Is Fragrance Bad For Your Skin? Here’s the Scoop on Scented and Unscented Skincare

Woman applying facial cream

If a great-smelling skincare product leaves you with a bad breakout, you’ll probably be left wondering, is fragrance bad for your skin?

Here, we’re sharing some common sense on how to navigate scents along your skincare journey.

Types of Fragrances in Skincare Products

Why is fragrance added to products? Perfumed skincare and beauty products help to create a more luxurious experience and can leave you smelling amazing. Added fragrances can also help mask the weird smells of other important ingredients.

The most common types are:

  • Natural fragrances: Often derived by processing botanical ingredients
  • Synthetic fragrances: Manufactured to mimic things found in nature

Unfortunately, it’s hard to sniff out what’s actually in a scented skin care product. The FDA doesn’t require brands to detail the chemicals in their fragrances on a cosmetic ingredients list.

According to Real Simple, this intentionally opaque rule “was originally developed to protect a company's proprietary perfume blend or trade secrets, under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, so that other places can't steal a brand’s secret fragrance recipe.”

Fragrance and Skin Sensitivities

The FDA says manufacturers of cosmetic products “have a legal responsibility for ensuring that their products are safe.” But even if an ingredient is perfectly safe for most consumers, it may spell trouble for you.

Even natural scents for skin care might sound okay. Natural is always good, right? Not so. As the New York Times reports, many essential oils are known to cause irritation, especially in higher concentrations and DIY concoctions.

So, what exactly are the potential side effects of fragrance on skin? Researchers at Michigan State University say that “some fragrances might contain ingredients that could cause allergic reactions including asthma, allergies, migraines, and contact dermatitis in sensitive populations.”

The Truth About Unscented Skin Care Products

You might think an unscented product contains zero fragrances, and none of the potential irritations and risks. However, that’s not the case. As the EPA explains, “Unscented generally means that the product may contain chemicals that neutralize or mask the odors of other ingredients.”

Wait… unscented products actually contain fragranced ingredients plus more chemicals that conceal those scents? That’s right.

However, you can look for products labeled fragrance-free if you want a slightly more transparent alternative. According to the EPA, “Fragrance-free means that fragrance materials or masking scents are not used in the product.”

These might have an earthy or even clinical smell – it all depends on what’s in them. For instance, aloe might be added for its skin-soothing properties. If nothing else is added to cover up or enhance that aloe aroma, it would be considered fragrance-free.

Fragrance bottle surrounded by natural scented ingredients

What To Do if You’re Concerned About Fragrances

Is fragrance in products bad, and should you avoid fragranced skincare at all costs? Not necessarily. It’s just that some people are highly sensitive to the ingredients used to create those fancy scents, whether they’re natural or synthetic. And labeling conventions make it a little tricky to know what you’re dealing with.

But there are a few steps you can take to make sure you’re treating your skin with care:

Contact the Brand

The FDA says you can always reach out to the manufacturer to find out more about what goes into their products. That may not be so quick and straightforward. But it’s worth a shot if you want to know what brands are a better choice based on your sensitivities.

Try a Patch Test

Whether you’re trying a new unscented or scented product, it’s always safest to start with a patch test. This way, you can watch out for any adverse reactions in a small, inconspicuous area.

Look for Fragrance-Free Products

Unlike unscented options, fragrance-free skincare products don’t include any masking ingredients or added aromas. Although every item may not be compatible with your skin sensitivities, there are likely fewer variables to worry about.

Read Reviews

If you’re dealing with fragrance sensitivities, you’re not alone! There are tons of other consumers out there who share your concerns. Scan customer reviews and look for top-rated skincare products that are recommended for sensitive skin.

Shop our full collection of skincare and self-care products at Patchology to learn more about what’s in our products and whether they’re right for you.