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Ingredient intelligence: What you need to know about fragrance

women investigating ingredientsFragrance is the problem child ingredient of traditional beauty products. Wild and wily, these molecules of scent can wreak havoc on your skin by causing contact dermatitis, a seriously red and itchy rash, or other allergic reactions like a headache or asthma. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), fragrance is the biggest cause of cosmetic contact dermatitis. It’s up there with nickel and poison ivy, which most people know how to avoid.

But it can be hard to steer clear of something that’s in scores of products, from skin care and hair care to makeup and perfume, of course. An equal opportunity player, fragrance is added to drugstore brands and department store ones alike to connote luxury or brand unity or cover up what skin-care ingredients might smell like without it. (Medicinal with a hint of cold cream is not very sexy.) Here are few more facts we’ve sniffed out about this potentially vexing ingredient.

shopping for fragrance-free products

"Fragrance" is a catch-all term on the list of ingredients, making it hard to know exactly what's in your skin-care product

FRAGRANCE GETS A FREE PASS ON LABELS

For consumer clarity, beauty companies have to use the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) when listing what’s in a product. This standardized book of ingredient names means that lavandula angustifolia (lavender extract) is always lavandula angustifolia, regardless of whether a company thinks theirs is better, exotic, or magical.

But fragrance gets a free pass under the law—it’s the only ingredient that’s allowed to hide under a cloud of rose petals and doesn’t have to say what it really is. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) exempts it from having to be more specific, even though it might contain synthetic, preservative, or allergy-provoking substances that you might want to know about. That can be a big problem for New Yorkers who pride themselves on knowing what exactly goes into their food or face creams.

FRAGRANCE: A COMPLICATED COCKTAIL

Although fragrance looks like it’s one ingredient on the label, it’s more likely a blend of many ingredients, confirms the AAD, which says about 5,000 fragrance molecules are used in heavy rotation. Cosmetic companies may use as many fragrance-forming ingredients as they like—and still “fragrance” takes up just one spot on the label. Suffice it say, it can make it hard to figure out exactly what you’re allergic to.

Intelligent Nutrients new Harmonic shampoo and conditioner

Intelligent Nutrients names every ingredient in the bottle. All companies could do this instead of using "fragrance" to hide the ones that worry us.

AN OUTDATED LOOPHOLE

Why does the FDA give fragrance this label-listing loophole? It was originally developed to protect a company’s proprietary perfume blend or trade secrets, under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1966. In other words, it protected Coty and Chanel No. 5 from copycats.

The regulation designed to conceal ingredients from the eyes of corporate competitors now does the same for a cosmetic consumer who might be inclined to scan the label for parabens, petroleum by-products, and synthetics.

FYI: Companies can choose to disclose their ingredients without giving away the specific amounts and the formulation process—and some do. After all, chocolate, sugar, flour, and butter doesn’t make the exact same cake.

HOW TO AVOID SYNTHETIC FRAGRANCE

The solution? (Other than lobbying the FDA to change this, which some groups are doing, by the way.) Look for beauty products that plainly state what’s scenting it: On the back label, “fragrance” should be followed by a list of ingredients in parentheses.

Or look for a product that uses essential oils instead of “fragrance (parfum).” Many brands, including Dermalogica, now do this.

And Intelligent Nutrients practices what’s probably the most reasonable solution: The company doesn’t use the term “fragrance” at all. Instead it just lists every single ingredient on the label regardless of what its purpose is. Companies that use synthetics could do this, too.

BEFORE YOU REACH FOR “FRAGRANCE-FREE” PRODUCTS

You might be totally tempted to scan the beauty counter for “fragrance-free” products at this point. Not to be a buzzkill, but that’s probably not enough. All kinds of companies use the term, and not in the same way.

REN no stamp

"No synthetic fragrance" reads this stamp REN developed for its products

Companies that don’t use any chemicals or synthetic fragrance molecules—just plant and flower extracts or essential oils—might call their products “fragrance-free,” like REN, a natural skin-care brand.

But companies that use scent-masking chemicals, so your product smells no more or less than milk, will also claim to be “fragrance-free.” Neutrogena is a good example.

Good to know for sniffing out your beauty product labels.—Melisse Gelula

16 Comments | ADD YOURS

  1. December 13th, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    I am pregnant and wondering if “Fragrance” could hide an ingredient such as Salyclic acid or Benzoyl Peroxide?

  2. January 13th, 2011 at 7:03 am

    [...] to recommend it as a mild and non-irritating facial cleanser for two reasons: it doesn’t contain fragrance and, more tellingly, because MDs have a big Pharma love affair with the manufacturer, Galderma, the [...]

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  4. April 14th, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    [...] to recommend it as a mild and non-irritating facial cleanser for two reasons: it doesn’t contain fragrance and, more tellingly, because MDs have a big Pharma love affair with the manufacturer, Galderma, the [...]

  5. July 20th, 2011 at 11:45 am

    [...] been shown to speed the development of skin tumors in the presence of sunlight) and an unspecified fragrance are there, too.Mystic’s at-home tanner, which has a similar but not identical ingredient list, [...]

  6. November 19th, 2011 at 11:59 am

    [...] 19, 2011Gift Finder: Healthy fragrance for the scent-obsessedEveryone loves to smell good, but fragrance is a sneaky ingredient you may not want seeping into your pores. Forget the perfume counter at Macy’s and give a [...]

  7. January 18th, 2012 at 6:31 am

    [...] when she launched Ilia Pure Lip Care last summer.Skipping ingredients like petrochemicals and the ever-elusive fragrance, Ilia lipsticks are 85 percent organic but have the look and feel of a traditional luxe brand (but [...]

  8. January 23rd, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    [...] ingredients like petrochemicals and the ever-elusive fragrance, Ilia lipsticks are 85 percent organic but have the look and feel of a traditional luxe brand (but [...]

  9. March 16th, 2012 at 2:23 pm

    [...] Umm, the truth is that we dare you to choose healthier scents that aren’t formulated with the mystery fillers of fragrance.Athleta for athletes. Athleta announced this week that they’ll be sponsoring the 2012 USA [...]

  10. June 12th, 2012 at 5:49 am

    “doesn’t have to say what it really is”
    This sounds fishy!!!

  11. June 14th, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    [...] is a sponsored post from Well+Good NYC: Fragrance is the problem child ingredient of traditional beauty products. Wild and wily, these [...]

  12. August 22nd, 2012 at 12:15 am

    [...] only downside is that while the formulation avoids parabens and fragrance and does include nourishing aloe and papaya extracts, it’s not [...]

  13. February 6th, 2013 at 6:32 am

    [...] one. Which is why we’ve rounded up the best new natural perfumes that won't kill the mood with (unhealthy) chemicals. Our perfume picks are mostly handcrafted in small batches with plant extracts, distilled flower [...]

  14. February 19th, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    [...] “Fragrance” has the potential to cause contact dermatitis an itchy rash similar to poison ivy or nickel exposure in those allergic to it.  It also can contain hormone disruptive chemicals.  To read more about how bad “fragrance” is, check out this really great article: Ingredient Intelligence: What You Need to Know About Fragrance. [...]

  15. June 24th, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    [...] Group’s list of cosmetic chemicals to avoid—DEET in bug spray, oxybenzone in sunscreen, fragrance in deodorant, and parabens in [...]

  16. Johne560
    May 10th, 2014 at 6:49 pm

    Superb post but I was wanting to know if you could write a bgceekbdedfe

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