Fragrance Free Skincare: Is Fragrance Bad For Your Skin?

Fragrance free skincare is becoming increasingly popular as clean beauty movements continue to alter our purchasing habits for the better.

Social media influencers and celebrities alike are constantly drawing attention to the importance of banishing unknown, potentially damaging ingredients from skincare products. What’s more, a rising focus on all kinds of health (including skin health) has prompted many of us to be more cautious about what we use on our bodies. It’s becoming more widespread to start making a point of reading and understanding the ingredients in your skincare products, the good and the bad.

Unfortunately, most people still don’t fully understand what fragrance free skincare actually means, or why they should be avoiding fragrances in the first place. Many of us enjoy the delightful scents infused into our moisturizers, cleansers, and toners.

However, fragrances can be the source of numerous problems, from migraines and headaches, to exacerbated skincare conditions such as eczema, rash, and inflammation. For sensitive people with sensitive skin, switching to fragrance free skincare could have more benefits than you realize.

Fragrance in Skincare: The Basics

Devising the perfect skincare routine is a challenge for numerous reasons.

Everyone reacts to different ingredients in different ways. While some of us can slather on fragrance-infused products without any consequences, others need to avoid countless additives in their serums and soaps to minimize dermatological reactions.

Fragrance in skincare can be a complex concept. In the beauty industry, fragrance tends to come in two categories: synthetic fragrances and natural fragrances

Synthetic fragrances are developed in a lab, using unique molecules. Sometimes, these fragrances are used to make a product smell more appealing for a longer time. Synthetic fragrances can often last much longer than their natural alternatives. In other instances, companies use synthetic fragrances to cover up less appealing scents naturally produced by the ingredients they use.

This means a product with a synthetic fragrance may not smell like anything at all, but it could still be causing damage to your skin.

Natural fragrances originate from a natural source, such as lemon, cinnamon, lavender, or coconut. Because they’re extracted from the natural world, many of us assume these ingredients are better for our skin, but this isn’t always the case. While the substances may have fewer chemicals than synthetic fragrances, they can still cause irritation.

Essential oils taken from plants can still cause disruption in the balance of natural oils already present in your skin. As such, if you have sensitive skin, it’s best to use fragrance free products.

Fragrance Free Skincare VS the Problems with Fragranced Skincare

Choosing fragrance free skincare isn’t a necessity for everyone. However, these products do pose fewer risks than those with added fragrances. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, fragrances are the leading cause of allergic reactions on the skin.

Most fragrances impart scent through a volatile reaction between the oils on your skin and the substances within the product. Unfortunately, this reaction can frequently cause a sensitizing reaction in users, eliciting negative responses such as inflammation, redness, or discomfort.

In 2007, fragrance was named the “allergen of the year” by the American Contact Dermatologist Society. In many people with sensitive skin, fragrances can worsen eczema and rosacea, as well as causing irritation and discomfort. If you have hyperpigmentation and dark spots, you may find fragrances of any kind to be particularly problematic to your skin.

Dry skin can also be more susceptible to reactions, potentially because your skin will be more likely to soak up larger amounts of the molecules included in your products.

It’s not just the allergen issues associated with fragrance which is pushing people to consider fragrance free skincare alternatives either. Some people with sensitive noses can suffer from headaches when exposed to the slightest scents.

Fragrances have also been linked to premature skin aging and heightened inflammation. Similar to exposure to ultraviolet light, chronic inflammation caused by fragrance can increase oxidative stress, free radical formation, and cause the degradation of collagen.

Even if you use fragrances as part of your washing routine in the shower or bath, exposure to the molecules in the products could cause long-lasting irritation. You may find some substances soak into the deeper levels of your skin before they can be completely removed.

Which Types of Fragrances are the Worst for Your Skin?

One of the most challenging parts of addressing the problems with fragrance in skincare, is it’s difficult to determine exactly which ingredients cause irritation. Cosmetics companies use the term ‘fragrance’ to refer to an umbrella of concoctions which may be natural or synthetic.

The industry is not required to list every ingredient used to make a product smell a certain way. This means you may struggle to pinpoint which substance is causing your skin problems. There are thousands of fragrance molecules included in most products, and only a small portion of those could be causing your problems.

There’s no one-size-fits-all guide to which fragrances are most damaging to skin, although well-mixed, natural ingredients may be less likely to cause distress than their lab-created alternatives. Some common fragrance ingredients you may be able to find on ingredient lists include:

·         Linalool

·         Citronellol

·         Lavandula angustifolia (Lavender)

·         Rosa damascena (Rose)

·         Geraniol

·         Eugenol

·         Limonene

·         Mentha piperita (Peppermint)

·         Cinnamomum (Cinnamon)

·         Eucalyptus

·         Citrus bergamia (Bergamot)

·         Cananga odorata (Ylang ylang)

Is Fragrance Free Skincare Better Overall?

Concerns around the potential impact of fragrances in skincare has led a lot of people to believe fragrance-free skincare is generally better for skin health. However, it is worth noting that fragrance-free has a different meaning in the cosmetic industry to unscented.

“Unscented” is not always the same as “fragrance free”. Unscented products may not have a scent, but there may be many chemicals and fragrances included within the product, to mask natural odors.

If you have a reaction when using a specific product, you may attempt to define which fragrance is causing your irritation, so you can simply avoid one substance. However, it isn’t easy to know for certain whether a fragrance in a product will irritate your skin, either initially or over time.

Anyone can develop a sensitivity to a skincare product gradually, even if they’ve been exposed to the same substance multiple times without a prior issue. The best way to avoid problems is to get a patch test administered by a dermatologist.

Generally, people with sensitive skin are better off using fragrance-free products, to avoid the risk of a reaction. Even if you think your skin isn’t showing any signs of irritation initially when you use a fragranced product, there could be problems happening beneath the surface.

Human skin is generally quite good at hiding when it’s suffering from issues. Your skin may appear to be fine on the surface, but damage could be occurring underneath the surface every day, causing minor problems in the short-term, and more severe complications in the long-term.

Types of Fragrance Free Skincare Products to Consider

The type of fragrance free skincare solutions you should consider will depend on your specific situation. Some people can comfortably use natural ingredients with a pleasant fragrance without any issues, such as aloe vera, cocoa butter, or vanilla. Others may need to avoid all kinds of fragrances until they have a clearer view of which options cause them the most distress.

Fortunately, there are a number of fragrance free skincare products emerging in the market today, to help users avoid the issues of itchy skin, inflammation and other common symptoms.

For instance:

·         Sukin: The Sukin brand produces a gentle cleanser with no added fragrances. It’s made with natural ingredients such as vitamin E, and it’s suitable for vegans and vegetarians. However, it does include some natural fragrances, such as rosehip and chamomile.

·         Cetaphil: Often recommended by doctors and dermatologists, Cetaphil has no artificial fragrances, and it includes vitamin E and B5 to nourish your epidermis. The product is also lightweight, long-lasting, and relatively budget friendly.

·         CaraVe: CeraVe is similar to Cetaphil, but its range is centered around active ceramides, which are ideal for dry skin. Ceramides are great for improving the barrier function of your skin, which can help to protect against and minimize the symptoms of acne and eczema.

·         Drunk Elephant: Drunk elephant products, such as the Vitamin C moisturizer, have brightening and skin-protecting benefits. It’s free from any alcohols, silicones, and essential oils, but it does use some natural ingredients some people may be sensitive to.

·         Green People: Green people products are generally fragrance and SLS-free. They contain natural ingredients such as marshmallow and aloe vera, to make them ideal for people with psoriasis and eczema. There are options for moisturizers, shower gels, and more.

If you’re concerned about fragrances, and want to pursue a fragrance free skincare routine, you might find it helpful to talk to a doctor or dermatologist. They’ll be able to help you define which products are most likely to cause irritation and inflammation for your skin.

Should You Go Fragrance Free?

Fragrance free skincare is certainly a lot more popular these days, particularly among people who are taking more care in choosing the right ingredients for their bodies. However, it’s worth remembering everyone’s skin is different. The way you react to fragrances can vary depending on your genetic makeup, and other factors.

If you’re concerned about a specific product or oil which may be causing irritation, it’s best to check in with your doctor or dermatologist. You could also consider getting an allergy test conducted. Alternatively, you can learn more about your genetic skin traits and skin sensitivities by getting your own CircleDNA test kit, for information on what skin issues you might be genetically more likely to experience.

Whenever you’re using a new product, whether it’s fragrance free or not, it’s worth doing a small patch test first, so you can examine how your skin responds to the ingredients.


  1. NCBI: Ubiquity, Hazardous Effects, and Risk Assessment of Fragrances in Consumer Products
  2. American Academy of Dermatology: Position Statement on The Chemical Identity of Fragrances Identity of Fragrances.pdf?
  3. ACDS: Review ACDS’ Allergen of the Year 2000-2015
  4. Cleveland Clinic: Premature Aging: Signs, Causes & Prevention



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