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Perfume in cosmetics: Harmful for the skin?

Representation of various perfume bottles
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Fragrance marketing: positive emotions at the push of a button

At the bakery it always smells like fresh rolls, in the supermarket like ripe oranges and in the gym much fresher than the sweat beads of the members suggest. This is usually no coincidence, but scent marketing. This is the term used to describe the use of scents for sales purposes. Smells provide us with information, for example whether the food is coming soon on the plane. This works because the corresponding scents are recognized by our sensory cells and passed on to the brain via the nerve fibers in the nose. Scents can have a very strong influence on us because they penetrate our emotional world without detours. Of course, perfume can also do this. Fragrances lift our mood, awaken memories or attract our attention. The cosmetics industry also makes use of this effect: Most cosmetics are scented with fragrances. Because what smells good, sells well. A cream without perfume may be enormously effective thanks to its active agents, but it may smell unpleasant. Hop extract is a good example for an active agent which has excellent skin care properties but does not encourage the nose to do a happy dance.

Apart from that, manufacturers want a certain "fragrance consistency". The products of their own brand should have their own aroma that offers a recognition value. This also applies to a single product, which should always smell the same in case of a repeat purchase. Especially with natural cosmetics, this is not so easy. Because plant extracts such as lavender, rose & Co. smell sometimes more intense or weaker depending on the harvest. The note also varies; it is a natural aroma. That's why perfume is sometimes used heavily in natural cosmetics.

Fragrant but unpleasant: the allergy potential of fragrances

A perfume usually contains many different fragrances - in total we know about 3,000 fragrances today. Most of them are relatively volatile cycloaliphatic or aromatic hydrocarbons, alcohols, esters, aldehydes or ketones. They either originate from natural sources like plant parts or animal secretions. Or they are produced artificially in the laboratory. A particular fragrance is usually a combination of individual substances. A fragrance should not change the appearance and consistency of a skin care product but merely provide a pleasant aroma. By the way, this may be different in the jar than later on the skin. This is because perspiration and sebum on the surface of the skin react with fragrances and can influence the odor result - just as a perfume smells slightly different on different people.

An enormous disadvantage of fragrances is their high allergy potential. After nickel, they are the second most common trigger of contact allergies, regardless of whether they have a natural or synthetic origin. Unfortunately, nature does not protect against allergy. That's why manufacturers in the European Union are required to list certain fragrances on their packaging. The list currently includes 26 fragrances that can trigger symptoms such as itchy skin redness, weeping blisters, wheals, scaling, itching and even chronic inflammation in allergy sufferers. Headaches, shortness of breath or malaise are also among the symptoms of a fragrance allergy.

Such a contact allergy often occurs only after repeated contact, when the body is sensitized and has classified the actually harmless substance as threatening. Typically, the allergic reaction does not occur immediately, but only hours or even days after contact with the trigger (allergy of the delayed type or late type). Known as particularly strong allergens are

  • CINNAMAL
  • EUGENOL
  • EVERNIA PRUNASTRI EXTRACT (oak moss extract)
  • HYDROXYCITRONELLAL
  • ISOEUGENOL

As always, the dose makes the poison

However, the proportion of fragrances in many skin care products is rather low. In creams and lotions, for example, it is on average 0.3 to 0.8 percent. It is higher in soaps with up to 4 percent or bath additives which contain 4 to 5 percent perfumes. Fortunately, this is usually not enough to cause an allergic reaction - even if there is a basic intolerance to a fragrance.

In the case of products such as shampoo or facial cleansers that are washed off again (rinse-off preparations), the allergic risk is even lower because the fragrance is diluted with water in a very short time.

Nevertheless, caution is advised with facial care products, especially those that remain on the skin. The facial skin is often already stressed by external environmental influences and its barrier is impaired. For many consumers, however, a pleasant scent plays an important role here - the nose is located in the face after all.

Consumer protection with a loophole: The labelling obligation for fragrances

The mandatory labelling of fragrances in the EU Cosmetics Regulation is an important step in the right direction. However, it has a catch: Only those fragrances that are known for their allergenic potential have to be named. All others are simply summarized in the list of ingredients (INCIs) under the collective term "perfume".

In addition, many potentially allergenic fragrances also have other properties. It can then be found on the packaging under its other function - for example "antibacterial". Thus, a product may contain fragrances even if it is advertised as "fragrance-free". In a check of the federal state investigation offices, fragrances could be detected in about 20 percent of the examined "fragrance-free" cosmetic products - in some cases even in high concentrations.

And what does HighDroxy smell like?

All HighDroxy products are unscented - we do not use perfume. A slight odor can of course still be perceived, because the ingredients used also have their own smell. This can - quite subjectively - be noticeable or not.

CALM BALM, for example, cannot olfactorically deny its skin-soothing active ingredient, the frankincense extract.

The care oil CALM FACE OIL smells slightly of the contained (caring) tangerine oil, just like the PORIFY CLEANSER.

And in the PORIFY BHA SOLUTION contains its fresh scent from cucumber extract, which is moisturizing and cooling.


Image credit: Shutterstock / New Africa