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This episode smells – we answer fragrance questions

Welcome to episode 176!

Today is our all-fragrance question extravaganza!!  

On this episode we’re going to be answering your beauty questions about

  • What do the terms unscented and fragrance free mean?
  • Should you avoid fragrance in skin care products
  • What’s the difference between synthetic and natural fragrances?
  • And how do fragrances get chosen for products?

Beauty science news

Gillette partners with Terracycle to recycle razor blades

Is the FDA going to get more power to regulate cosmetics

Beauty Product questions

Sheila says – Can you talk about the terms unscented, fragrance free, and for sensitive skin?

What differentiates these products from other products that are not necessarily for sensitive skin, when most of the ingredients are the same?


Grace says – Do you agree with Paula’s Choice severe take on fragrances leading to irritation? And then she provides a few links to scientific papers that the brand uses to justify their advice.

Ya know this is an interesting question and one I think we’ve stumbled upon in the past.  I know that Paula has been against fragrance in skin care products for a long time. While she makes a reasonable argument for avoiding fragrances, I think she goes too far and the advice to avoid fragrance in skin care products is overly cautious.

So let’s go through what Paula’s position is on fragrances in skincare.

On the Paula’s Choice website she has a post which explains it titled “Why Fragrance-free Products are best for everyone

Fragrances are known to be sensitizing to all skin types so you should avoid them. Also, not all sensitizing reactions are noticeable so you might be damaging your skin without even knowing it. So, everyone should avoid fragrances in their skin products.

Now, I don’t exactly disagree with the first few statements, but I do disagree with the conclusion that everyone should avoid fragrances.  Let’s dive a little deeper into her specific argument.

The first claim she makes it that it is well known that fragrance is a common sensitizing ingredient for all skin types – This isn’t exactly correct.  You see “fragrance” is not a single ingredient. Fragrances are made up of dozens or even hundreds of ingredients. It is true that some of the ingredients in some fragrances are sensitizing to different skin types, but it is not correct to say all fragrances are sensitizing to all skin types. This isn’t exactly what is claimed but it is implied. There are plenty of fragrances made up of ingredients that will not be sensitizing or cause any reaction to the vast majority of people.

Another claim that is made is that fragrances impart scent through a volatile reaction and that it is this natural reaction that causes skin sensitizing reaction on skin. Again, this is not exactly correct. This may be pedantic, but volatility is not a chemical reaction. It is a physical process in which molecules of the fragrance evaporate off the surface and into the air just like when water evaporates. These molecules bind with receptors in your nose which causes the sensation of odor. In chemistry, when we use the term “reaction” it specifically means that molecules interact other molecules to form some new molecule. Nothing like that is going on here.   

The volatility of an ingredient has little to do with the skin sensitization of a material. What is responsible for skin sensitization reactions is your immune system. Fragrance materials (or any other ingredient you might be sensitive to) bind with receptors on immune system cells in your skin which ultimately can lead to a reaction like redness, swelling or inflammation. Now, if you do not happen to have a cell with a receptor that reacts to the fragrance ingredient, then no immune reaction will take place. The ingredient will evaporate off your skin, maybe get into your nose, you’ll smell it, then it goes off into the atmosphere, never to be heard from again.  You’ll be like the 95-98% of people who experience no problems when using skin products with fragrances in them.

Now that gets us to the next claim made.  They say that even if you don’t show signs of being aggravated by fragrance in products, there could be some silently occurring damage going on in the skin that you just don’t notice. They further claim that this will build up over time and cause worse problems in the long term. Well, this is just conjecture and no proof is given. While it may be true that there is some invisible damage being caused there is no proof offered that people who use fragrance have worse skin years later because of it. I doubt that it is true or at least that it is true in any measurable sense.

She does offer up the analogy to not wearing sunscreen but this is completely different. Sun exposure damages DNA of stem cells which causes future damage in new cells. There is nothing in the immune response to fragrances that is going to cause long lasting damage like UV exposure. An analogy is not proof.

If they wanted to prove this, they would need to compare two people with the same genetics using the same products but with one having a fragranced product and the other an unfragranced one and see who’s skin is better. Obviously, a study like this can’t be done. Maybe you could compare people who use fragrances versus people who don’t but there are genetic differences so even that wouldn’t be completely accurate. However, even doing a study like that wouldn’t tell you much.

So, it’s not like you will go wrong if you follow Paula’s advice to avoid fragrances in skin care. But if you’re one of the 95% + people who have no negative reactions to fragrances, then you’re not really helping yourself much. You’re just using products that smell worse while enjoying the experience of doing skin care less.

The position to be fragrance free is a unique one in the market and it carves out a niche for their products. But it smacks a little bit of fear marketing in my opinion.  If you like the experience of fragrances in your skin care products and don’t have any noticeable reaction, I say go ahead and use them. If you have problems, then go fragrance free.


DanaLynn asks – what is the difference between synthetic or natural fragrance?

Why would one be “safer” than the other?

-I personally think the the synthetic ones would be safer. Because you have a higher confidence of what the composition of the ingredient is. Natural ingredients can be made up of anything that happens to get incorporated into the plant while it’s growing. The production of synthetic ingredients are tightly controlled under specific conditions.  Also, natural ingredients are more likely to be contaminated with some microbe that could cause problems. All-in-all, synthetic is safer.


Katherine asks – How to choose fragrances for different cosmetic products?

Go through the process of how we pick a fragrance for a product.

1.  Marketing concept – create an avatar of potential customers

2.  Mall intercept testing

3.  Submissions from fragrance houses

4.  Fragrance screening

5.  Ultimately choosing the fragrance

Next time…we answer more of your beauty questions.

If you want to ask a question about beauty products you can click the link in the show notes or record one on your phone and send it to thebeautybrains@gmail.com  Of course, we prefer audio questions because that makes for a more interesting sounding show.

Beauty Brains wrapup

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jennifer Younis March 19, 2019, 11:16 am

    Another great episode! I’ve always felt that Paula went a bit too far with the fragrance is bad for skin pitch. Thanks for confirming!!!


  • JOAN VIGNOCCHI March 24, 2019, 5:28 pm

    This is so interesting because I’ll use a product for a while, then turn red and flushed every time I use it. My husband had the same reaction to Tide – one day we had to switch to fragrance free laundry detergent. I got us all Lush bar shampoos (yay, saving plastic packaging) for Christmas. Within a few weeks, my husband and son had to stop using them, because the (volatile?!) essential oil fragrances in them started an allergic reaction, spreading from head to toe now calmed down with Cerave eczema shower gel and Cerave salicylic acid body soap used as shampoo instead. I have the smell of Paula’s products, but I use them and Cerave and anything else without fragrance because all of a sudden, one day, any of my family members can wake up covered in hives and bumps! And I hate looking like a red tomato myself! Frustrating to shop for products because I prefer nice-smelling things.

    • Perry Romanowski April 1, 2019, 2:17 pm

      Yeah, it’s tough to have reactions to things that make products smell better.

  • Christopher April 2, 2019, 2:22 pm

    I’m curious if there is a regulation, or standard practice of labeling essential oils in products. For example, some products will list oils, while some say essential oils. How do we know that the stated oils are actually the oil and not some sort of distillate (essential oil)? It has always been odd to be the term “essential oil”. It sounds like it is good, or healthy, or natural, but aren’t they all non-polar stripping agents? I mean turpentine is an “essential oil” why would you put that on your skin?

    • Perry Romanowski April 3, 2019, 7:35 am

      Yes, there is a regulation for labeling essential oils. Every ingredient has a listing in the INCI dictionary and that is the name that should be used. The term “Essential oil” should not be in an ingredient list. Only the name of the oil should be listed. Some people find the term essential oil compelling and this is why marketers put it on their bottles.

      • Christopher April 3, 2019, 11:55 am

        So how do you know if you are getting the actual oil, or a distillate in a product?

        • Perry Romanowski April 3, 2019, 5:38 pm

          Well, you don’t. You have to trust your supplier. If an ingredient is added for its odor, it should be referred to as Fragrance. If it is a distillate added for some other reason, it is probably referred to as an extract.