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Published April 5, 2021
Published April 5, 2021
Christin Hume via Unsplash

Traditionally, fragrance was a vital part of the skincare product experience, from Fresh’s Rose Deep Hydration Face Cream and flavored lip balms to NUXE’s Multi Usage Dry Oil. Nowadays skincare aficionados view the term with slightly more skepticism. Retailers like Sephora and Credo have created clean beauty guidelines for suppliers. The former has a clean product selection, which requires the absence of 50 different ingredients or a percentage threshold, i.e., synthetic fragrances are only allowed at a dosage of 1% or less (but essential oils are allowed). For Credo, brands have to categorize the source of their fragrances into the options of fragrance free, essential oils, certified organic, natural, naturally derived, and synthetic.

According to Spate, there was an average of 57.5K searches for “fragrance free” this month, and an increase of 21.9% year-to-year—14.5K enquiries of which were for skincare (an annual growth of 27.3%), 10.2K for haircare, and 26K for bath and body products. Rite Aid updated its chemical policy to require increased transparency from suppliers around the generic term “fragrance,” which on average denotes 30 to 50 chemicals. The policy was announced in March of this year but won’t come into full effect until December 2023.

Aside from COVID long-haulers who are developing scent sensitivities, pregnant women, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, as well as male consumers are proving a popular demographic for fragrance-free products. “Men really don’t like most fragrances, or if they do it’s usually mint, citrus, maybe a little musk. But when you read reviews, men can be entirely turned off of a product by an overpowering fragrance,” product development and marketing consultant Tamar Kamen comments. “Fragrance is polarizing. So if you eliminate it, you expand the appeal of your product. The top consumer complaints are too fragranced, irritating, and smells bad. That’s another reason why I see the demand and appreciation for a product that doesn’t have fragrances added.”

Another factor for this rise is the increasing use of actives such as exfoliating acids and retinols, which can increase skin sensitivity, therefore requiring more gentle aftercare solutions. Clean beauty, and the discerning customer eye for ingredients that go with it, is a further component. “Clean beauty has changed how we view fragrances in skincare products. Today’s educated consumers—skintellectuals—are looking for efficacy first, and those with self-perceived sensitive skin or a preference for clean skincare are looking for more transparency when it comes to fragrance ingredients,” explains product development consultant & founder of Holistic Beauty Group Robyn Watkins.

Not all customers who have negative reactions to skincare products have sensitive skin, or even a fragrance allergy, although a majority of reactions are related to fragrance. The average beauty product contains 15-50 ingredients, so there is potential for other allergens to be at play.

One of the most confusing aspects from a consumer perspective is the differentiation between unscented and fragrance free. The former means no scent from an active ingredient or added fragrance, the latter is substantiated by quality control but can still contain a natural scent from an active, according to Noreen Moriarty, Vice President of Sales & Marketing at Happy Farm Botanicals, who cites an organic rosewater, which is fragrance free, but not unscented, as one example. “We see a little bit more confusion around natural scent or natural fragrance versus synthetic fragrance. Products using 100% natural fragrance aren’t necessarily safer for sensitive skin. And sustainable synthetic fragrances aren’t necessarily unsafe,” she explains. “A Vitamin C serum with lemon essential oil can be marketed as ‘fragrance free’ and can cause a reaction for some people. While another brand’s Vitamin C serum, made with a synthetic lemon scent that has been lab-made to contain fewer allergens, could be a better fit from an allergenicity standpoint to that same user,” Watkins adds.

"People are looking for more natural ingredients in their products, not synthetics."
By Tamar Kamen, Product Development & Marketing Consultant

Branding your product fragrance free is a clever marketing move, but customers are likely unaware of the fact that this still means there can be fragranced ingredients within the formula. Clinique, founded in 1968, was a pioneer of fragrance-free skincare, but this translates to formulas without any added fragrance (ingredients like aloe or green tea extract still add a certain scent to its formulas). Especially in the realm of facial care product development, simply removing fragrance isn’t the cure-all. Many a consumer may cry out for fragrance-free products, only to be revolted by the scent of the carrier oils or raw materials that comprise their favorite product, or may still react to natural botanicals or other formula components. “Balancing natural raw materials so that they are at an active level without being offensive to consumers is the biggest challenge,” Moriarty explains. “We all aim for unscented, but that is only aesthetically achievable depending on what your base smells like,” Kamen adds. “Unscented is definitely more challenging for clinical skincare, where active ingredients can smell strongly.”

Examples include a facial product with sour-smelling acids or any cleansers where a fresh smell connotes cleanliness. “For cleansers and body care, people want the sensorial experience of the fragrance. The customer expectation is that it will smell good,” Kamen states. “We do see more customers opting to lower fragrance profiles for masks and moisturizers. However we still meet with more brands who want products to be very lightly fragranced, or naturally scented via hydrosol or single note rather than fragrance free altogether,” Moriarty says.

For some companies, scents are an important component of the product’s appeal. Depending on what market one is playing in, formulators have more, or less, leeway with scent perception. Cosmeceuticals, where efficacy overtakes aesthetics, can allow for less pleasant smells as the customer is more interested in results rather than a pleasant fragrance. Odor neutralizers, like Z-Rx-N, which is derived from castor seeds, can be added into the formula to counteract this. One could also use an essential oil for this purpose; however, these can be irritating to some (although the same could be said about other skincare ingredients). “People are looking for more natural ingredients in their products, not synthetics. Fragrance-wise that means using essential oils or extracts but those are getting more and more criticism due to possible irritation. So we currently don’t have great options that will satisfy everyone,” Kamen explains. The New York Times recently published an article warning of the dangers of essential oils, but product developers are more divided on the subject matter. “I do not subscribe to the recent industry attacks on essential oils in personal care products. When formulated properly, essential oils can be multi-beneficial to the mind, body, and spirit,” Watkins advises. For those who hold fragrance as the ultimate irritator, actives or certain carriers like nut oils also have allergy potential despite not being scented.

The European Commission compiled a list of 26 fragrance allergens which need to be disclosed on an INCI list. It includes natural and synthetic ingredients such as citral (predominantly found in citrus essential oils) and farnesol (present in rose essential oil among others). While most consumers assume that the natural essential oil is “cleaner” than its synthetic counterpart, the natural oil has more molecular components than the synthetic, which contains just one. “Natural products are probably more irritating than synthetic products, for the most part, because you can’t control the purity of natural ingredients so much, there’s batch-to-batch variation,” Kamen states.

Between naturals and synthetics, hydrosols, also known as floral waters or herbal distillates, provide another option for fragrance-critical customers. “That is where the industry is going for people who are trying to satisfy as many customers as possible,” Kamen comments. “Something like chamomile flower extract can provide antioxidant benefits and aroma. As a developer, I know I have included it for its natural scent, but the fact that it has other beneficial properties also makes sense for performance.”

Regardless of whether the customer chooses natural, synthetic, or unscented, fragrance-free product development is shifting the source of product appeal from scent to feel in some instances. “There are the older traditional brands known for highly fragranced cream jars. But what I find myself doing now is elevating a product experience not with fragrance, but with texture,” Kamen states. “We give customers a ‘wow’ addictive experience by stimulating other senses.”


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