How Safe is Fragrance in Hair Products?

by AFOPE ATOYEBI
How Safe is Fragrance in Hair Products?

Fragrances are powerful influencers of our minds and consequently, our behaviour. Not only can odours make us feel certain emotions, but they can also trigger particular memories for us. Even in an evolutionary context, fragrances have helped us decide whether something (or someone) was safe to approach - for the sake of our survival. It's no surprise then, that fragrance continues to be used as a way to create a multi-sensorial experience for consumers that ultimately endears them to certain products.

Despite these obvious benefits, however, the use of fragrance in cosmetic products has also raised cause for concern as it pertains to its effects on hair and skin (including its influence on keeping the scalp healthy). In this blog post we're going to explore the extent of issues that can arise from the use of fragrance in hair care products - especially for those who have sensitive scalps. We'll also highlight the best management methods for those of you who struggle with sensitisation to hair products. No longer will you have to choose between feeling limited in your product choices or risking an adverse reaction.

Types of Reaction to Hair Fragrance

When it comes to fragrance in hair products, its effects on the hair shaft itself are both negligible and not well documented. The latter in this case is likely due to the former. The bulk of concern and research on the effect of fragrance in hair products falls largely within the scope of the skin, specifically as it pertains to contact dermatitis of the scalp.

Contact dermatitis typically presents in two forms, which can make your scalp itchy, flaky or dry: irritant and allergic dermatitis.

  • Irritant contact dermatitis is what happens when there is a non-immunologic response to a substance that disrupts the skin's epidermal barrier. Given appropriate levels of exposure to irritants, this form of dermatitis can occur in any individual, and accounts for roughly 80% of contact dermatitis cases.
  • Allergic contact dermatitis, on the other hand, is an immunologic reaction that occurs when a particular person comes into contact with specific allergens to which they have a pre-existing sensitivity.

Of the two types of contact dermatitis, fragrances are most likely to cause the allergic version. Not only is fragrance sensitivity seen in about 12% of patients with contact dermatitis, but fragrances also account for upwards of 30% of reactions from cosmetic products.

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Does Fragrance Pose a Risk to the Scalp?

When it comes to the scalp specifically, however, it is important to put these numbers into context. When the area of skin observed is limited only to the scalp, interestingly, fragrances are not the number one cause for scalp dermatitis. They aren't even the second. Cases of allergic contact dermatitis caused by fragrances are less common and less likely than those from hair dyes, bleaching agents, and perming agents.

Much of this has to do with the nature and structure of the scalp when compared to other parts of the skin on the body. Allergic contact dermatitis to hair products will typically present on the hairline, forehead, neck, ears, and eyelids. The eyelids are often first to show signs of a reaction, outside of reactions due to hair dyes, bleaching, and perming agents. This is because the thinness of the skin in that area makes it relatively more sensitive to allergens. The scalp, on the other hand, due to the combination of its thick epidermis and the presence of sebum, tends to remain unaffected in many reactions associated with common hair care products.

Common signs of a scalp reaction to fragrance

Though less sensitive than other parts of skin on the body, when the scalp does have an allergic reaction to fragrance in hair products the impact can be quite varied and in some cases extensive. Common clinical features of scalp dermatitis include:

  • Erythema (redness of skin)
  • Edema (swelling)
  • Itching
  • Burning
  • Flaking
  • Pustules (pimples)
  • Tenderness

In addition to the more common symptoms, certain studies have found fragrance-induced reactions to worsen pre-existing scalp conditions, like psoriasis. In other cases, scalp allergic contact dermatitis caused by fragrance mixes has been associated with non-scarring (temporary) hair loss.

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How to discover if you are sensitive to fragrances

Fragrances are usually made up of a number of different ingredients/components. Testing remains the most common, accessible and accurate way to assess your level of sensitisation to particular allergens. This will help you gain a clear picture of what exactly in the fragrance(s) is causing the reaction. That said, being able to identify the specific fragrance components that are causing the allergic reaction is far less useful than simply being able to tell whether you are fragrance sensitive in general or not.

Fragrance manufacturers are not legally required to list out the specific components that make up the fragrance used in their products, as that is proprietary information to protect from copycats. As such, products that contain fragrance will only ever list them as just that - ‘fragrance’. This means that even if you were able to identify the specific allergy-inducing ingredients in a fragrance from a patch test, you still wouldn’t be able to easily avoid them by reading the ingredients list of products.

How to do a patch test

If you have a sensitivity, but you still want to try and use scented products, the best course of action is doing a patch test. This is a very simple process that will allow you to assess whether a product causes you an allergic reaction. You just need to apply the product to the inner forearm twice a day for a week. If no reaction occurs, then you can cautiously proceed to try it on your hair and scalp.

Resources on Fragrance Sensitivity

If you are sensitive to fragrance, finding the right products can be a challenge. If you want greater clarity on products that are safe to use, there are some tools that you can use to assist you. The American Contact Dermatitis Society, for example, has created a Contact Allergen Management Program (CAMP) that allows your physician to generate a personalized list of ‘safe to use’ products based on your patch test results.  

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The best Curlsmith products to use if you are sensitive to fragrance

If scented products give you a reaction, it is far easier to opt for fragrance-free options that don’t contain any type of scent to avoid incurring any risk. Curlsmith Shine Recipe is a great example of this. It’s a completely fragrance-free product line that provides all the essentials for a successful wash day, without the use of fragrances or essential oils. You can find there a Shampoo, Conditioner, Leave-in Cream and two stylers, a medium hold Jelly and a strong hold Gel.

The Full Lengths Density Elixir is also a great serum to care for your scalp without any fragrance. 

If you want to be safe, take our curl quiz and opt for the fragrance-free options to create a full, personalized routine based on your needs!

Afope Atoyebi
Certified Trichologist

Certified trichologist and Innovator committed to transforming the haircare industry through education and science.

Afope Atoyebi
Certified Trichologist

Certified trichologist and Innovator committed to transforming the haircare industry through education and science.