The Surprising (Yet Common) Skincare Ingredient That Could Be Causing Migraines

Updated 07/09/19

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As we all begin to take a more active role in where our dollar goes (and become educated consumers), being mindful of ingredients is a huge step in making responsible purchases. When it comes to cleaning up our beauty routines, we've become aware of a handful of harmful ingredients that are best kept out of the products we use on our skin. Parabens, phthalates, and formaldehyde are just a few of the usual suspects, but there's another dangerous ingredient that doesn't get as much attention for its unhealthy qualities—and has a much more innocuous name: fragrance.

Emilie Hoyt, founder and CEO of clean beauty brand Lather, learned about the dangers of fragrance in a very personal way. Since early childhood, she suffered from migraines so severe that she would temporarily lose her vision and ability to speak. In her preteens, she discovered that her symptoms were in fact triggered by synthetic fragrance and artificial ingredients in skincare and shampoos. It was this realization—and subsequent appreciation for natural alternatives—that cultivated Hoyt's passion for aromatherapy and skincare, eventually leading her to launch her own line of head-to-toe wellness products free of fragrance, color, parabens, sulfates, and mineral oil.

Formulating products absent of these compounds does not compromise their efficacy or performance. There isn't a need for fragrance in skincare (or most other products). Still, synthetic fragrances can be found in everything from moisturizers to cleansers to eye creams. Why? Because consumers want beauty products to smell nice. But the consequences are real. Not only are they a sensitizing ingredient to all skin types, but, as in Hoyt's case, synthetic fragrances can prove to be even more detrimental to those with allergies to the ingredients within them. We chatted with Hoyt to learn more about the dangers of synthetic fragrances—and how to avoid them in your skincare routine.

The Dangers of Fragrance

When many of us think of fragrance, we think of perfume or pleasant scents. But fragrance permeates the world around us—our cars, trash bags, feminine hygiene products, you name it—and is doing much more than making these objects smell a certain way. 99% of Americans are exposed to fragranced products at least once a week. Fragrance chemicals have been linked to a myriad of health problems, from migraines (like Hoyt's case), respiratory conditions, skin and eye irritations, endocrine disruption, birth defects, and even cancer.

To make matters worse, fragrance has a way of sticking around. "Fragrance, in general, is made to last," explains Hoyt. "So from a high-level understanding, when you're inhaling it, ingesting it, or smelling it, when the molecules get into your body, it's very difficult for your system to get them out." Hoyt draws the comparison that fragrance molecules are "almost like a burr that you might get in your shoe that sticks in your sock."

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Identifying Synthetic Fragrances in Skincare

You might be surprised by just how many beauty products feature synthetic fragrances. "The words 'clean,' 'natural,' and 'green' mean different things to everyone, so you're going to want to still look at the ingredient list," advises Hoyt. (As an aside, here's our own clean beauty pledge.) She says that "fragrance," "perfume," or "parfum" are usually what to look for—but it isn't always so simple. "The main issue is that within that word, you don't know what ingredients make up that particular fragrance." Hoyt warns that "fragrance is still considered a trade secret in the United States so they don't have to disclose anything." Companies can bundle a list of potentially harmful or toxic ingredients into the general category of "fragrance," and the consumer has no idea what they're actually applying to their skin.

The problem with transparency doesn't end there. Hoyt also notes that if "natural fragrance" is included in the ingredient list, you should do some further investigating on the brand's website where they should be listing out all of the ingredients. You can then confirm whether the natural fragrance is actually plant-derived. Consumers should also be wary of the phrase "unscented," as that does not always mean the product is truly "fragrance-free."

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Why It's Dangerous in Your Skincare Routine

While we might assume that rashes and other skin irritations are what we should be most concerned about when considering the dangers of fragrance in skincare, Hoyt corrects that this isn't the case. She reveals that the IFRA (International Fragrance Association) regulates fragrances using skin tests because rashes are more tangible and more readily suggest causation than something like headaches. So when fragrances are "tested for safety," they're only tested for the visible reactions they could have on the skin.

Hoyt recommends that we should be redirecting our concern. "The current understanding is that fragrance is more harmful when you're smelling it," notes Hoyt. "When it's entering your nasal passages, it crosses the blood-brain barrier, so then it's in your brain, and that's what they're finding is so harmful." The problem with skincare is that these products are being applied directly to our skin, near our eyes, mouths, and nose, and often left on overnight. "If the product is a leave-on versus a rinse-off, it's much more harmful," warns Hoyt. "If it's near the eye area—and there are many eye creams with fragrance, which is always shocking to see—it's more harmful."

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Going Fragrance-Free

While Hoyt believes we still have a long way to go, she is noticing progress within the industry and from the consumer side. "The good news is that people are becoming so much more aware and excited about taking charge and investigating," observes Hoyt. "It used to be that people wouldn't think anything of it." She's hoping that increased awareness can bring about action and begin to make serious changes. "I really believe that someday, maybe my grandchildren hopefully, or maybe my great-grandchildren, will look at fragrance as if it were like cigarettes—like what were you guys thinking? Why would you be spraying this everywhere? Why would you be having this around babies?"

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The synthetic fragrance problem doesn't end with skincare. Here are eight fragrance-free shampoos to help you clean up your haircare routine.

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