About Perfume & Fragrance in Skin Care: Fragrance Oils vs. Essential Oils

In recent years there more research has emerged about the dangers of synthetic fragrances and oils. These perfumes show up in our daily lives in so many products that are everywhere in our air but are not disclosed on the labels you may be reading.

Let’s take a look at what those substances are, how you may be using them every day without knowing that you are, how you can avoid them, and how, in doing so, you can make healthier decisions for your health and skin.

What Is Perfume Fragrance in Skin Care?

Every ingredient that goes into a skin care preparation, hair product, or other cosmetic must be listed on the ingredient label. Although many of these ingredients are only decipherable to a cosmetic chemist, they have to all be listed by law. The International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (or “INCI”) is the standard and required way to list ingredients on a cosmetic label.

In this way, a person in France, Spain, or the U.S. can look at the label and see the same spelling. Most ingredients are listed by their Latin name. For example, aloe vera extract must be listed as aloe barbadensis leaf extract. The only exception is that in the U.S. the common name (aloe) must also be listed. This rule was made a long time ago so that the common man would understand what was in the products.

The U.S. complies with international standards by listing common and Latin names. The only ingredient that does not have to be legally spelled out and defined is “perfume.” Perfume is a gigantic loophole. It may be spelled out as “perfume,” “parfum,” “aroma,” or “fragrance,” but it is all the same thing—an umbrella term that may hide any number of fragrance chemicals from a group of more than 5000 used in the beauty industry.

Many of these ingredients have never been safety tested. Cosmetic companies may use as many fragrance-forming ingredients as they like—and still “fragrance” takes up just one spot on the label.

What About Regulations for Fragrance in Skin Care?

Perfume gets a free pass under the law in the United States—it’s the only ingredient that doesn’t have to say what it really is. Why is this? Well, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) received numerous requests from perfume companies to help protect their proprietary blends. As a result, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1967 was enacted, and companies were allowed to list “perfume” instead of the long list of components of their unique blends. What this meant is that companies like Bonnie Bell, Coty, Chanel No. 5, and others were essentially protected from copycats.

Back in the 1960s, no one stopped to think about what they were putting on their bodies, and there was less dispute about fragrance oils vs. essential oils. Many perfume ingredients of the time included oils from endangered animals, like the secretion of Himalayan musk deer or excretions from sperm whales. Although those ingredients are not ones we would see today, the fact remains that we still have no idea what is in our perfumes even over 50 years after this law was created. 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. Perhaps with consumers more concerned with allergens and what is in their products, these laws need to be looked at and modernized.

What is interesting to note is that although perfume is exempted under this law, essential oils are not. If a company creates a moisturizer with essential oils instead of synthetic fragrance ingredients, they are required to list every ingredient, and there are federal dermal limits for the amount that is allowed in the formula.

Photo of glass spritzer bottle surrounded by pink and white flowers

The Price of Perfume to Your Health

According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), synthetic fragrance is the largest cause of cosmetic contact dermatitis. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, fragrances are the most common cause of allergic reactions to cosmetics, including foundation, makeup, skin care, and toiletries. A close second to fragrance in allergic reaction is the wide array of preservatives and hair dyes on the market.

During a typical day, a woman will use shampoo, conditioner, hair detangler, hair spray, or other leave-in products, deodorant, body wash, face wash, exfoliating scrubs, facial serums, facial and body moisturizers or oil blends, sunscreen and self-tanners, eye serum or cream and toners… and that is even before she gets into the makeup stage! Even powdered eye shadow can be made with phthalates and perfumes.

So what is in perfume? Although we cannot speak for specific blends, the makeup of fragrance in skin care generally contains many toxic ingredients. Perfume, therefore, on labels is really a general name for an undisclosed mixture of scent chemicals like diethyl phthalate (used to disperse fragrance). This ingredient has been linked to cancer, ADHD, asthma, infertility and hormone issues, neurodevelopment and behavioral conditions and autism. It’s not healthy for anyone, particularly young children and pregnant women. The list might also include formaldehyde, or urea (a formaldehyde releaser). Formaldehyde is found in many items, including aspartame (artificial sweetener) and clothing that is wrinkle resistant, which has been treated with the chemical. Toluene is a common ingredient found in industrial supplies and paint, is also found in nail polish and hair dyes, but because it is an aroma ingredient, it could be easily found in a perfume blend. It is linked to reproductive problems in women and men. Another ingredient, Quaternium 15, is a preservative found in self-tanners, sunscreen, shampoo, conditioner, and nail polish.

All of these ingredients have been linked to health concerns in the short term, and yet we are exposed to them constantly. If you think about a typical day, from morning to night, we encounter hand sanitizers and soaps at restaurant bathrooms or at offices, detergents we use to wash our laundry, the hand creams and lotions we apply later, and makeup remover at night. You can plainly see how over time we have thousands upon thousands of these dangerous chemicals on our bodies.

Why Do We Use Fragrance in Skin Care?

It sounds really simple and silly to say this, but perfumes are used because we like things to smell good. A scent might evoke a memory of the ocean, or a rose garden that your grandmother used to have. They help us remember things like our first date or a hug from a father who smelled like Old Spice. Cosmetic companies understand that there is power in scent, and that our emotional responses have a serious impact on consumers purchasing or not purchasing a product.

As a young teen, you might have gone into the mall and smelled soaps, hand creams, or snuck a sample of a perfume from the stores. If it smells good, it must be good, right? It has been ingrained into our culture that everything must have a scent. The truth is that many skin care ingredients don’t smell particularly good from the get-go. If you create a line of skin care products that is completely unscented, there is always a smell, and that scent might not be pleasant. That is when other options come into play.

Photo of glass bottles with herbs in them

Synthetic Oils vs. Essential Oils: Our Case for Essential Oils

Essential oils have become very popular in the natural skin care world, but as the trend towards less toxic skin care increases, they spilling over into more skin care lines. Essential oils are the natural oils from plants, obtained by distillation. The name “essential” came from the “essence” of that plant, as the oil captures the characteristic fragrance of the plant or flower itself.

Essential oils can come from plants, flowers, resins, and bark. They are best purchased from a reputable supplier with safety data sheets and batch certifications, showing the actual makeup of the oil as it is produced. Less expensive oils may be diluted or mixed, and buying the highest quality is imperative. Essential oils should never be applied directly to the skin, and, as a result, they are highly governed. One essential oil might have a maximum use rate in skin care formulation of only 0.01%, and another might have a dermal limit of 0.5%.

Each is completely different, and there are also “total amount” of essential oil that can be used in a single product (determined according to the combined amounts of all of the essential oils). Fortunately, a little goes a very long way in skin care.

The benefit of essential oils is huge as an alternative to synthetic fragrances in skin care. Tea tree and chamomile, for example, have a great reputation for helping with acne. Peppermint and lavender are notoriously used for lifting the mood of the person using them, and citrus oils are also very positive and uplifting. Not only are the aromatherapy benefits there, but the oils also help the skin. With this in mind, we developed the Tranquility Dry Body Oil.

It is important to note that even though essential oils are completely disclosed on ingredient lists (unlike synthetic fragrance), and come from a completely natural plant source, some people can still have allergic reactions to them.

Ayr Skin Care is a good example of a company that puts safety first in the creation of skin care products. We only use essential oils in the very lightest percentage that they can be used and still be effective. We combine them with fruit extracts, grape and other fruit juices, lemon peel and goji berry. The ingredients not only give a soft fresh smell to the products, they also offer the properties of the ingredients. Take lemon peel, for example. Lemon is not only uplifting, but offers clarifying properties and skin lightening properties to formulation. Grape juice contains naturally occurring resveratrol, a compound found in a group called “polyphenols” that act as antioxidants, protecting the body from damage from the environment. It is found in the skin of red grapes. By using these ingredients, we get a natural scent in our skin care. Look for these in our Reveal Exfoliating Cleanser with AHA fruit acids.

Beware of “Fragrance-Free” and Unscented Products

As you can see, some companies like Ayr Skin Care are out trying to keep your skin beautiful without compromising your health. There are other companies though, that sell their products as “fragrance-free.” To the innocent buyer, this might sound like the perfect answer! No scent at all, but it is not as guiltless as you might think. Remember above when we talked about how some ingredients just don’t smell nice? Well, just because something says that it is fragrance-free or unscented, it does not mean that there are no masking fragrance ingredients. It just means that there are no scented additives added to change the scent to something that you recognize. Even though the finished smell of an “unscented” deodorant, for example, doesn’t smell like a fragrance, does not mean that there are no fragrances in the product. These are “masking ingredients,” chemicals added to cover up other chemical smells but without the smell of something that your nose will recognize as a “perfume.”

The goal of using these ingredients is to end up with a neutral-scented product. Ironically, one of the reasons that unscented products were first marketed was so that the product would not interfere with a woman’s perfume!

What We Can Do As Consumers

As taxpayers, we have the right to press our government for changes to laws that have been in effect for more than fifty years. Listing the ingredients of a perfume does not mean that other companies will be able to copy it directly, but it does put these products under the same scrutiny as essential oils and other ingredients.

We can also learn more about the ingredients by carefully examining skin care ingredient labels. Look for things that say “perfume” or “fragrance” or “aroma,” and be wary of them, especially if you are pregnant, using the product on young children, or have sensitive skin or skin conditions or a compromised immune system. Opt for a brand that is natural and honest about disclosing its ingredient list, erring on the side of “less is more” in essential oils, and says “no” to synthetics.

At Ayr Skin Care, we are passionate about leading the efforts to create safe skin care products that are as effective as they are beneficial. We disclose all of our ingredients on our products, as well as our website. If you ever have a question about what is in our products, about what naturally derived fragrances we use in our skin care line, we hope that you will email our company and ask. We are happy to discuss our formulation and the care that we use in selecting our ingredients.

When you see a facial moisturizer in a store, think twice if it is colored pink or yellow or any other color. Start to ask questions. What made it that color? Look for synthetic color numbers on the ingredient lists and be wary of any that just say “mica” because mica has color numbers associated with the colors, and those should be listed.

Some people are just as allergic to synthetic colors as they are to perfume ingredients, so choose something more natural. Ayr Skin Care’s daytime moisturizer, Pure Moisture, has a very light fruity scent from extracts, like lemon, tangerine peel, sweet almond fruit, honeysuckle, and goji berries. These light extracts blend with the natural smell of our organic oils and butters to create a very light, natural scent that will not irritate your skin.

The future of the beauty industry is going towards a more natural ingredient list, but not every company will go that way with integrity. Be aware that some companies, very large ones, may say “unscented” or “parabens free,” but when you look at the complete list, you will see things like petroleum oil, PEGs, BHT, and other very unnatural ingredients.

Use your common sense, ask questions, contact companies to inquire about what they use, and continue to follow our blog, which is designed to educate and prepare you to venture forth into the beauty section of your local store!

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If you have any questions or comments, we would be happy to answer you personally! Please contact us at info@ayrskincare.com.