Fragrance and essential oil in skincare: The good, the bad, and everything in between. - Round Lab
The Good Skin Blog

Fragrance and essential oil in skincare: The good, the bad, and everything in between.

Apr 09, 2023

Fragrance and essential oils have had some rouuuugh years. 

With each passionate reel from beauty influencers and dermatologists, the fear of dermatitis and skin-sensitizing risks from fragrance and essential oil heightened and swelled to a panic movement, clouding the universal fact that there are always two sides to every story. 

That's right! There is more about fragrance and essential oil than the headlines about their harm to your skin and their plain old, "pointless" purpose of making things smell nice. 

In this post, we are going to let you in on the good, the bad, and all the vital truths about fragrance and essential oil in skincare that the fragrance-free advocating reels probably fail to include. 

What is fragrance? What are essential oils?

The term "Fragrance" or as the French call it, "Parfum" is commonly used to label aromatic blends. Synthetically made or derived from plants, the term sticks. 

So yes, essential oils, which are concentrated plant extracts with fragrant compounds, are also called "fragrances." 

*To save your eyes from straining over the repetition of "fragrance and essential oil," we will also regard essential oils as "fragrances" unless the context calls for specifics. 

On the packaging, the cosmetic brands can disclose the fragrance ingredients in the product by stating them all as "fragrance" or listing out the essential oils included. While either of the choices is illegal according to the FDA, the first one is often frowned upon by many consumers as they interpret that brands are being dishonest, hiding devious ingredients under the guise of the unassuming term - "fragrance."

Though we must admit that is some riveting conspiracy, the truth is hardly as enthralling. 

The art of creating an aromatic blend we know as fragrance or perfume is complex and laborious, so they are usually deemed and protected as "trade secret." When you see a brand printing "fragrance" on their label instead of listing out every component of that mixture, it's simply an effort to preserve their intellectual property. 

The discord about fragrance in skincare 

We still hold the defense that fragrance can bring good to our skincare routine, but more on that later. For now, let's go through the adverse effects fragranced products have on skin health, the reasons behind the belief against them, and the nuances of those arguments.  

Risks of contact dermatitis and allergy dermatitis

Fragrance has been identified by the National Eczema Association as a prevalent cause of contact dermatitis in 8-15% of patients. Dermatologists have also reported fragrance being one of the biggest culprits causing allergic contact dermatitis. 

To translate this data into an alarm meter, this isn't code red unless you have a history of fragrance sensitivity, which is around 1-4% of the general population. 

For most consumers, you probably won't need to concern yourself with that percentage. But with dermatologists, it's their job to consider all possibilities, no matter how small, when assessing their patient's condition. Their strong opinion against fragranced products is the common practice of removing every possible allergen while treating dermatitis cases. It's also a good preventative measure that dermatologists advise for those who have suffered severe contact and allergic contact dermatitis or those with compromised skin barrier. If you don't fall into any of the two categories, abiding by the fragrance-free rule isn't a must. 

Potential to irritate eczema, rosacea, and compromised skin barrier 

Skin with eczema, rosacea, or compromised barrier is already fragile and reactive in nature. Having fragrance in the skincare routine, whether synthetic or natural, can make things worse. It's a good thump rule to use fragrance-free products if you have those skin conditions. 

May cause rash

Citrus essential oils like orange, bergamot, lime, and lemon tend to be photosensitive. Once oxidized, these oils become toxic to the skin. When applying them on, your skin reactions can be everything between a rash, itchiness, redness, to discoloration. 

Skincare products usually have preservatives and packaging designs to prevent this unfortunate event. But for products formulated with citrus oils, it's suggested that you use them at low dosages and at night. 

The benefits of fragrance in skincare

Unbeknown to most consumers, even the ability to make things smell nice of fragrance plays a major part in cosmetic formulation and your skincare routine than it's commonly believed. Here's the whole picture of what fragrance can do that you are missing out on. 

Enhance the sensory experience of skincare 

Rewind back to your first time trying out a skincare product, did you pop up the lid and smell it? Or did you put some on the back of your hand, and smell it?

Our intuitive act of using smell to make sense of whether something is good or bad to put in, on, or near our body is one of the reasons why skincare has fragrances to begin with. Instantly, most users won't be inclined to use a product with a foul odor or unpleasant scent, which, believe it or not, the original formula of skincare may have that trait. Or they won't commit to that product for long to actually see the results that the packaging claims. 

So, cosmetic brands use fragrances to attract and encourage customers to stick to their products and eventually achieve the desired skin goal. 

Provide skincare benefits

Besides the fragrant elements, essential oils like tea tree oil and chamomile oil also have anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. Take a stroll along the beauty aisle in CVS, and you'll see tea tree oil and chamomile in various beloved skincare for acne and sensitive skin

Double as preservatives

Thanks to their anti-microbial properties, some aromatic ingredients can be used as preservatives and fragrances. A few notable names you may stumble upon are honeysuckle flower extract - an essential oil, Phenoxyethanol, Phenethyl alcohol, and Benzoyl alcohol - aromatic alcohol. 

Be penetration enhancer

Rosemary oil and Terpense are famous for their performance in penetration enhancement. They are usually included in hair growth serum to stimulate the scalp and get those other nutrients in the formula to work harder and faster. 

All and all, the next time you see a fragrant compound in your beauty products, know that they are not there to do any ugly, dirty deeds to your skin. They are presented with good intentions. 

How to have a healthy relationship with fragrance in skincare

To help you figure out your skin tolerability with fragranced products and how to navigate around skincare with fragrance and essential oils, we have a few pointers for you. 

  1. Opt for fragrance-free skincare if you have eczema, rosacea, or a compromised skin barrier. Still want to spritz some fragrant fun into your routine? You can loosen your fragrance restriction with wash-off masks, cleansers, or peeling gel. Fragrance and essential oil in these products don't stay on your skin for long to cause irritations, so the irritation risk is minimal.

On the other hand, the state of compromised skin barrier is usually temporary, so after nursing your skin barrier back to its healthy state. You can definitely go back to having fragranced skincare in your routine. 

  1. If you want to be cautious about contact dermatitis or allergy dermatitis from fragrance, check the ingredient list for potential allergens and patch test at home when using a new product. When irritations arise, consult a dermatologist ASAP and have them help you figure out the root of the problem for treatments and future references. 

* Heads up! Some Round Lab products do contain essential oil/ fragrance, though it should be mild - undetectable. The list includes Dokdo Cleansing Oil, Birch Moisturizing Sunscreen, Birch Moisturizing Cleanser, Birch Mild Up Sunscreen, Mugwort Calming Line (cleanser, toner, serum, and cream). 

  1. Every skin has different sensitivity to a different ingredient at a different dosage. The principle applies to even skin with eczema and rosacea. 

Knowing how your skin responds to different ingredients and formulations is equally, if not more important than learning about the characteristics of an ingredient. With this mindset, you'll save lots of time stressing and excluding yourself from using the products that fit you for fear of fragranced products. 

  1. On the note of skin education, Round Lab's blog is a great library for you to learn all things skincare to make better skin decisions. So don't forget to subscribe to our newsletter to be notified about upcoming skincare tips and deep dives!