Fragrance & Skin Care: Smells Like Trouble!

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We are all attracted to a pleasing fragrance. In fact, the first thing most everyone does when testing just about any skin-care product is smell it. As nice as it is to have a product with a wonderful aroma, it just doesn't make for good skin care. Whether the fragrance in the product is natural or synthetic, it is almost always a problem for skin.
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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.

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):

  • Fragrance
  • Parfum/Parfume
  • Linalool
  • Citronellol
  • Cinnamal
  • Limonene
  • Geraniol
  • Eugenol
  • Lavender oil (Lavandula angustifolia)
  • Rose flower extract (Rosa damascene)
  • Bergamot oil (Citrus bergamia)
  • Ylang-ylang oil (Canaga odorata)
  • Lemon (Citrus limon)
  • Lime (Citrus aurantifolia or Citrus medica)
  • Orange (Citrus sinensis)
  • Tangerine (Citrus tangerine)
  • Peppermint (Mentha piperita)
  • Spearmint (Mentha spicata)
  • Menthol
  • Cinnamon (Cinnamomum)

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)
  • CeraVe
  • Paula's Choice
  • Cetaphil
  • Clinique
  • Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare
  • Free & Clear
  • MD Formulations
  • Peter Thomas Roth
  • SkinCeuticals

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.

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About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to helping you find the absolute best products for your skin, using research-based criteria to review beauty products from an honest, balanced perspective. Each member of the team was personally trained by Paula herself.

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