Fragrance-Free Products and Sensitive Skin: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know
“I have sensitive skin, so I can only use fragrance-free products”. We hear this a lot at Jersey Beauty Company. We also find that there are a lot of common misconceptions around sensitive skin and the benefits of fragrance-free products, which sometimes lead people to rule out products that may be more suited to their individual skin type. We asked Chris Smith, from Personal Care Magazine, for a bit more information on fragrance-free, what we need to be looking for in products, and how we recognise and care for sensitive skin. Chris helps us to bust four popular myths about fragrance-free products and sensitive skin.
Myth 1 – Fragrance-Free Products Are Good For Sensitive Skin
The first thing to establish is when a product claims to be fragrance-free, what does that actually mean? Well, to understand that, we need to understand what a fragrance is classed as.
Chris explains, “a fragrance is put together with what are classed as fragrant compounds. When you have got a product and you see “parfum” that means it contains a cocktail of these fragrance ingredients. A lot of which are classed as allergens.” It is the allergens that cause irritation to sensitive skin. So it’s the allergens we need to look out for in products.
Chris provides a comprehensive list of these allergens:
Amyl cinnamal; Benzyl alcohol; Cinnamyl alcohol; Citral; Eugenol; Hydroxycitronellal; Isoeugenol; Amylcinnamyl alcohol; Benzyl salicylate; Cinnamal; Coumarin; Geraniol; Hydroxyisohexyl 3-cyclohexene carboxaldehyde; Anise alcohol; Benzyl cinnamate; Farnesol; Butylphenyl methylpropional; Linalool; Benzyl benazoate; Citronellol; Hyexyl cinnamal; Limonene; Menthyl 2-octynoate; Evernia prunastri; Evernia furfuracea
“If you pick up a product, any skincare or cosmetic product, it will say “parfum” but if it’s got any of the fragrance allergens above, they’re also listed right at the end of the ingredient list. If you pick up a product that says “parfum” but doesn’t have any other fragrance ingredient listed, you can be pretty sure that is a very mild fragrance, it’s normally products at very low levels you know just a hint of a fragrance.”
One other word of warning from Chris, is that fragrance-free products can sometimes other chemicals to absorb negative natural fragrances of the ingredients – for example, “cocoa butter, it doesn’t smell of cocoa it just smells kind of fatty and waxy so sometimes, as a formulator, you put something in to just kind of almost neutralize that but that doesn’t necessarily need to be a fragrance itself.”
Myth 2 - Most People Have Sensitive Skin
We can think we have sensitive skin when we actually don’t. Most people go through phases of the skin being more sensitive than at other times, as our skin responds to the environment, internal changes in the body and the way we care for it, but that can lead us to thinking we have sensitive skin.
If your skin is sensitive, it will often look reddened. It will react to temperature changes - going in and out of the cold, temperature changes between cars, buildings. It will feel hot to the touch – feeling irritated or inflamed on a daily basis.
The statistic of people with really sensitive skin is only about 1-3% of the population. So, a lot of us, we think we’ve got sensitive skin and we think we need to use fragrance-free but most actually don’t" Chris explains.
Understanding if we actually have sensitive skin can open up a wider range of products to us, and help us know what to look for in the ingredients list.
Myth 3: Fragrance is Bad for the Skin
Chris explains that a lot of people with sensitive skin avoid using any fragranced products, when this isn’t always necessary. It wholly depends on the nature of your sensitive skin and the ingredients of the specific product.
“If you have eczema or severe dry skin,” Chris advises, “you would benefit from fragrance-free products, as about 16% of eczema sufferers are directly sensitized by some of the fragrance allergens.”
For the majority though with more mildly sensitive skin, Chris advises “a good rule of thumb is to have a quick look in the back of the ingredient list and see whether it has a load of the fragrance allergen compounds bolted on, because if they are not present and all you can see is “parfum” somewhere near the bottom, it means that product has probably got a very light amount of fragrance, or it’s been specially formulated to be really, really low in anything that’s allergenic. So what you might find is it smells really nice but actually it’s incredibly safe, because it’s been formulated that way.”
By looking a bit more closely into the ingredients of individual products, we may find a whole new world of choices opens up to us in caring for our sensitive skin.
Myth 4: Essential Oils Benefit Sensitive Skin
So you want a natural alternative to fragrance for sensitive skin and you reach for the products with essential oils, thinking they will benefit your sensitive skin and give a natural scent. Chris explains why that is not the solution for sensitive skin.
“Essential oils are natural fragrances so they are naturally rich in the fragrance compounds (allergens) that I mentioned, the likes of “citrol”, “eugenol” or “citronellol”. So what you are doing, instead of using a synthetic or formulated fragrance that’s had consideration for the levels of these different allergens, you could be putting something on neat which has a colossal amount of some of these allergens in there.” The same rules apply. If there is an allergen that naturally occurs in the essential oils, it will be listed on the product.
Also, products that do use essential oils often do so at really low levels, because of the high level of allergens, and the fragrance they emit, is actually an added formulated fragrance. Chris says the key thing to look out for “on a pack is whether is says “parfum”, that tells you it’s got a formulated fragrance in there. And often products that even say you know “infused with essential oil x y and z” they’ll still have a fragrance in there, because the essential oils are so low.”
Chris explains the solution sometimes is actually using fragranced products rather than essential oils, as they are more likely to have lower levels of allergens. He explains, “when we talk about a fragrance, synthetic or formulated however you describe it, it’s a blend of ingredients. So, what we tend to do, the fragrance company will take the different fragrance ingredients I’ve talked about like “limonene” “citronellol” the things that you find in lemon or rose or whatever else it might be. And they will optimize it so they will combine it with other ingredients to make the thing last longer or release faster, work in the shower, stay on your skin all day, those kind of things so they’re absolutely optimized, meaning you can use slightly lower levels of the actual fragrance levels themselves.
Whereas to use the neat essential oil, you’ve got no way of keeping it on the skin or making it last all day or whatever else it might be. So they only way you get a better effect is to use an awful lot more.” In Chris’ opinion, a synthetic fragrance is always going to be safer and less harsh on the skin than neat essential oils.
Fragranced or Fragrance-Free?
Chris’ final thoughts - if you have sensitive skin, check the ingredients list for allergens and choose products that will most benefit your skin.
“I think if you’ve got a severe skin condition such as eczema then yes, fragrance-free because the percentage affected by fragranced products is pretty high, that’s about 16%.” Otherwise, “only 1-3% really that do have skin that would be sensitized by fragrance. There are other elements in products that can cause allergy and one that’s been in the newspapers a lot recently are preservatives, which of course, and in my opinion they are way more likely to be the cause of a skin allergy than a fragrance, to the general population.”
For Chris, the key for sensitive skin is looking beyond the ‘fragrance-free’ label and checking the allergens list when choosing new products.