Why Fragrance-Free Products Are Best for Sensitive Skin

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If extra-sensitive, reddened skin is your concern, you need to be especially careful of which skin-care products you use. Fragrance is a common irritant that can be a big problem for sensitive skin, and it doesn't matter if the fragrance is natural or synthetic. Finding fragrance-free products is the goal, but, as you may know, it's not as easy as it sounds. We can help you learn what to look for so your extra-sensitive skin improves instead of continuing to get worse.
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Why Is Fragrance Such a Problem for Sensitive Skin?

How does fragrance damage skin? Added fragrance—perfumes, fragrant plant extracts or essential oils—is a problem for any skin type, but research has established that it is especially problematic for allergy-prone skin, or for those battling conditions like eczema, rosacea, or psoriasis.

Fragrances, whatever their form, added to personal-care products, impart their scent via volatile compounds. When applied to skin, they react, causing irritation that may or may not be visible on the skin's surface. If you (like many) relate irritation and damage to itchy, flaky, or reddened skin, you're likely surprised that skin can be irritated without showing obvious signs of a problem. Think of it like smoking a cigarette—beyond the "fragrance" of smoked tobacco, the damage occurring to your body (including skin) happens without visual evidence, until years later. Likewise, you may not see the reaction on the surface of your skin from the fragrance in skin-care products, but that doesn't mean the damage isn't silently occurring. Read more about why irritation is bad for your skin here.

You may wonder why most cosmetics companies add fragrance to skin-care, body-care, and/or hair-care products at all, considering that it causes such problems? Often, we shop with our nose—we smell a tester of a facial moisturizer, or pop the cap off a bottle of shampoo or body wash and take a whiff. Cosmetics and personal-care companies understand the power of a pleasingly fragranced product, and that it does have an effect on our buying decisions—without question, many consumers admit they want fragranced products. Another reason fragrances make their way into your lotions, shampoos, and other personal-care products is that some of the ingredients in cosmetic formulas—whether natural or synthetic—don't smell very good in their natural state. Adding fragrance helps to conceal (mask) these sometimes less-than-pleasing scents!

Fragrance-Free Confusion

Those with extra-sensitive skin, whether from fragrance allergies, eczema, or other problems such as rosacea, know that finding relief is a challenge. When shopping for personal-care products, you're often confronted with shelves of bottles and tubes boasting terms such as "hypoallergenic," "dermatologist tested," or "gentle." These terms are especially common on products marketed to parents for use on their children or their baby's skin; all seem to proclaim themselves the best choice for easily irritated skin—how can you know who is telling the truth? Given the endless choices nowadays, searching the Internet is not a solution, as not all skin-care brands (even those that claim "safe for sensitive skin") make their ingredient list readily available. Some companies will send you an ingredient list if you send an email or make a phone call; others will just refuse to give you that information, no matter what you do.

Another surprise in the struggle to find the best products for extra-sensitive skin: There are no medical, scientific, or regulatory standards for terms like "hypoallergenic" or "dermatologist tested," or even how to define what constitutes sensitive skin. All of those common claims are marketing terms; they are not a guarantee that you've found the skin-care products you need to keep your sensitive skin calm and healthy.

Irritated Skin From Natural and Organic Ingredients

"Natural" skin-care products are a big part of the cosmetics industry, and many "natural" brands target those with extremely sensitive skin. Their marketing tactics typically depict "natural" ingredients as inherently better for itchy, reddened, or damaged skin—even more so if they brandish the "organic" label. However, such products are shy on peer-reviewed medical and scientific research to support their claims that "natural" ingredients (especially so-called "essential" oils) benefit sensitive skin. Perhaps most telling is a look at their ingredient lists; the formulas often are long on irritants. Whether natural, organic, or synthetic, an irritating ingredient is an irritating ingredient, and a problem for skin. Read more on why natural doesn't equal better here.

Common ingredients seen in natural-marketed brands include orange, lemon, lime, bergamot, menthol, lavender, and eucalyptus. Sadly, all of these are irritants, and potent triggers of skin-sensitizing and allergic reactions. Check out a list of frequently used skin irritants and fragrances here.

Finding Fragrance-Free Products

For all the reasons we've discussed above, choosing fragrance-free products is critical to keeping allergy-prone, extra-sensitive skin healthy. Another common source of triggers for allergies is the transfer of the perfumes from laundry detergents and fabric softeners. Stick to unscented detergent and fabric softener options, from brands like Seventh Generation, Method, and Tide; Bounce even has a fragrance-free dryer sheet alternative!

For skin and body care, Paula's Choice is 100% fragrance-free (that includes our makeup, All Over Hair & Body Shampoo & Smooth Finish Conditioner). For additional fragrance-free products, check out our Best Products for Sensitive Skin list on Beautypedia.

Finding fragrance-free hair-care products is a bigger challenge than finding fragrance-free skin-care and makeup products. Almost all hair-care products are loaded with fragrance—those who are especially allergy-prone can experience sensitizing effects on their scalp, neck, and back due to transfer from fragranced styling products or even from shampoo and conditioner. There are few options for unscented hair-care products. Paula's Choice has you covered with shampoo and conditioner, but you also can find a variety of options from brands like Pharmaceutical Specialties' Free & Clear collection and NonScents Unscented Hair Products. Keep in mind that fragranced hair-styling products are an option if you take care to avoid close contact with your scalp, because the hair itself is not harmed by fragrance.

Finding fragrance-free personal-care products isn't always easy, but with a little research, you can separate the truly irritant-free from the rest, and give your allergy-prone, extra-sensitive skin some much-needed relief. Avoiding products that use the irritants we discuss above is the best way to be good to your skin, and keep it healthy.

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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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