dermatologist to test for allergies to some of the more common fragrance constituents such as linalool, bisalobol, and limonene. These tests don’t decipher whether the constituent is from the plant itself, or is synthetic. Sometimes these constituents might show up on a cosmetic or perfume label (if it was labeled according to the EU’s guidelines, for example), sometimes they won’t be listed out individually.

The FDA does not require individual fragrance constituents to be listed on cosmetic labels–the word “fragrance” or “perfume” suffices to cover the whole blend. Fragrance blends can contain up to 1000 individual constituents. Many of them are known endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) such as phthalates, neurotoxins, even potential carcinogens.

These blends are protected by trade secret laws; even the individual fragrances that are used to create the blends that ultimately end up in perfume bottles and cosmetic jars. This means that you’ll never know what’s in it, so you won’t know if it’s toxic or if you are allergic to one or more of the constituents, natural or synthetic.

What can you determine from reading cosmetic labels?

Trying to identify fragrances in skincare on the labelIf the words “fragrance” or “parfum” appear on the label–even if the word “natural” or a plant common name precedes it (ex. “natural orange blossom fragrance” or “lavender oil”–you can assume that the blend contains synthetic constituents.

Look for plants to be listed by the Latin botanical name–for example “lavandula angustifolia” instead of “lavender.” It might look like “Lavender (lavandula angustifolia) essential oil.”

Look for the term “fragrance free” instead of “unscented” or “no added fragrance.” “Unscented” is actually a fragrance blend used to deodorize or mask unpleasant smelling ingredients and give the product either a neutral or “clean” scent.

“No fragrance added” means that no fragrance was added to the final end product itself. However, individual ingredients in the product could have already been treated to not have an odor before it was added to the formula.

What are the safest and least toxic scents?

Even though not everyone tolerates essential oils (especially lately since overuse and inappropriate usage are rampant), many people tolerate appropriately diluted essential oils better than synthetic fragrances.

With essential oils though, it is really important to know that the oils you buy are actually what they say they are. Unfortunately, the essential oil industry has a history of adulteration with synthetic constituents, and it continues to be a problem with some of the most common essential oil brands on the market.

making natural perfumeAssuming the essential oils are of good quality and purity, they are only problematic when the are not diluted enough, used inappropriately (many of them are eye irritant), or if a person has an allergy to one of the individual aromatic constituents.

Aside from essential oils, here are less concentrated botanical ways to scent products that will impart a subtle aroma with far less risk of reaction:

  • Carrier oils infused with aromatic flowers and herbs
  • Hydrosols
  • Flower waters or herbal infusions (water infused with flowers/herbs)
  • In actual perfumes (not to be applied as facial skincare or bodycare, or intended for therapeutic purposes), botanical essences obtained by methods such as enfleurage, or absolutes or concretes

Be aware of hidden fragrances.

While it’s now easier than it was even 5 years ago to buy either totally botanical or truly fragrance-free skincare and personal care products, it’s not always easy (or possible) to avoid fragrances in our daily lives.

Here are some common, harder-to-avoid instances of synthetic fragrances:

  • That “new car smell” in new cars, rental cars, and recently cleaned, serviced, or detailed cars
  • Mattresses — from off-gassing
  • Furniture and rugs–dyes and stain-resistant coatings on fabric, and off-gassing
  • Paints/Solvents

Shopping resources to avoiding synthetic fragrances easier

Made Safe sealI am so grateful that avoiding synthetic fragrances has been a hot topic long enough that we now have wonderful resources available to make shopping easier. As you may know, I serve on the Advisory Board of MADE SAFE (read more about what that means HERE).

MADE SAFE is a nonprofit organization that makes it possible for consumers to easily find products that are made without known harmful chemicals while also offering brands and retailers a road map to making and selling safer products. MADE SAFE (Made With Safe Ingredients) is America’s first certification to screen out known toxic chemicals in consumer products across store aisles, from baby bottles and bedding to personal care, cleaners, and more.

MADE SAFE is the only comprehensive human health-focused certification that screens products across all non-food categories. They are 100% science-based, and provide comprehensive documentation to substantiate the research behind their Banned List and Hazard List. MADE SAFE offers a searchable directory of all products that have earned their certification across all non-food categories, so you can search for what you’re looking for, including fragrance-free products.

I also want to point you in the direction of Credo Beauty for cosmetics, hair care, and personal care products. While I haven’t used and can’t personally vouch for every product that they sell (so please don’t ask for recommendations!), what I love about them is that they require all the brands they carry to define the TYPE of scent in each product.

They offer a nifty little “Radical Fragrance Transparency” chart under every product’s ingredient declaration that tells the consumer if the product is scented with synthetic fragrance, naturally-derived fragrance, natural fragrance, certified organic fragrance, essential oils, or a combination. They also tell you if the product is fragrance-free. While they don’t force the brands to disclose what’s in their blends, they do encourage brands to fully disclose all scent ingredients. Some do, most don’t–but at least you can get a clearer idea of what type of scent is in the product.

Want more resources on scents and fragrances in skincare and perfumes?

I’ve written a few blog posts on the subject in the past, my friend and colleague Jennifer Fugo has some great episodes of the Healthy Skin Show about it, and there are a couple of books I personally have learned a ton about.

So tell me…what’s your favorite fragrance memory?

share your thoughtsIs there a certain fragrance that you wish you could create a more natural version of? I’d love to hear about it–please tell me in the comments!

*Affiliate Disclaimer


2 thoughts on “Scents and Fragrances in Skincare: Natural vs. Synthetic”

  1. My favorite fragrance isn’t something I know what it was – there was no one identifiable product or element. One of my strongest scent memories is the inside of my mother’s purse. I’ve identified some of the elements over the years but I doubt I’ll ever be able to find a match, natural or otherwise – notes of tobacco, vanilla, neroli, bergamot, leather, ink, and paper and who knows what else. I don’t know what perfume she wore during those years and she’s long since passed so I can’t ask her – but I did have a shampoo of all things come very close once.

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