Understanding claims of skincare manufacturers is a poorly regulated minefield. If you have sensitive skin or want to stay out of the way of harsh chemicals or fragrances, choosing hypoallergenic fragrances or fragrance-free products may seem like the best route, but this isn’t necessarily true. We shed some light on what hypoallergenic fragrance and fragrance-free claims may really mean.
‘Hypoallergenic fragrance’ is a term that means reduced allergy potential, but it doesn’t mean the absence of allergy, so it is often used loosely. There are some companies that have developed truly hypoallergenic fragrances, with a list available of fragrance ingredients that possess a reduced allergenic potential. These ingredients could be combined to make a nice-smelling fragrance to add to a cosmetic product, with companies like Neutrogena and Procter & Gamble often using this approach in their skincare.
Any fragrance in a product that gets rinsed off will never cause as many issues as products that are left on the skin – shorter contact time solves many of these sensitivity issues, but this leaves us with many products that stay on our skin to examine. Some people who are sensitive or allergic to fragrances may tolerate these hypoallergenic formulations, but many will not.
Problems can arise when a product claims to be fragrance-free or hypoallergenic, but in fact, is neither. This is frustrating for consumers with sensitive skin who need affordable skincare that doesn’t make problems like eczema or psoriasis worse. It can get expensive too – taking a product home, using it once and then having to throw it out because it caused more issues than it solved is an unwanted pressure on the wallet.
A scientific analysis of the top-selling moisturisers at supermarkets and big department stores (including Amazon, Target and K-Mart) found that 45 per cent of the products that claimed to be ‘fragrance-free’ contained some kind of fragrance chemical, and the majority of products (83 per cent) claiming to be ‘hypoallergenic’ contained a potentially allergenic chemical. ‘Dermatologist recommended’ was also a useless term – how many dermatologists and who are they, recommending these products? There is no more information provided.
So what’s going on?
Moisturisers are considered cosmetics and are hardly regulated. There are some labelling requirements, but companies can claim ‘trade secrets’ and not disclose ingredients, particularly in the United States. Additionally, fragrance can be added under the guise of using the chemical for a different purpose, since some chemicals can be used as stabilisers, as well as a fragrance. If the chemical is being used as a stabiliser, not a fragrance, it would be considered technically fragrance-free.
Adverse reaction reporting
Additional to the misinformation is the fact that nobody is required to report cosmetic adverse reactions, unlike medications, which have strict reporting regulations. So, nobody knows how many reactions are happening and nothing is being done to stop the misinformation.
Some examples of high numbers of allergenic ingredients on popular moisturisers:
- Neutrogena Oil-Free Moisture SPF 35 – 3 allergenic ingredients
- CeraVe Moisturising Cream – 2 allergenic ingredients
- Cetaphil Restoraderm Eczema Calming Body Moisturiser – 3 allergenic ingredients
- Burt’s Bees Mama Bee Belly Butter – 2 allergenic ingredients
- St. Ives Advanced Therapy Body Lotion – 5 allergenic ingredients
- Suave Smoothing – 4 allergenic ingredients
- Palmer’s Coco Butter Formula with Vitamin E – 3 allergenic ingredients
- NIVEA Smooth Daily Moisture Body Lotion – 4 allergenic ingredients
- Gold Bond Ultimate Healing Skin Lotion with Aloe – 6 allergenic ingredients