Beware: One person’s favorite fragrance is another person’s irritation

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Beware: One person’s favorite fragrance is another person’s irritation

Fragrance can be both a blessing and a curse, particularly when it comes to beauty products. Think about the first thing you do when buying a new product at the cosmetic counter or drugstore: You look at the package, find a sample, dab a bit on the back of your hand, and take a whiff. Whether it’s a moisturizer, eye cream, shampoo or cleanser, how you respond to that scent will influence whether you buy it or leave it on the shelf. 

The problem is different fragrances can trigger different skin reactions. It’s a common cause of both allergy and irritation of the skin and it’s on the rise. 

Fragrance is big business. “A hair product that is inextricably linked to an enduring scent is something akin to the Holy Grail for beauty companies,” notes the Paris-based writer Amy Verner. Verner points out that the neurological region of your brain that deals with sensory information also happens to assist in storing notable memories. It’s why the smell of Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo can evoke feelings of comfort and warmth for many people.

Some of those same molecules that tickle our olfactory senses also trigger reactions from the immune system. Estimates of the number of different fragrances used in the cosmetic and skincare industries vary widely, and go as high as 5,000. They’re used in everything from deodorants to cosmetics. Fragrance chemistry is growing more sophisticated, and potentially increases problems for people who are reactive to the products.

Scents last longer, too. Over the last few decades, chemists who concoct fragrance molecules have improved the delivery technology. “Encapsulated fragrance systems” are now able to place some of these molecules inside “micro-capsules.” Many products now contain both free and encapsulated fragrance molecules.  The free molecules can be smelled immediately, while the encapsulated molecules wait to be liberated by a trigger before they release a fresh burst of scent. So the scent of your conditioner, which once faded as your hair dried, can now last for days. 

Some laundry scents can be designed to last for weeks. The capsules can release their contents through various triggers, such as exposure to light, changes in temperature, friction and the presence of sweat or moisture.

Cosmetic and beauty products carrying an “unscented” label aren’t actually free from fragrance. These products are supposed to have no smell to them, but they contain a fragrance intended to mask the chemical odour of the product. Only products that are described as “fragrance-free” or “without perfume” are supposed to have no fragrance at all. And yet even this labelling, which we as dermatologists used to think was helpful, has been called into question, given that some of these products still include odiferous botanicals or other fragrance molecules. 

Many people have issues with fragrances, including skin, nose and eye irritations, and they may even cause headaches. 

Now that we are in the holiday season, be mindful about any gifts you receive or purchase with subtle and not-so-subtle fragrances, such as soap, body wash and perfume. It’s also important to know where the item was produced since not all products are made equal or follow strict ingredient protocols. While to some they may be sweet-smelling, to others they could raise a stink!

Summary Points on Fragrance Reactions

  • There are thousands of different fragrances used in cosmetics and skincare products.
  • They’re present in most types of cosmetics, including perfumes, shampoos, conditioners, moisturizers, facial cosmetics and deodorants.
  • Cosmetics labelled “unscented” aren’t fragrance-free, since some unscented products may contain a fragrance to mask another chemical odour. Products should be labelled “fragrance-free” or “without perfume” to indicate that no fragrances have been used.
  • Fragrance allergies are increasing.
  • Many fragrance molecules are naturally derived and therefore can be present in botanical creams that are labelled “fragrance-free.”
  • Labelling that identifies a product as “fragrance-free” may not be accurate, since manufacturers are allowed to use odiferous molecules if those molecules qualify as botanicals, such as lavender, calendula or rose. 
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