Fillers, Dyes, and Fragrance: Why Are They in My Skincare & Should I Avoid Them?
Mar 03, 2020
Often they’re the words you can barely pronounce (hello, propylene glycol!). Sometimes they’re things you would think you’d want to bathe in (I’m looking at you, lavender oil!). But just what are these fillers, dyes, and fragrance doing in your skincare product, and should you be concerned?
Now that clean and green is one of the biggest trends in skincare and wellness, we’ve seen three words — fillers, dyes, fragrance — treated as if they’re the worst things in the world. Beauty packaging now screams “free from fillers, no fragrance, no dyes!” They’ve been labeled as part of the “Suspicious Six” by Drunk Elephant. Sephora has a whole skincare section dedicated to what products don’t include. But are fillers, dyes, and fragrances as bad as all of these brands say? Let’s investigate.
Fillers are basically the soda of the skincare world. They provide little to no nutritional value, but aren’t necessarily the end of the world if you indulge every now and then. But by definition in the skincare world, a filler is any ingredient that’s used to add more volume or create a smooth, silky texture. They don’t make the product work better, nor do they provide any benefits to your skin. Beauty companies use fillers to make more money and to beef up the volume in their product.
So let’s say a company is trying to sell their mushroom extract cream, but when you turn over to read the label, the first 10 ingredients are things like propylene glycol, silicone, sodium lauryl sulfate, parabens, etc., with mushroom extract all the way down at the end of the list. Well, you’ve just spent $15 on a 2-liter bottle of Pepsi: all sugar, no substance. If you want to get the most skincare bang for your buck, you want to make sure to minimize the fillers in your products, especially at the front end of the ingredient list, so you can make sure the active ingredients are actually doing what they are supposed to.
Dyes are added to skincare products to make them look good. That’s it. There is no science behind a blue cream helping your skin more than a white cream. Now, I should be clear and point out that when I am talking about dyes, I’m talking about synthetic dyes — the ones made in a lab. If a cream uses strawberry extract and it has that millennial pink hue, that’s a different story.
You can find synthetic dyes in almost all of our beauty products — soaps, shampoo, conditioner, eye creams, face creams, facial cleansers, scrubs, mascara … you name it. Unlike fillers, which can be *mostly* harmless, many synthetic dyes are derived from coal tar and can contain heavy metals that seep harmful toxins into the skin. Some dyes to watch out for are Yellow 5, which has been linked to severe allergies, and Yellow 6, which is actually banned from use in Norway and Sweden due to its links to tumors, asthma, and eczema.
If you’re reading the ingredient list of your product, typically a synthetic dye will be labeled as something like Red #40 or Green #3, or sometimes simply “colorant.”
Humans are hardwired to like things that smell good. Fresh baked bread, jasmine flowers, a fresh strawberry — all of these things conjure up incredible memories, and why wouldn’t we want to put things that smell like fruit on our face? Well, turns out, artificial fragrances aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Artificial fragrance is one of the leading causes of itchy, red rashes (aka contact dermatitis) and skin sensitivity. Making matters even more complicated is that the FDA basically gives free reign to fragrance — it’s one of the only cosmetic ingredients that’s allowed to simply be listed as “fragrance.” Companies don’t have to list the chemical compounds that make up these fragrances, even though it might contain ingredients that you’re definitely allergic to. It’s like if a food company just listed “nuts” as an ingredient and failed to list exactly what that means.
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And EVEN more complicated is the fact that a brand can label something as “unscented,” but that just means they’ve created a bunch of chemical compounds that masks the scent of a product — which is why the Klairs Unscented Toner smells (to me) like it’s simply covering up a scent, instead of not using any fragrance at all. And essential oils? Even though they might be considered “natural,” they’re common triggers for a lot of people, too.
So, if you have sensitive skin, it may be in your skin’s best interest to avoid fragrance in all of your skincare products. I’ve personally never had an adverse reaction to fragrance, but the damage is similar to environmental pollution or sun damage: You can’t see it on the surface, but continual use of artificially-fragranced skincare products may cause long-term damage and sensitivity to the skin. Some things to look out for on your label are:
Now that you’re armed with this knowledge, you can make informed choices on all of your beauty purchases. So tell me, do you actively avoid fillers, dyes, and fragrances? Let me know in the comments!
Sheryll Donerson got her start as a beauty writer by writing K-beauty reviews for her blog, The Wanderlust Project. These days, she's lifting heavy weights, eating tacos, drinking (too much) coffee and is 1/4 of the beauty podcast, Beauty Beyond Basics (or Triple Bees for short). You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at @sheryllrenata.