Fragrance in Skincare: Friend or Foe?

I remember being a little girl and watching my mother get ready for bed. She’d sit at her vanity, under the warm glow of the bedside lamp, and open up various bottles and jars of delicate, beautiful smelling potions. As she’d slather them over her face, the scent of rose, lavender, a hint of citrus, would cascade past me and envelope the entire room. For the longest time, my notion of skincare was inextricably intertwined with this sensorial image; that skincare was defined by fragrance, that they were one and the same.


2020 was many things, but it was also the year of skincare re-education. Instagram, Youtube, Twitter threads, and even TikTok videos, were suddenly flooded with ‘skinfluencers’ and their vast array of knowledge on skincare ingredients, what to avoid and what to look for. Previous conceptions of skincare were challenged: perhaps the biggest point of controversy surrounded fragrance, with some vilifying it as the worst possible thing to place on your skin, and others contesting that it was a perfectly fine aromatherapy proponent of a product. Whilst for the longest time, luxury and ‘good’ skincare had implied that fragrance was an essential aspect to the ‘skincare experience’, the recent surge in popularity of brands such as The Ordinary, the Inkey List, and Cerave have paved the demand for simple skincare, focused on active ingredients and devoid of irritants, including the age-old favourite, fragrance. So the question remains, is fragrance in skincare really that bad?


The answer to this question is not quite that simple. The skincare brand Paula’s Choice notes how extensive research has gone into exposing the impact of fragrance to your skin, with findings highlighting that fragrance is ultimately a sensitising ingredient due to its volatile properties. In fact, fragrance in skincare has been established as one of the leading factors in negative skin reactions, affecting all skin-types rather than only those already prone to redness and sensitivity. If you find that using fragranced products has no adverse effect on your skin, Paula’s Choice suggests looking at the damage it can cause cumulatively. This means you may not necessarily notice any negative side-effects immediately, but the side-effects are indeed there, occurring silently and causing minor problems to your skin that will lead to long-term effects that may appear later in life. This may sound bleak if you enjoy fragranced products, but there may be a way to bridge your love for fragrance and the urge to keep your skin as healthy and happy as possible. Using wash-off products that include fragrance, such as a cleanser or face mask, may be a better alternative to using leave-on fragranced products. This means that you can get the aromatherapeutic properties of fragranced skincare without leaving it on your skin for an extended period of time. 

So how exactly can you go about avoiding fragrance in your skincare if you choose to? Unfortunately, this is not a simple matter either as sensitising fragrances can be listed under a vast array of names. Some popular names to look out for in the ingredients list are: Fragrance (of course), Parfum/Perfume, Linalool, Limonene, and Citronellol. It’s also worthwhile to be wary of essential oils because while they may have some skincare benefits, they are still volatile on the skin when releasing their aroma. However, it is important to bear in mind that you shouldn’t be relying on your nose to decipher whether a product has sensitising fragrant ingredients as some natural ingredients, such as melon, aloe vera, and shea butter, have a natural fragrance that is not sensitising to the skin. In other cases, fragrance can actually be used to mask the natural unpleasant smell of a product, and will instead have no discernable scent.

Ultimately, it is important to remember that like anything in skincare, the issue of fragrance is certainly not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ debate. Fragrance, whilst potentially sensitising, is not the worst thing in the world as it is still important to bear in mind that skincare companies have to follow strict guidelines with regards to what they include in their products. Therefore, while it still may be better to avoid fragrance in every product in your routine, it is not an ingredient to be scared of. 

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