Fragrance & Skin Care: Smells Like Trouble!
Recommended Fragrance-Free Products
How Skin Reacts to Fragrance
The way most fragrance ingredients impart scent is through a volatile reaction, which almost always causes irritation and some amount of inflammation. Research has established that fragrances in skin-care products are among the most common cause of sensitizing and allergic reactions. [1, 2]
You might be thinking, well my skin doesn't look irritated or inflamed so the fragrance must not be a problem. In reality, skin on the surface often keeps the fact that it's being irritated a secret with no reaction at all. Below the surface, irritating ingredients can cause collagen to breakdown, get in the way of skin's ability to fight environmental damage, and hamper skin's ability to heal. All of this can be taking place in the lower layers of skin without any obvious signs on the surface!  The irritant reaction you don't see or feel is nonetheless hurting your skin's ability to reduce wrinkles, firm skin, or look younger! 
For those with sensitive skin, especially when the problem is rosacea or acne, fragrance can be seriously irritating and that will show up on the surface. Fragrance of any kind (including natural fragrant oils) should be avoided at all costs.
How Can Your Nose Know?
Unfortunately, it can't. Some ingredients have a pleasant fragrance but cause no irritation and are great for skin. Other times, the product may have no aroma because the fragrance is included to mask the odor of the real skin-care ingredients, which aren't necessarily pleasant.
Many beneficial skin-care ingredients (antioxidants, for example) have a natural fragrance, and some of them even smell great! Distinguishing potent antioxidants (fighters of free radicals and skin aging) from those that are simply added to make you "shop with your nose" is not easy. Like anything in skin care, the basic information is on the ingredient label, but because those ingredients read like a college chemistry course they are impossible to decipher. The Paula's Choice Research Team can help you decipher what those words mean!
Frequently used fragrance ingredients to avoid are (the names in parentheses are how the ingredient's name will appear on the product):
Of course there are lots more, but this is a good overview to help you start being aware of what you are putting on your face that isn't helping your skin be the best it can be.
What about Natural or Organic Products?
Products labeled as being natural or organic are not automatically better for your skin. There are lots of natural ingredients that are problematic for your skin and many of those are fragrances.
For fragrance-free shopping, the brands listed below are those you can rely on; outside of Paula's Choice, which is guaranteed fragrance-free, you may want to double-check the ingredient lists to be certain fragrance or fragrant plants are not included. Consider:
- Alpha Hydrox
- Boots (Expert Line)
- Paula's Choice
- Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare
- Free & Clear
- MD Formulations
- Peter Thomas Roth
It isn't easy finding fragrance-free skin care because options are so limited. To make the search easier, you can use Beautypedia to see which products got our highest ratings.
- Bakkali F, Averbeck S, Averbeck D, Idaomar M. Biological effects of essential oils--a review. Food Chem Toxicol. 2008 Feb;46(2):446-75.
- Johansen JD. Fragrance contact allergy: a clinical review. Am J Clin Dermatol. 2003;4(11):789-98.
- Basketter D, Darlenski R, Fluhr JW.Skin irritation and sensitization: mechanisms and new approaches for risk assessment. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2008;21(4):191-202.
- Salminen A, Kaarniranta K, Kauppinen A.Inflammaging: disturbed interplay between autophagy and inflammasomes. Aging. 2012 Mar;4(3):166-75.