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Is Fragrance-Free Beauty Really Better? Dermatologists Weigh In

Beauty products without fragrances are considered to be safer for the skin. But are perfumes really the villains they’re made to be?

Aparrna Gupta

To smell or not to smell, seems to be the next big question on every conscious beauty consumer’s mind. The plot in skincare is thickening and it’s getting harder to decipher labels as a new brand pops up on your screen every second day (almost)! Fragrance-free is being used in the same sentiment as ‘paraben-free’, ‘silicone-free’, and ‘sulphate-free’—almost making it sound that our skincare needs to be free of ‘fragrance’ for it to be cleaner, safer, and more effective. 

We spoke to the leading dermatologists to get an insider’s perspective on what’s best for the skin and what should we know before adding new products to the cart. To know more, read below:

What does it mean when a product is ‘fragrance-free’? 

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While some companies use the term loosely, it should mean that no synthetic fragrance ingredients have been added. For starters, it’s important to note that fragrance-free does not necessarily indicate that a product is better or more effective. “The notion became widely popular after fragrances, which are found in many over-the-counter formulations of skincare, in addition to cosmetics and personal hygiene products, was named the American Contact Dermatitis Society’s allergen of the year in 2007,” explains Cincinnati-based dermatologist Mona Mislankar, MD, FAAD.  

“However, that does not limit other potential allergens and irritants such as the numerous preservatives that are often added to skincare and cosmetics to uphold freshness or certain stabilizers of an ingredient, etc. So that limited wording of ‘fragrance-free’ does not tell us much about the product itself other than the fact that fragrance has not been added,” she adds.

Is unscented the same as fragrance-free?

The most-strict definition of fragrance-free should be that there are no fragrances whatsoever in a product, whether they are natural or synthetic, says Joshua Zeichner, MD, NYC Board Certified Dermatologist. But the term is increasingly being used to refer to a lack of synthetic fragrances. “Fragrance-free and unscented mean different things. Some unscented products may actually contain masking fragrances which hide any odour even though a fragrance technically exists,” Dr Zeichner points. 

Fragrance-free implies that the product is devoid of artificial or chemical fragrances that are added in products to give the product a signature or special aroma. “However, the product may still have a natural fragrance due to its ingredients that have a natural aroma,” informs Mumbai-based dermatologist Dr Madhuri Agarwal who debunks the notion that fragrance-free is better. 

“The truth is products are made of complex ingredients and just attributing fragrance to be the villain of the piece is unfair. Multiple factors affect the skincare fragrance concern such as the amount of time the product is left on, the layering of products, the skin barrier condition, the type, and the amount of fragrance. It is seen that wash off products like cleansers are less likely to cause skin issues as compared to leave on products such as creams and serums,” she says. However, to give the fragrance-free trend its due, she agrees, the negative impact of fragrance is not always immediate. “It can manifest over the years as simply dehydrated and dull skin or an increase in the sensitivity of skin.” 

What’s wrong with having fragrance in skincare?

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Not all fragrance is bad, and not everyone has to avoid fragrance in their products. However, if your skin barrier is compromised and you are more prone to reactions—there is merit in reading labels and finding fragrance-free products. In a nutshell, “Fragrances are a common source of allergic reactions in people with sensitive skin,” says Dr Zeichner.  If your skin is irritated, besides flaring into a breakout, internally it could also lead to collagen breakdown, impairing its ability to renew and plump itself, much the way environmental stressors do—according to Dr Geetika Mittal Gupta, dermatologist and founder of ISAAC Luxe.

“Patients with skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis, rosacea, and psoriasis can be more sensitive to many different irritants and allergens, including fragrance. For these patients, I often recommended finding fragrance-free products in general,” shares Dr Mislankar. “If one was prone to allergic or irritant reactions, a leave-in treatment such as a serum could theoretically be more likely to cause a reaction due to longer contact with the skin itself versus a cleanser which is often short contact therapy,” she observes. 

“Since dermatologists are typically dealing with patients who have skin issues, most of us recommend fragrance-free products. However, the truth is that for most people, fragranced products are actually okay to use,” Dr Zeichner adds.

Why do skincare products use fragrances? 

Our sense of smell is intrinsically connected to our memory, and pleasant smells can help us feel comforted, happy, and relaxed. Dr Zeichner agrees, adding that the difference between rote application of a product in a daily regimen and enjoying the application process as a ritual is often determined by the fragrance of the product itself.  “It is well documented that our sense of smell is extremely powerful in eliciting an emotional state,” he says. 

Fragrances add an element of joy to a skincare routine. “Many people enjoy the sensorial feel that fragrance can add to their skincare routine, cosmetics, or personal hygiene products making them more likely to use the product itself and stick to a routine,” says Dr Mislankar. 

Look out for IFRA certified allergen-free fragrances 

If you have been researching fragrances and skincare, IFRA (International Fragrance Association) is another term you should be aware of. International Fragrance Association is a global organisation that has rules for perfumers to calculate product and situational cumulative exposures to the fragrance. “An IFRA certificate allows the manufacturer of the fragrance-based product to be compliant. Fragrances that are ‘IFRA-compliant’ are safe for use in cosmetics,” says Dr Gupta. She also seconds looking for products that are IFRA certified as then chances of reactions to fragrances are drastically reduced.

If your skin is not sensitive or inflamed then go ahead and pick a product with a fragrance that makes you feel relaxed and joyful. Remember an unscented product can have a host of fragrances to mask the odour of natural actives, while a fragrance-free product can have natural scents. With a wide variety of products available, it’s possible to have the best of both worlds.

Photo: Shutterstock
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