Is Fragrance In Skincare Actually Bad For Your Skin?

By Ashleigh Cometti
The answer? It's complicated. Photo / Guy Coombes

Fragranced beauty products are one of the most controversial topics in skincare.

Recently, some girlfriends and I booked a hotel room for a (much-needed) night away.

But I was surprised to learn one of the women in attendance (a new friend, at that) is highly allergic to fragrance. It made

It got me thinking that despite the flurry of fine fragrances blended into body lotions, spiking skincare or heralded in hairspray, the aromatic aspect of beauty products may not always be appreciated by those with allergies.

Fragrance remains one of the most polarising ingredients in the beauty world, stirring up a number of controversies with arguments for and against its inclusion in products surfacing on social media sites, forums and blogs.

A report published by the American Academy of Dermatology revealed that fragrance is the leading cause of allergic reactions on the skin, resulting in different forms of dermatitis as well as causing migraines and respiratory issues.

So, is fragrance all it’s cracked up to be in beauty? Turns out the answer to the question is quite complex. I pitched it to Dr Ginni Mansberg, a Sydney-based general practitioner, media personality and the co-founder and medical director of cosmeceutical skincare brand E.S.K Skincare, for her hot take on one of the most controversial topics in skincare.

Is fragrance bad for your skin?

Sometimes. Fragrances include thousands of different compounds — not all of which are a problem and none are an issue for everyone. If you are one of the 2 per cent of people who get a reaction to fragrance, you might meet it in your skincare, your deodorant, a room spray or hair products. If you have a condition like eczema or dermatitis where your skin barrier is impaired, your chances of reacting to a fragrance is much higher.

Synthetic vs natural fragrance — is one better than the other?

A lot of people assume natural fragrance is better than synthetic. Modern society generally regards anything that “comes from nature” as healthier and less dangerous than anything synthetic. Research from the University of Gothenburg shows this is not the case. Many natural scents can combine with your skin’s enzymes and the air to become ingredients that cause sensitivity.

Which skin type(s) is better suited to fragrance-free skincare?

If you’re struggling with skin issues (eczema, rosacea, dermatitis, etc), you may find that in some instances, fragrance in skincare exacerbates these conditions. But bear in mind that there might also be certain skincare ingredients (not just fragrances) that cause your skin issues to get worse. My suggestion would be to instead look for skincare products that have been specifically created to address your skin issues, rather than just avoiding fragrance altogether.

How can you find out if a product is fragrance-free?

Under Australian law, any fragrances in a cosmetic or personal care product must be shown by including the word ‘fragrance’, ‘fragrances’, ‘parfum’ or ‘parfums’; or by listing all of the ingredients in the fragrance. There is no legal requirement that each individual component of a fragrance be listed on the product label. If you’re not sure, look on the back of the pack on the ingredient list. If you can’t see any of the words fragrance, perfume, parfum, scent, musk, essence, and so on, your product is probably fragrance-free.

The best fragrance-free skincare products

Embryolisse’s sensitive cream is a cult favourite for a reason. This multi-purpose lotion subs in as a moisturiser, mask, makeup primer or post-shave lotion, and is extra-gentle for those with sensitive skin, including children and babies.

This cleanser helps remove makeup, dirt and impurities while respecting the skin barrier. The fragrance- and alcohol-free formula is pH-rated 5.5, the same as skin, to soothe sensitivity and side-step irritation.

This is a ceramide-rich cleanser that gently cleanses skin without leaving it feeling tight or dry. Suitable for normal to dry skin, the hydrating formula is laced with three essential ceramides alongside hyaluronic acid and promises to moisturise skin for up to 24 hours post-use.

Niacinamide and marula are cocktailed together in this fragrance-free lotion, which absorbs quickly into skin leaving it feeling moisturised and nourished.

Created with atopic skin in mind, E.S.K’s skincare newbie helps heal irritated or dry skin with its blend of barrier-loving ingredients. It features all the hydration heavy hitters: ceramides, niacinamide, hyaluronic acid, squalane and panthenol to manage inflammatory skin conditions like rosacea, psoriasis and eczema.

This ultra-fine mist is a firm favourite for its ability to soothe and soften skin, helping to alleviate symptoms of sunburn, razor burn, redness, and itching.

Molecular skincare brand The Ordinary is known for its fuss-free approach, proffering clinical formulations that easily slip into any routine. This multi-action serum couples three forms of hyaluronic acid with vitamin B5, promising to deeply hydrate and plump skin.

Ultra-soothing on dry patches and redness, this helps hydrate cuticles and heal rashes and other skin ails (it even subs in as a nappy cream).

A replenishing eye serum that zeroes in on dark circles and puffiness for a wide-awake look.

This cosseting body wash forgoes fragrance in favour of a moisturising, soap-free formula that maintains hydration for hands, face and body.

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