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Article: What’s That Smell? And is it making your skin itch?

What’s That Smell? And is it making your skin itch?

What’s That Smell? And is it making your skin itch?

Fragrance is EVERYWHERE!

And no, I'm not talking about perfume! Although, the way some products are scented, can sometimes seem that way. You may not have noticed, but a grand majority of the different products we buy have some sort of scent to them. Cleaning products, beauty products, even some kid’s toys, and office supplies! Heck, I'll admit I myself have been known to gravitate towards scented beauty products, especially makeup. A bronzer that smells like a tropical getaway complete with a Pina Colada? Sign me up and give me three of them!

There's something about specific scents that can bring about a feeling of nostalgia and really add to the user experience, that's undeniable. However, there has been a growing movement towards minimal, natural scents in skincare, or even no scent at all. What's the big deal? Who cares if the lotion I use smells like mangos or flowers or nothing at all? And beyond that, what's the difference between synthetic and natural fragrances in beauty products, does it actually matter?

Photo by Fulvio Ciccolo on Unsplash

The short answer here is YES. There are a number of reasons to steer clear of fragrance, specifically synthetic fragrances, in your skincare. It's not about what it smells like but rather what ingredients are helping to create and sustain that scent and how your skin reacts to them. Let's get into the dirty details.

The FDA uses "fragrance" as a generalized term that covers...well pretty much anything that has a scent. This includes things like essential oils, aromatherapy, and synthetic and natural fragrances. For our purposes when talking about skincare we are most concerned about those synthetic fragrances and how they affect your skin. Synthetic fragrance is a VERY common ingredient in skincare that is made up of a cocktail of different chemicals and, in many instances, petrochemicals. Some chemicals in the mix are needed to make the scent while others are there to help that scent last in the product and, in some cases, on your skin.

Once it's been determined as a fragrance then the FDA goes a step further to categorize these fragrances into groupings to determine WHO gets to regulate them and HOW they'll go about it. For example, fragrance in skincare usually falls under the "cosmetic" category unless its main goal is therapeutic/treatment based in which case it may fall under the "drug" classification. Whichever group it falls under gets to regulate it!

The whole process sounds pretty thorough, and god knows I love organizing things into groups, but the truth of the matter is that there is very little in the way of fragrance formulation that is actually prohibited here in the United States. The FDA does not actually have to approve fragrance ingredients in cosmetics for them to go to market. As long as the manufacturer deems them safe for the consumer when used as stated on the label, and there is an understanding that the manufacturer has a legal responsibility to ensure that these products are safe for use and properly labeled, they're good to go.

As your average consumer, I can assure you I would have no clue how to differentiate between good and bad ingredients in a fragrance just by picking up a random skincare item of my choice off the shelf. This issue is compacted by the fact that a grand majority of products containing synthetic fragrance don't actually tell you what makes up their fragrance...just that there is one. How are you supposed to sidestep a possible allergen if you don't know it's in there?

With some cosmetics, like makeup, fragrance may not be as big of a deal. It is, after all, something that you are applying to your skin with the intention of later thoroughly cleansing it off. But skincare is designed to be applied and sink into the skin, to help care for and treat our skin, and as such it's important to pay a little more attention to what we're using and what effects it might have.

This begs the question...what do those synthetic fragrance ingredients really do to your skin? When you really look further into it there's definitely cause for pause when purchasing skincare with synthetic fragrance, especially if you have sensitive skin. Fragrance has shown signs of causing irritation to sensitive skin as well as allergic reactions depending on the ingredients in its formula.

In terms of effects on the skin, the most prevalent and obvious one to worry about would be allergic reactions. There are any number of ingredients that could cause an allergic reaction in regards to fragrance and the actual reaction itself can vary from mild irritation, like itchiness, burning, stinging or redness, to more severe reactions such as blotchiness, swelling, or even blisters. While these reactions do tend to make up a majority of the side effects seen there are also ingredients in some synthetic fragrances with links to much more serious effects like cancer and reproductive toxicity.

Of COURSE, this doesn't mean your sweet-smelling lotion is going to give you cancer or even an allergic reaction at all. However, it's important to understand these ingredients in order to make an educated decision about them either way, especially if you're a mama-to-be who is frantically combing through skincare ingredients in search of the safest and most effective options.

In the end, it's up to us to determine just how much fragrance we're okay with being in our skincare products. Choosing lightly scented, naturally fragranced, or even non-fragranced products can help to avoid possible irritations or reactions while reaping all of the benefits we want from our skincare. I know moving forward I'm going to be much more aware of where exactly those scents in my skincare are coming from!

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