The Indie Beauty Take On Fragrance Ingredient Disclosure

Like many beauty entrepreneurs, Lite + Cycle founder Kristi Head’s penchant for design and love for quality products influenced her decision to launch a brand. Unlike many beauty entrepreneurs, anger played a role in the decision, too.

“Because of experiences working with fragrance businesses, I started to learn what the word fragrance is and that it’s withholding ingredient information to protect trade secrets. When I learned that, it quite frankly pissed me off,” says Head. “People deserve to have choices and options in a fully transparent manner especially when it comes to health, and what we put on our skin and breath in is part of that.”

On ingredient decks, “fragrance” is verboten at Lite + Cycle, which readily divulges the essential oils that produce its scents. Head’s ingredient candor is rare even in the niche fragrance category. But now she’s getting major allies with Unilever, Procter & Gamble and Target moving voluntarily to fragrance ingredient disclosure over the next year to three years. SC Johnson began revealing fragrance ingredients as early as 2012.

fragrance ingredient disclosure indie beauty

“I am super excited that these huge companies are doing this. What gets me so excited about it is that more people will want to know what’s going on,” says Head. “People might start paying more attention and asking, ‘Why don’t you list these ingredients?’”

Not all scent brand founders are equally excited. There’s a wide range of opinions and mixed emotions about fragrance ingredient disclosure. While there are founders in Head’s camp completely on board with fragrance revelations, others worry about exposing their special sauce and the education required to bring consumers up to speed on the countless fragrance ingredients on the market. The U.S. Federal Drug Administration mandates fragrance, similar to all cosmetics, be safe, but fragrance blends don’t have to be detailed.

“As a perfumer who’s developed fragrance formulas for over two decades, my concern is the fragrance ingredient listing could be confusing and overwhelming to the average consumer. As it stands, the perfumers palette today is restricted and monitored by agencies like IFRA [International Fragrance Association] and fragrance houses who have expertise, experience and a vested interest in providing safe formulas,” says Sherri Sebastian, founder of the brands Sebastian Signs and Provision. “I’m curious to know how disclosing fragrance ingredients will benefit consumers beyond gaining trust via transparency. A lot more goes into a product than just the ingredients.”

“As it stands, the perfumers palette today is restricted and monitored by agencies like IFRA [International Fragrance Association] and fragrance houses who have expertise, experience and a vested interest in providing safe formulas,” says Sebastian of Sebastian Signs and Provision. “I’m curious to know how disclosing fragrance ingredients will benefit consumers beyond gaining trust via transparency. A lot more goes into a product than just the ingredients.”

Krystal Quinn Castro, creator of Los Feliz Botanicals, calls herself conflicted on fragrance ingredient disclosure. “On the one hand, there has to be some protections for the brand. You put so much work into selecting ingredients that it can be scary to give that recipe away,” she says. “But I do think transparency is always good and, just because something is natural, doesn’t mean that it’s not an allergen that someone might be sensitive to. People have the right to know.” Los Feliz Botanicals’ ingredient decks state its fragrances contain “a proprietary blend of essential oils and extracts,” but the brand is swinging toward greater disclosure.

Alia Raza, co-founder of Régime des Fleurs and a supporter of fragrance ingredient disclosure, suggests education will have to mount as fragrance ingredients are spelled out on labels. “Consumers have been marketed to by the industry for so long that they don’t really know up from down when it comes to ingredients,” she says. “Many of them think note listings are ingredient lists. Retailers have asked us about the expense of some of our more rare ingredients, but aren’t concerned at all overall about what’s in our fragrances.”

Most fragrance brand founders believe the shift toward fragrance ingredient disclosure isn’t due to consumers or retailers clamoring for a reversal of the trade secrets policy. “I feel like eight out of 10 people have no idea,” says Head. “I focus on home fragrance and candles. Specifically in that category, I see people using their super clean, transparent beauty products and buying their favorite candle that has quote unquote fragrance in it. I don’t think they think about that extra step.”

fragrance ingredient disclosure indie beaut

Amy Galper, executive director of the New York Institute of Aromatherapy, points to two possible reasons for the upsurge in fragrance ingredient transparency: regulations outside of the U.S. and general demand for beauty ingredient information. “The EU labeling laws are what someone wants to follow if they are looking for international distribution, and EU safety assessments look at essential oils and isolated molecules that could be allergens. The EU requires that you have to tell at least what allergen components are in a fragrance,” she says “It is no longer the days where Estée Lauder, Revlon or L’Oréal could hide a blend under fragrance or parfum.”

Although consumers may not be rushing to read up on scent compounds, there is evidence ingredient avoidance is important to sales in skincare. In a report issued Monday, NPD Group found 40% to 50% of women seek natural or organic ingredients in their facial skincare products and steer clear of skincare products with fragrances, parabens, phthalates, sulfates or gluten. The ingredient-aware skincare phenomenon could translate to fragrance sooner or later.

“People wants to know where their food comes from — who’s growing it, who’s processing it, what kind of additives are in it — and that whole farm-to-table movement has permeated even the mass market. I see that there is a parallel to farm-to-table happening in the food industry,” says Galper. “I don’t see that going anywhere. It’s not a trend.”

“I hope it brings more awareness to a brand like mine that says, ‘Hey, I will tell you what’s in everything. I have nothing to hide,’” surmises Head of Lite + Cycle. “It can be a point of difference.”

Indie fragrance brand founders spot business opportunities as larger companies and retailers transition to fragrance ingredient disclosure. “I hope it brings more awareness to a brand like mine that says, ‘Hey, I will tell you what’s in everything. I have nothing to hide,’” surmises Head. “It can be a point of difference.”

Raza conjectures that consumers avoiding fragrances because of sensitivities to certain ingredients may join the fragrance shopping ranks as ingredient transparency increases. “People who think they’re ‘allergic to perfume’ — this is like being ‘allergic to food’ — will hopefully start to figure out what specific things really bother them,” she says.

Head is pushing for the changes in the fragrance segment to not stop with ingredient disclosure. “I hope this dialogue continues in the beauty and fragrance industry,” she says. “We should be coming up with definitions for the words natural and clean, and putting those in place so there’s not just a sea of confusion.”