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Scent vs. Fragrance In Skincare—What's the Difference?

By Elsa de Berker, she/her

As our relationship with skincare continues to evolve, so too does our awareness of ingredients, and our ability to decode product labels. And there’s a lot to be excited about: newly buzzy favorites, like fermented formulas, are pushing the limits of skincare, while reliable staples, such as vitamin C, are being reimagined for a new generation of skin-savvy users. But even with all of the advances, the question of scent and fragrance in skincare remains a confusing sticking pointand for good reason.

Historically, fragrance is the leading cause of allergic reactions on the skin, resulting in approximately 5.7 million people visiting the physician every year due to irritation caused by it, (the most common complaint is contact dermatitis in the form of red, itchy rashes). Which begs the question: can a formula ever include fragrance for the sole purpose of making it smell good, or does its presence on a labelas current healthy debate around “clean” skincare suggestsmake it an automatic irritant? The answer is yes, no, and maybe, depending on the type of fragrance being used. 

“Fragrance in skincare is a very complicated subject with many different layers,” explains Youth To The People’s Education Executive, Jacob Tomás del Rosario. “When listed in the ingredients, the term, whether it’s 'fragrance' or 'natural fragrance,' can mean different combinations of different things, ranging from fully synthesized additives to natural extracts, or an aromatic water, which captures the essence of a natural substance without any physical evidence of the original source.”

Many times, the ambiguous term is applied intentionally to protect a proprietary blend that gives a product its unique user experience, continues del Rosario, which is understandable from a brand perspective, but can be baffling for consumers. 

“I would say that the majority of people want their skincare to smell nice, but the fragrance controversy has grown exponentially recently, due to the rising sensitivity of some skin types to it. Information online [around the subject] is also typically generalized and not as specific as it could be to avoid confusion,” del Rosario says. 

There’s also the fact that the word “scent” can be used interchangeably for “fragrance,” when really there’s no defined difference, thanks to an industry-wide loophole. 

“Whereas ‘fragrance’ has a negative connotation to the consumer looking to avoid sensitizing agents, ‘scent’ typically invokes a more wholesome image, invoking what a natural substance smells like, but the two can be—and often are—applied synonymously, ” says del Rosario.

As with most things, the answer is a healthy mix of corporate responsibility and transparency, and greater, more widely available consumer education

“Not every fragrant component is created equal, so it’s up to each brand and their individual formulators to select the right ingredients at the right percentages,” says del Rosario, adding that you can have it both ways with some skin-loving ingredients that naturally smell great. 

“It really comes down to avoiding those fragrant components that have been proven to have a high probability of causing skin irritation, and staying within a lower than recommended percentage of those that you do use. At Youth To The People, all of our products are taken through rigorous safety testing.”

An example of some beneficial ingredients that impart a pleasant lingering smell used at YTTP include shea butter and ginger. 

“We began formulating fragrance-free options with our Adaptogen Deep Moisture Cream, and now that includes the Adaptogen Soothe + Hydrate Activated MistSuperberry Dream Eye Cream15% Vitamin C + Clean Caffeine Energy SerumYerba Mate Resurfacing Energy Facial, and the new Superclay Purify + Clear Power Mask,” says del Rosario to close. “All of these products have a natural scent, using ingredients that give the product an enjoyable experience as an added benefit to the results.”

Written by Elsa de Berker for Youth To The People