It's a beautiful thing: As more and more transparent, sustainable beauty brands crop up, the more educated consumers become. And educated consumers ask questions. They voice concerns. One apprehension that emerges time and time again? Added fragrance. But why is it bad? And is it really always bad? Read on for the nitty gritty.
What is added fragrance, anyway?
Just what it sounds like: fragrance added to a skin, makeup, or hair care product to make it smell fresh, or yummy, or just plain expensive. In other words, if you're slathering something on and the scent is drool-worthy, there's a good chance that scent isn't a result of the beneficial ingredients—it's been added for user experience.
But while brands are required by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to disclose pretty much every other ingredient in a product—from squalane to sodium hyaluronate—they aren't required to disclose all the ingredients that make up the fragrance they've added. So if you see "fragrance" on a product's ingredient list, it's probably not actually just one ingredient. It could be dozens... even hundreds!
But how is that legal?!
Long story short, to protect fragrance brands like Chanel, YSL, Byredo, Jo Malone... we could go on and on. Every perfume or cologne made by these companies is developed by a "nose" (or perfumer). They're kind of like the sommeliers of the fragrance world, and they're as much artists as they are scientists. Oh, and they're constantly in competition with each other to be signed on for the next big fragrance launch.
Let's say you're a nose and you've just crafted the next Chanel No. 5. Admittedly, it would kind of suck to have to disclose every component of that masterpiece on the bottle, only to have your competitor snatch it (and improve upon it) for the next big fragrance launch. That's why in 1966 the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act was passed—and why a simple "fragrance" ingredient is still allowed on ingredient lists today.
Why is it a problem?
Because added fragrance can be seriously irritating and allergy-inducing. In fact, the American Academy of Dermatology says fragrance is the primary cause of contact dermatitis. If you're seeing a rash or breakout after using a new product, added fragrance could be the culprit. Plus, some synthetic or preservative ingredients you usually avoid could be hiding in it, too.
Are there any exceptions?
Brands are aware consumers are concerned about fragrance. That's why many will add fragrance to the ingredient list with the components of the fragrance in parentheses, or add a note about the fragrance with an asterisk. (For example, for some of CLOVE + HALLOW's limited-edition products, which have sometimes contained fragrance, we've disclosed the safety and toxicology standards we hold the fragrance to. We're also happy to share the full list of fragrance components.)
Many brands have replaced added fragrance with essential oils, because they know consumers tend to be less afraid of natural ingredients. But don't be fooled: Essential oils can be just as sensitizing as many synthetic ingredients, especially if they're used at very high levels.
How can I avoid added fragrance?
If the world was simple, you'd just look out for that trusty "fragrance-free" call-out on all the products you purchase. But when has the world—and especially the beauty industry—ever been so straightforward? Different brands use the term "fragrance-free" in different ways. One brand may mean free of all synthetic and natural fragrances. One may be implying they don't use synthetic fragrances, but do use essential oils. One brand may even use the scariest and most sensitizing of added fragrances, but call the product "fragrance-free" to convey that it smells neutral. (A.K.A. fragrance has been added to cover up any medicinal or herbal scents from the other ingredients.)
TL;DR: Make sure you always check the ingredient list for "fragrance" or "parfum." If you see it without parentheses with the specific fragrance components, then you'll never know for sure what's lurking in your product.