Today we look at synthetic fragrances used in skincare and why they can be the cause of so many skin problems for some of us.
Whilst out shopping recently, I was given a handful of samples to try which I did. Only out of curiosity and research that is. I was immediately fascinated by a Hydrating Lotion which promised to deliver big results. It didn’t. It was so runny, almost like milk and when I put it on my skin, I could feel the immediate stinging. I was also knocked out at how strong the fragrance was. It was eye-watering strong and not at all pleasant to use. That combined with the stinging sensation on my cheeks and under my eyes left me running for the bathroom to wash it off, and quick.
When it comes to fragrances, I simply can’t use them on my skin, and I don’t use them in my serum. Essential oils and synthetic fragrance oils have been used for a long time to add scent to skincare, but fragrance oils are more prevalent because they are considerably cheaper and stick around longer. Essential oils will fade within 6 months as so a lot of formulators prefer to use fragrances so it will last until the expiration date of the product. Both essential oils and fragrance oils have their pro’s and con’s, but I’d like to help you better understand the issues surround allergic reactions where they are both concerned.
These wonderful oils come direct from fruit skins, leaves, flowers, bark or grasses and are extracted using a number of different methods including cold pressing, boiling, distillation or solvent extraction. The last one produces Absolutes. Oils such as jasmine and rose are absolutes, and the reason this method is used is because the flowers are too delicate and yield too little oil for other methods. Either way, essential oils are closer to being natural than a synthetic fragrance and contain active compounds that provide a number of different benefits such as anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-scarring.
They do carry warnings though, as they are volatile oils meaning they have a physical action at a cellular level. The compounds in essential oils can deliver wonderful skin benefits, but they can also cause skin sensitivity, allergic reactions and other serious complications if not used strictly as directed. Essential oils and absolutes are highly regulated by the EU in skincare. There are strict guidelines to what can and cannot be used, in combination with other ingredients and to what levels. Rose oil for example is a beautiful oil that has many proven skincare benefits for mature, dry skin. However, used at the wrong levels can make it dangerous for the health of your liver.
The other thing to know about Essential oils is that they, like fragrance oils, contain allergens. In 2003 the EU produced an amendment to its cosmetics and skincare regulations that listed 26 compounds found in essential oils and fragrances as allergens and because of this, all manufacturers are legally obliged to list any allergens which exceeds 0.01% on the bottle or packaging.
You’ll find the full list here, but whenever you see these words on the bottle you should know that they are come from either essential oils or fragrances (look for parfum in the list of ingredients) and could produce a skin reaction. You will find them in everything by the way, so if you are using a product containing allergens without issues, don’t worry. It means you are one of the lucky percentage who do not react.
Sometimes called aroma oils, fragrance oils for specific use in soaps, cosmetics or skincare are often complicated mixes of several different single-source aromas to produce a unique blend. Because of this, it would be impossible for a manufacturer to list every ingredient, plus they are also very protective of their formulas since fragrance manufacturing is big business. To that end, the EU allows the word parfum to be used as an ingredient.
I don’t like using fragrance oils, and I won’t put one near my face either. They give me a headache and make my skin feel tight/itchy. As formulator, I know that they need to be handled with care as most of them are flammable and highly toxic.
Everyone involved in the supply chain of skincare ingredients including manufacturers are subject to strict regulations as they can’t be allowed to enter our waterways in concentrated form, not stored near any heat source or ignition catalyst. They are so strong you must wear goggles and commercial breathing masks to avoid toxicity. A few years ago, I became addicted to making soap and was using fragrance oils all the time. I was only using them in what I considered small volumes, but the oils were so strong that I soon realised I had to immediately start using breathing masks. Sadly, not before I had de-sensitized the lining of my nose and lost my sense of smell for almost a year. It's back now but ever since then, I have been wary for fragrance oils.
However, this isn’t the only reason I’m wary of them. The chemicals used to create these oils are often irritants and can cause skin itching, redness, burning sensation, nausea, headaches and vomiting. Sound familiar? Ever walked through a department store and felt the immediate need to throw up when passing anywhere near or through the perfume counters? That’s because you are allergic to one or more of the 26 allergens or chemicals used in artificial fragrances. Benzyl Salicylate, Linalool and Cinnamal are common examples. Even at low levels, they can produce contact dermatitis and are restricted by the EU to very low levels of use.
I love spicy smells and last month I spent £20 on a bottle of shampoo to see if it made any difference to my limp unruly fly away hair. It did, but it also contained cinnamal, which I didn’t know I was allergic to. The result was a very itchy scalp. So I binned it and went back to my good old faithful supermarket brand. Luckily for me, it was only an allergic reaction.
Because some of these allergens, used over time can cause sensitization. Not to be confused with sensitivity, which is immediate and acute, sensitization is an allergic reaction to an irritant that causes chronic inflammation and itchiness. Unlike an irritation, sensitization grows more reactive with repeated exposure. So if you are thinking of that old wives tale of building immunity with exposure, think again because it doesn’t apply to the use of synthetic chemicals. Especially to harsh irritating chemicals we use in our everyday lives.
If you have contact dermatitis or red/dry/angry itchy skin, it is probably the fragrances in your cosmetics, skincare or other beauty products. This can include household cleaning products. Once you become sensitized to something, it isn’t a far stretch that other products will cause random and adverse reactions. If you are concerned, I would recommend removing as many fragranced products from your life as you can. Try it for a week and see what happens.
For a lot of us, fragrances and essential oils pose no irritation to our skin. However, if you have dry skin that is prone to itchiness, redness and general symptoms of irritation, there is a strong possibility that the fragrances in your products are the cause. In this case and if you only use fragrance-based skincare, think about moving to something closer to nature containing essential oils as a first step. Although some people will find themselves irritated by essential oils as well, there is less chance as a lot of these oils contain anti-inflammatory compounds.
For others though, a complete eradication of fragrances from every part of their daily lives is the only answer.
In short, fragrance oils in skincare seem to be ok for the majority of the population but for those of use with dry skin, especially if it’s easily irritated they can be a major problem.
I hope this has given you a little insight to fragrances and helps you make more informed decisions.
As always, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave your comments and questions here on the blog.
Love, light and glow.