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Fragrance – When The Science Is Only Skin Deep

February 20, 2011

As a consultant working in the cosmetics industry it is impossible not to be aware of the fear that exists around the chemicals used to make products. It is also impossible not to be somewhat dismayed by the amount of mis-information that feeds into those fears. However, the saddest thing for me is that many people are now so confused and scared that they no longer know who to trust and as a chemist with a cosmetic industry background I accept that I am probably low down on the ‘safe’ list. But that doesn’t stop me trying and so it is that we look at this, another doozy from the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database – a resource of dubious value that is shaping the ingredient choices of many a new brand and the product choices of the concerned public.

“Fragrance” A ‘chemical’ with hazard rating 8, 100% data gap and a big red warning bell. Use it at your peril.

Before I go on I am going to tell all of you that don’t already know that I regularly consult for a fragrance company and so have (depending on how you look at it):

a)  a vested interest in getting you to all buy more fragrance even if it does kill you


b) some useful inside information to share along side a small dose of  passion.

Anyway here is some information to chew on and play with. Do with it what you will:

  • “Fragrance” is not a chemical.  Fragrances are made up of lots and lots of different chemicals and materials many of which are totally natural – essential oils,  spices, honey, butter, juices, leather, herbs, fruits, leaves, animal scents (which is rather yucky) etc.  On top of these totally natural ingredients fragrances may also contain aroma chemicals which bring a particular ‘note’ or ‘aroma’ to the perfume. These aroma chemicals can come from one of two sources – naturally extracted or synthetically made.  Of those synthetic ingredients they may be made to be identical to nature or not (this is usually to do with the isomer created).  This may or may not be important when we are thinking about the safety and environmental persistence of the chemical.
  • 100% data gap.  The Skin Deep database must not have much money to spend on research because the vast majority of fragrances used in the cosmetics industry (if not all industries) are created under IFRA and RIFM safety guidelines which specify which (if any) aroma chemicals and extracts may cause reactions if present in quantities over the recommended levels.   While the formula for each fragrance is not generally available (as it is seen as proprietary information) it is always possible to get a safety assessment on a fragrance of interest if required. Further,  many fragrance houses would be happy to work with a brand to help them choose fragrances that work with their philosophy – animal free, fair trade, 100% natural, Organic.  So, to say that there is a 100% data gap is absolutely ridiculous.
  • Hazard Rating 8 out of 10.  Apparently this is based on a report by the European Unions Scientific Community on Cosmetic Products and Non-Food Products Intended for Consumers, a report that outlined concerns that some dermatologists have about the risk of contact allergy caused by some fragrances.   Now this report was published in 1999 and as a result of that a list of 28 fragrance allergens was published and the law was changed stating that these allergens should be labelled so that the public can avoid them.  This is now law and you may notice that some cosmetics list things like Citral, Geraniol, d-limonene and Linalool separately. You may also be interested to know that all of the 26 allergens are present in naturally extracted essential oils.  In addition the number of chemicals available for the fragrance manufacturer to use was also cut following a safety review and this process continues today with annual reviews and changes made to help keep up with the newest and most accurate information.
  • Warning Bell.  Fragrances are often an optional but important extra for the cosmetic formulator or brand owner. They can help to bring a brand story together, capture the imagination of the wearer, give the brand a prestige positioning or enhance the efficacy of the product by making the wearer want to use more.  Practically they can also cover the aroma of base chemicals and in some cases can also provide some useful extra benefits such as insect repelling, mood enhancing, calming,  odour eating/ neutralising or stimulating.  To tag them all with a huge warning bell denies these benefits to both the producer and the buyer and that would be fine if the fears were substantiated but often they are not.

It is my opinion that the Skin Deep database has done the term ‘fragrance’ a huge dis-service and as such has played a part in putting consumers at more risk than before.  Many brands have opted out of ‘fragrance’ altogether as most ‘organic’ and some ‘natural’ certifications have taken the Skin Deep lead and banned ‘fragrance’ as an ingredient however it happens to be manufactured.  This has led to the increased use of essential oils as fragrances which in its self isn’t a bad thing but in the wrong hands can cause more trouble and risk than a well formulated fragrance.  You see as mentioned before essential oils still contain the irritating chemicals listed in the report that gave Skin Deep the heebie jeebies and as essential oil blends are not regulated by anyone (unlike fragrances that come under the self-regulated IFRA who report to the European Union as part of the Cosmetics Directive) there is no telling of how much irritating chemical makes it to the skin. 

Another issue with using essential oils as fragrances  is that some are reactive to sunlight and can break down causing a cascade of oxidation and stress on a formulation. In some cases this leads to the product breaking down before the end of its shelf life  and this puts consumers at risk of bacterial infection and ineffective products.

A final common problem with some essential oils is their ability to cause skin sensitisation reactions in sunlight.  Citrus oils are especially problematic and can lead to skin damage, pigmentation and irritation when mixed with UV light.

In summary fragrances may not be all bad and essential oils may not be all good (is anything). Fragrance-free products are not always practical as being fragrance-free doesn’t mean that a product won’t smell so that doesn’t solve the problem.  What I am most annoyed about is the fact that something as widely used and referenced as the Skin Deep website seems very quick to post information about how bad ingredients are but very slow to talk about how these problems are being addressed.  I also take offence at the idea that it is BECAUSE of the work that these people do that things are cleaning up as this is simply not true. The Cosmetics Directive existed before them and work to make cleaner, safer cosmetics has always been a priority. 

 The saddest thing for me is the realization that the science and ability to think critically and analytically about the applied risks of  cosmetic ingredients is much lower down the pecking order  than the desire for negative publicity, fear mongering and political point scoring. 

I like my science a little more than skin deep and that’s why I continue to invest in the development of safe, natural and beautiful fragrances and cosmetic ingredients.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jocelyn permalink
    February 21, 2011 1:50 am

    Absolutely ! Pragmatic, Rational and Chemistry are not, and should not be dirty words.

    But then, who ever let the facts get in the way with a good emotion driven marketing campaign.

    Next on the agenda: Campaign for Safe Foods….that being, all possible toxic chemicals (bye bye almonds, apples, cherries, peaches, mustard, brussels sprouts….) and all potential allergens (where do I start ? Nuts, Dairy, Wheat, Salicyates, Fructose) …leaving nigh but water…oh, it’s called “dihydrogen monoxide” oh, dear sounds like a chemical ! Must be bad.

    Stepping off the soapbox now ! Thank you for your article Amanda, you are a gem.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink
      February 21, 2011 7:36 am

      Thanks for the support Jocelyn, it is a sad situation indeed when the tail wags the dog and I’m not talking about the industry vs its customers I’m talking about us as individuals.


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