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Are Fragrances in Skincare Products Always Bad?

L’OFFICIEL: As a dermatologist, what’s your view on fragrances in skincare products?

Dr. Teo Wan Lin: I think that dermatologists unanimously agree that it is not “necessary” in the formulation of a skincare product. However, cosmetic scientists and chemists—who perhaps have a more “on the ground” sort of relationship with consumers—will argue that it is a very important part of the sensorial experience. I think that there is a point where the two can overlap in the formulation of a great product. 

L’O: Are naturally-occurring fragrances always considered safer than synthetic ones?

DTWL: The topic of scent is an example of how “natural” is not always the safest, most eco-friendly, or beneficial option. Essential oils which can be 100 percent nature-derived can have caustic effects on the skin and mucous membranes. 

The “harm” of synthetic fragrances is actually because they lack the natural properties of biodegradation – if used in inappropriate concentrations, they can cause severe irritation to the mucous membranes, the eyes, mouth, for example. Also, if the composition of synthetic fragrances contains harmful ingredients, that is a separate concern. 

But I feel that we have to tread the line very carefully here. Botanicals are naturally scented and it is important for us to in to emphasise that specific botanical extracts used in topical formulations are actually work because of their scent properties. Menthol, for example, is derived from peppermint leaves, and is helpful in the relief of pruritus or itch sensation. Its vapor also relieves nasal congestion. 

Adding synthetic fragrance is important because it may help to mask certain unwanted odours that active ingredients may inherently acquire as part of the formulation — which it’s not a sign of it going bad or it being less efficacious, but it is certainly much more pleasurable to associate a pleasant-smelling product with one that you actually would want to apply. 

For example, coal tar shampoo is prescribed by dermatologists for the treatment of certain disorders such as psoriasis, as well as severe types of dandruff like seborrheic dermatitis. But a lot of patients dislike intensely simply because it is a foul smelling product. It’s interesting to note that many cannot be convinced to keep using it even if it is effective. I no longer dispense coal tar as part of treatment for these conditions, but instead prescribe other alternatives. 

L’O: You’ve recently launched a new face mask that utilizes aromatherapy in its formulation. What went into it? 

DTWL: The Sensorial Amino Acid 360 Masque was born out of my deep passion for botany. The brain-skin connection is an area of my active research, and aromatherapy is precisely an area that directly links psychological wellbeing to a topically applied substance. From a sensorial perspective, the process of perfumery is important because it enhances the bio-sensory pathways that can influence the brain-skin axis. 

I believe nature is the best teacher when it comes to the art and science of beauty — and that is embodied in flowers.  From a dermatologist’s perspective, my goal is to maximize the therapeutic properties of bioactive floral extracts, while minimizing the risk of irritation for individuals with sensitive skin. 

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