Should You Avoid Fragrance in Skincare?

We like things that smell nice. Smells directly communicate with our brain bypassing rational mind. No wonder that "smell of vacation" can help us relax in a second.

How about "smelly things" in skincare: is it a harmless bonus for your senses or can it cause problems for your skin?

To start with, there is no benefit for your skin in fragrance, be it of a synthetic or natural origin. There is, of course, a benefit to your senses if you like how a product smells. You might even like a product just because of a smell, without even realizing it. Often, the only difference between product ranges of a high end and high street brand of the same parent company is its fragrance.

So here is a question: is it worse spending a lot of money on a product with a nice smell? If you are after skin benefit, the answer, unfortunately to our noses, is no. Chance are, you are paying for this smell more than for the active ingredients in the formula. So it might make sense to buy a candle:). At the same time, if you are after the sensory experience, you might choose to sacrifice some $$ for the affair your brain is having with that smell.

In fact, fragrance often is the most expensive ingredient in skincare products. It is particularly true for expensive brands: they work with fragrance houses to develop complex signature proprietary fragrances that can be used exclusively by this brand. Fragrance houses (yep, the name reminds of fashion houses - and for a reason) charge a fortune for developing these aromas and keep the whole process in the highest secrecy.

Cheaper products with strong smells tend to use generic blends that are way less expensive (or the price for them goes down as the result of the economies of scale when mass brands order a lot of this fragrance blend). In the lower part of the price range, no-fragrance products can be more expensive in formulation because the formulators need to select the right combination of ingredients to avoid unpleasant smells that can come from the raw compounds (for example, surfactants used in cleansers and shampoos do not smell too nice).

There is another very important consideration when it comes to fragrance in skincare: they are very likely to sensitize your skin. Both natural and synthetic fragrances can lead to skin irritation and allergy. This is why, especially if you are using actives (for example, acids, retinol, vitamin C, skin brightening ingredients), you are almost certainly better off avoiding fragrance in your products.

It is often confusing trying to identify fragrances on skincare labels. A product labelled "unscented' can include an essential oil (and fragrant plant oils are one of the most irritating skincare ingredients out there), while some fragrances have non-smelly names (for example, benzyl alcohol).

This is why we've built the What's In My Jar algorithm to flag all fragrant ingredients in products for your attention, including both natural, synthetic and funny sounding ones.