Traditional Fragrances vs Essential Oils in Skincare

I began to pull away from products with fragrance years ago when I would notice a connection between migraines and perfumes. After the birth of my second child, I developed skin sensitives, psoriasis, and eczema. I noticed that after using most skincare and cosmetic products I would have flareups. The connection was that most of these contained harsh chemicals, one of which turned out to be an ambiguous listing that you see often on product ingredients- “fragrance”. 

In my search for answers, it turned out that I am not the only one with these reactions, and there is research behind it. I wanted to share some of my findings with you, along with the alternatives to fragranced skincare.


Almost every skincare product contains some fragrance. What does that mean?

When you see “fragrance” on a item, it is a blend of dozens, sometimes even hundreds, of chemicals. Some of the items in the blend may be natural, but most are lab created. [1] 

The reason that there is no regulation on labelling each item in these fragrant blends is because of a law that under U.S. regulations allows companies to consider these blends as “trade secrets”. Essentially the scent is a trademark for their product and does not have to be disclosed. [2]

What about unscented products? Even they may contain fragrance ingredients. This is because the oils and fats that are included in some cosmetics have an unpleasant aroma that the manufacture then covers with just enough fragrance to mask the unwanted scent without giving off a traceable one. It may be “unscented” but it is not “fragrance free”. [2]

But are these fragrance chemicals really adverse? 

Notice this information from a 2016 study of the general population surveyed: [3]

34.7 % of the population reported one or more types of adverse health effects from exposure to one or more types of fragranced products. 

The most common types of adverse effects were as follows: 

  • 18.6 % respiratory problems
  • 16.2 % mucosal symptoms
  • 15.7 % migraine headaches
  • 10.6 % skin problems
  • 8.0 % asthma attacks
  • 7.2 % neurological problems
  • 5.8 % cognitive problems
  • 5.5 % gastrointestinal problems
  • 4.4 % cardiovascular problems
  • 4.0 % immune system problems
  • 3.8 % musculoskeletal problems
  • 1.7 % other

In that same study:

  • 46.4 % were not aware that a “fragrance” in a product is typically a chemical mixture of several dozen to several hundred chemicals
  • 64.6 % were not aware that fragrance chemicals do not need to be fully disclosed on the product label or material safety data sheet. 
  • 67.3 % were not aware that fragranced products typically emit hazardous air pollutants such as formaldehyde.

Interestingly, reports that the International Fragrance Association lists 3,059 materials that are reported as being used in fragrance compounds. [4]

Of these 3,059 ingredients, some have evidence linking them to health effects including: 

  • cancer
  • reproductive toxicity
  • allergies
  • sensitivities

For these reasons, some nations regulate the use of more than 1,600 chemicals in cosmetics, but the FDA has banned or restricted only nine for safety. [5]

The FDA itself comments: 

Some components of fragrance formulas may have a potential to cause allergic reactions or sensitivities for some people. 

The FDA does not have the same legal authority to require allergen labeling for cosmetics as for food.

So, if you are concerned about fragrance sensitivities, you may want to choose products that are fragrance free, and check the ingredient list carefully.” [2]

Many of us, myself included wish to be able to use skincare products that work- but also smell nice. No one wants to smell gross! So what are some alternatives?

Essential Oils

A 2021 study on "Essential Oils and Their Individual Components in Cosmetic Products" states: 

Essential oils and their individual components are a family of substances with increasing interest for cosmetic industry. 

This is the result of their many biological properties, including antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory or antioxidant one, which can be exploited for supporting health, beauty, and wellness. [6]

This has pushed the essential oil usage range beyond the fragrance world, and nowadays they are widespread in products for hair and skin care as well as natural preservatives in many formulations, leading to an almost endless lists of uses which is continuously growing. [7]

 I have found that essential oils are an excellent alternative to synthetic fragrances for not only creating a pleasant smell in skincare products, but also for their many benefits! 

When my eczema and skin sensitivities became so severe and decided to take matters into my own hands, I began by taking an herbal studies course as well as a botanical course. This taught me how to use natural ingredients in their proper proportions to create my own skincare. I wanted to create something that would be beneficial for my skin and still have a delicate and natural scent!

For my personal skincare products that I began to make (and now share with you) I learned that it all starts out with what oils you are using, so I searched until I found the highest quality essential oils. 

Next came deciding what oils to use. The oils I chose to use on the face are different than those for the body. The reason being that there are specific oils that have benefits for the delicate facial skin- such as anti-aging, calming, rejuvenating. 

For example for facial skin- oils like lavender, frankincense, and blue tansy are very beneficial. 

  • Lavender has shown to be calming and healing.
  • Frankincense is a powerhouse for anti-aging 
  • Blue tansy is great for cooling and calming the skin.

With these oils, I am very careful with the amounts and kinds I use, as too much could be irritating as essential oils are known to be potent. I only use their proper proportions as I learned in the courses I took. For especially portent oils, we infuse them or their herbs into carrier oils for a set amount of time. This way we can maximize their benefits without harming the skin. 

I also love hydrosols as they take the plant itself and distill the herbs to get the benefits through a mild water. A good rose hydrosol for example will act as a mild astringent while hydrating and soothing dry skin. It has shown to be anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, balancing, calming, and aids circulation. 

For my soaps I use an essential oil calculator to portion how much oil I use. I always choose to ration these portions on the mild side which is one of the reasons my soap scents are gentle, because I prefer to err on the side of the safety to attain optimal benefits and scents without risking irritation.  

I these soaps I use oils like lavender, Palmarosa, Geranium, and bitter almond for their skin benefits and scent. 

By using essential oils in my skincare  I can ensure that I use something that is free of toxins, infused with therapeutic benefits, and is kinder on my skin than artificial fragrances. Not only do essential oils add a delightful aroma but they can also help nourish the skin, hydrate, reduce wrinkles, and give relief from stress and improve mood. My skin has thanked me!