In a time where clean products are thriving and brands are as focused on advertising what isn’t in their products as much as what is, figuring out which ingredients we actually want to avoid in our skincare can be a challenge. Take fragrance, for example. For those who are sensitive to scent, a fragrance-free skincare routine is a no-brainer. We often see this in the form of delicate, problematic, or easily inflamed skin, or headaches and migraines.
Understanding what type of fragrance ingredients work for you (if any) is important when building your skincare routine. Ahead, cosmetic chemist Shuting Hu, Ph.D.; cosmetic dermatologist Mariana Vergara, MD; aesthetician Karen Fernandez; and dermatological nurse Natalie Aguilar, RN, give us the breakdown on fragrance in skincare.
Meet the Expert
- Shuting Hu, Ph.D., is a cosmetic chemist and the founder of Acaderma.
- Mariana Vergara, MD, NP-C, is a cosmetic dermatologist with more than 10 years of experience in aesthetic medicine. She is the owner and founder of Beauty Villa Vergara.
- Karen Fernandez is the lead aesthetician of SkinSpirit.
- Natalie Aguilar, RN, is a dermatological nurse and celebrity aesthetician.
What Is Fragrance?
There are two overarching categories of fragrance: synthetic and natural.
What does synthetic fragrance mean, exactly? Simply put, synthetic fragrance is developed in a lab. Hu shares that fragrances can be fully synthetic or semi-synthetic, meaning only a portion of the ingredients are synthetic while the remainder are natural. “One of the top reasons a brand may choose to use a synthetic fragrance is that it will last a lot longer than a natural fragrance,” says Hu. “Natural fragrance may only last one to two years, while synthetic fragrance can last up to five years.” Given that synthetic-fragranced products may smell fresh for longer periods of time, it’s important to always check the expiration dates of skincare before applying.
“Natural fragrances are those that originate from a natural source such as a lavender or a lemon,” says Aguilar. “Natural fragrances are not made up in a lab; they are in fact extracted from their natural source.” Unlike synthetic, there is only one type of natural fragrance, and that is all-natural. While the fragrance may not last as long as synthetic, a key benefit to natural fragrance is the lack of question marks. “The biggest problem with fragrance in skincare is the lack of transparency,” says Hu. “Due to a lack of regulation, brands can get away with listing 'fragrance' as an ingredient without disclosing what ingredients make up that fragrance."
Why Are Skincare Products Fragranced?
Unsurprisingly, there is no clinical reason for fragrance in skincare, Fernandez tells us. “Usually a fragrance is meant to cover up the smell of other ingredients, or to try and make the product smell better and be marketed accordingly.” Typically, there is something enticing about a product smelling “good." While we seem to be progressing toward a more fragrance-conscious world (think fragrance-free offices and other allergen-sensitive decisions), there is still a large market for those who specifically purchase a product based on the scent.
“If there was a product that works incredibly well for your skin, but smelled bad, you would probably end up never using it,” Hu reiterates. “Brands will put fragrance in their products to mask an unpleasant smell that can occur naturally with certain ingredients. Using a product that smells nice can make the overall experience more pleasurable.” On the same note, Aguilar adds that “for some, scents can be nostalgic, calming, or even make us feel cleaner. They are used to combine all senses and give us that feel-good mood.”
Is Fragrance-Free Skincare Better?
Is fragrance-free skincare better? The answer to this question can vary per person. For someone with fragrance allergies or sensitivity, by default, the answer is yes. But when looking at the broader picture, the answer is not as direct.
“Fragrance-free skincare products can be better for those who find fragrance, whether it’s natural or synthetic, offensive,” says Aguilar. “Some with sensitive noses easily get headaches from the lightest of scents.” If you typically avoid perfume (or cologne), candles, and other scented items due to sensitivity, opting for skincare with little to no scent is an easy way to avoid the same issues you may run into with other fragranced products.
“It is important to know that fragrance-free is different from unscented,” says Vergara. “Unscented means that it doesn’t have a scent, [but] there are many chemicals and fragrances that can be added to make an odor or to enhance an aroma.
Circling back to the core question: Hu says, “not necessarily.” She continues: “Transparency is the key to navigating fragrance in skincare. If fragrance is listed as an ingredient, it should be followed by a list of ingredients in parentheses. For someone who has sensitive skin, this could be a cause for concern as you may experience irritation or an allergic reaction from the unknown ingredients. Just because a skincare product is fragrance-free does not make it better than one that does contain a fragrance. Ultimately, you should choose what works best for your body and skin.”
Who Should Avoid Fragrance in Skincare
“If you are allergic to any form of fragrance (whether that is synthetic or natural), you should avoid fragrance in your skincare routine,” Hu tells us. “If you suspect you have an allergy, schedule an appointment with an allergist who can identify the specific fragrance that is causing a reaction.” Hu also adds that if you have any inflammatory skincare problems, such as eczema or rosacea, using a product that contains fragrance could potentially cause more irritation to the skin. “If you have hyperpigmentation or dark spots and experience irritation from fragrance, I would also recommend adopting a fragrance-free routine,” she adds. Vergara reiterates Hu’s point stating, “in general, patients with sensitive skin or a compromised skin barrier should try to avoid them.”
As mentioned, those who experience migraines should typically opt to avoid fragrance in skincare. Studies show that hypersensitivity to odor is a common feature in women, especially those who experience migraines, so opting for a fragrance-free skincare routine is likely ideal for those who find themselves in this category.
The Final Takeaway
If you’re still feeling unsure about whether or not you feel comfortable with fragrance in your skincare, start with some easy go-to tips. “Any product meant for the face, neck, or eye area should be as added-fragrance free as possible,” says Fernandez. “It’s not so bad to have fragrances in your body products that are applied to generally less sensitive skin. Neck and eye skin is thinner and can be more vulnerable to fragrances.”
Additionally, "there are key ingredients that have been identified by the scientific bodies of the European Union as the most common fragrance ingredients that have the potential to cause skin irritation, sensitivity, or other related problems," notes Hu. Ingredients including benzyl alcohol, benzyl salicylate, and cinnamyl alcohol are among the most frequently reported consumer allergens.
As humans, we all have individual and unique skin, so there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to what ingredients do and don’t work for us. “If you are noticing that your skin is reacting negatively to a product, and you think it might be from the fragrance, it’s best to consult with an allergist or dermatologist who can help identify the cause,” says Hu.