You may think you know what’s in the face cream you’re eyeing—you scanned the label for ingredients like phthalates, parabens and sulfates—but there’s a chance you skimmed over a red flag word that’s hiding one, or even all, of the above potential toxins. “Fragrance” or “parfum” conceals some 3,163 chemicals as a blanket term on the label of personal care products like shampoo, body wash, blush, or lipstick.  What’s more, there’s no way of knowing which ingredients make up each proprietary fragrance formula because the FDA does not require companies to disclose them.  

Think natural fragrances are the clear way to go then? Not exactly.  Products that read “no artificial fragrance” or list plant-derived fragrances such as concretes, absolutes or extracts aren’t always a safer route, especially considering that more than 50 million people a year experience various types of allergic reactions to raw materials found in nature, like pollen. Also on the potential ‘no list’ for those with truly sensitive skin: Up to 35 essential oils, from bergamot to chamomile, that may trigger reactions.

The good news is that the fragrance industry is experiencing a pivotal shift. “Overall, it’s getting safer,” says Gay Timmons, a clean beauty consultant and the president of Oh, Oh Organic, Inc., an organization dedicated to raising awareness around organic and sustainable ingredients in the cosmetics industry. She credits consumers for demanding more transparency from beauty brands in recent years, but notes that there’s a long way yet to go. “In the end, it comes down to one question: ‘Are you informed?’” Here’s what you need to know.

Natural vs Synthetic Fragrance: The Full Story

“In spite of the fact that people say there isn’t a legal definition of natural, there is,” says Timmons, who looks to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO-Norm 9235which defines natural raw material as something of vegetal, animal or microbiological origin that is obtained by physical or traditional aromatic oil preparation processes like extraction and distillation. Alternatively, synthetic fragrance is derived from material that is man-made, like petroleum (the industry’s go-to product, says Timmons, for its low cost and varying functions). 

Of course, not all artificial scents are necessarily bad for you. Take linalool, which gives many flowers including lavender its floral scent. It’s one of the most popular natural chemicals, and it comes from steam distilled essential oils. It can also be constructed synthetically in what is essentially a mirror image of the natural molecule. Meaning, the artificial variation, which is on the International Fragrance Association’s approved synthetic ingredients list, a compilation of safe ingredients that is regulated by the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials, may be a better choice given its low impact on harvesting, processing and transportation. 

Furthermore, while a natural product is not necessarily sustainable or organic — it can be grown with chemical fertilizers or pesticides — an organic product is always natural. “I am more supportive of organic production because I know that downstream you are addressing issues around environmental concerns,” says Timmons.    

The Safe Choice for Skin

When it comes to scent and topical safety, there is a clear winner, says Loretta Ciraldo, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of [Dr. Loretta]( line of anti-aging skincare products. “Artificial fragrance is a leading cause of rashes, redness and irritation,” she says, recalling a recent lecture held at the American Academy of Dermatology that stated 61% of facial skin issues can be traced back to its problematic ingredients, like phthalates, which are considered to be endocrine disruptors. 

It's worth noting, however, that natural fragrance can spark topical skin issues, too. Essential oils are complex mixtures of volatile compounds found in aromatic plants, which can be irritating in and of themselves;  and because there is no industry wide regulation for quality and potency, it can be tricky to choose one at random.

As a general rule, Ciraldo recommends staying away from products that contain 5% or more essential oils and choosing a company whose quality standards includes third-party lab testing and formulations that are based on clinical testing and peer-reviewed studies.  A quick email to customer service should be able to provide this information. 

If you’re still unsure about a product containing natural or synthetic fragrance, Ciraldo recommends applying a generous amount directly behind your ear or below your underarm to see if you develop a reaction. “A patch test is exactly what we do in the dermatology office,” she says. “We need to empower the consumer to have a sense of her own skin.” Another fail-safe alternative: Go fragrance free. 

Sustainability and Scent: What's Good for the Planet

When it comes to deciding on the right fragrance for you, make sure to look beyond topical safety. “The environment directly affects our safety,” says Timmons, who notes that even some trusted institutions, like the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, do not often connect the two. “If you put [chemicals] on your body, they will eventually go down the drain, and some of that is made up of small molecules that will come back in your drinking water.”   Fragrance or no fragrance, says Timmons, when considering the environment, avoid ingredients such as sodium laureth sulfate, PEG compounds, and chemicals that end in -eth” (such as oleths and ceteareths) when shopping for beauty products since they can contain minor amounts of 1,4-dioxane, a likely human carcinogen.

Sustainability is another factor worth weighing . Over-production of anything isn’t good—not for the flower, especially if it’s vulnerable to extinction, like Indian Sandalwood, or the farmer, who often works around the clock and into the night to pluck the thousands of blooms it takes to produce one kilogram of pure essential oil.  

Look for labels by an independent certification company like Ecocert: A stamp that reads “Cosmos Organic” means at least 95% of the plants it contains is organic; Fair for Life indicates that 80% of its raw materials come from Fair Trade. You can also turn to trusted certifiers like Cradle to Cradle: The non-profit organization assesses products based on their material health, which will tell you if a synthetic chemical is safe for you and the environment, and provide more information about its reuse; renewable energy and carbon management; water use; and social fairness. Cradle to Cradle also rates products accordingly (from basic and bronze to gold and platinum). Currently, their database includes only one fragrance house—Henry Rose—and it’s certified gold.  

The Future Comes Down to You

At the end of the day, experts unanimously agree, it’s your purchasing power that will drive the quest for more transparency and innovation forward by applying steady pressure where it matters. Until more regulatory bills are passed, like the California Safe Cosmetics Act, which mandates the disclosure of problematic ingredients like endocrine disruptors or carcinogens in personal care products, asking brand and fragrance houses for answers to specific questions is the most effective way to assess a company’s sustainability practices. Because smelling good and doing good should go hand in hand. 

Watch actress Michelle Pfeiffer share her clean beauty lightbulb moment and the journey to creating her first-of-its kind Henry Rose perfume line. (It's a don't miss—really.)  

Want more information about Westman Atelier's clean beauty mission? Learn more here!