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Is fragrance in skincare bad for your skin? Photo: Shutterstock

What you need to know about fragrance in skincare, what it does to our skin, and five fragrance-free products to try

  • Adding scents to skincare is a way to boost the consumer’s at-home experience, and/or a way of masking unpleasant odours in the formula
  • With the rise of social media and ‘skinfluencers’ who analyse ingredient lists, more brands are opting out of using fragrances in the products they sell

The skincare world has acquired its own F word, and you’ve probably heard about it already: fragrance.

Over the past few years, with skincare becoming an essential part of our self-care routines, brands have had to be more transparent about their practices and ingredients.

This has led to them not only having to share what their products contain, but also what they don’t.

As a consequence, some skincare “Big Nos” entered the game. No sulphates, no mineral oils, no alcohol, no silicone, no parabens, no artificial colouring and no synthetic fragrances became a label certification that brands trying to enter the clean-beauty category had to attain. Fragrance has been one of the most controversial ingredients. 

Kinship Lemon Pads are fragrance-free.

We’re inevitably drawn to fragrances, and the skincare industry knows it. Adding scents to skincare is essentially a way to boost the consumer’s at-home experience, and/or a way of masking unpleasant odours from some ingredients in the formula.

“In the past, choosing a fragrance for a cosmetic product was heavily influenced by the emotions that the scent evoked in its user, and their association with specific cosmetic benefits. Some of these associations are formed thanks to the legacy of products that have been in the market for decades,” explains the science communications team at Deciem, the company behind skincare label The Ordinary. That approach, though, changed once social media took over.

Skincare 101: why you should never neglect your body care

When it comes to adding scents to skincare products, there are two common methods that brands will use: artificial fragrances and essential oils, and both of them can potentially damage your skin. While the term “fragrance” showing up on the ingredient list of products doesn’t reveal all the components that have gone into creating the scent, the word alone should be enough to make the buyer cautious.

“Customers are savvy and they understand that fragrance is a proprietary blend so companies don’t have to disclose what actually is encompassed within the term ‘fragrance’,” says Jess Cho. She is a product marketing manager at Cocokind, a brand committed to providing high-quality, sustainable skincare products with zero use of artificial fragrances, and limiting the use of essential oils in its formulas to avoid irritation.

But what’s the deal about added fragrances? In a nutshell, and according to the American Academy of Dermatology, synthetic fragrances are the single most common cause of allergic reactions. When used by people with skin conditions such as psoriasis, eczema, rosacea, acne or contact dermatitis, these formulas can make their symptoms worse.

Krave Beauty’s Oat So Simple Water Cream.

But anyone, no matter their skin type or issues, can get a bad reaction from using them, from itchy skin to little red bumps, increased sensitivity and hives.

Producing entirely fragrance-free products is hard, mostly because the smell of some of the chemicals or raw ingredients used for these formulas can be very unpleasant. Artificial fragrance turn formulations into something appealing to the human sense of smell, although there are other ways to turn that not-so-nice scent into a neutral-smelling one.

Long story short, adding artificial fragrance to skincare is not something that’s needed, but it’s easier, lasts longer and costs much less money than taking the clean-beauty road, which is why some brands keep using them.

Supergoop Daily Dose Vitamin C serum is fragrance-free.
With skincare taking over social media, and with the rise in popularity of skinfluencers, it’s harder for brands nowadays to launch new products without having thousands analysing their formulas in a matter of hours.

That’s why YouTubers and influencers such as Hyram Yarbro, Renée Chow, Liah Yoo and Michelle Wong play such an important role in establishing skincare dos and don’ts.

“It was pretty clear that the majority of my YouTube audience had mild to severe acne, and most of them were struggling with sensitised skin. Therefore, we intentionally chose to eliminate anything that would further irritate and aggravate their skin condition [of] which one was fragrance,” says Yoo.

Cocokind’s Prebiotic Sake Body Lotion.

Yoo has over 1.15 million subscribers and is the founder of Krave Beauty, a skincare brand whose goal is to challenge the fast-paced beauty industry to slow down and help people change the way they approach skincare.

The feedback obtained from her followers set the framework for her to develop the brand with real people in mind – people aware of their skin concerns and what they want to avoid.

“As a brand, if you’re not working directly with a fragrance chemist or a fragrance house, sometimes you don’t know the full extent of the compounds that are used to compose the aroma.” Yoo says. “So if we did use fragrance in the formula, we wouldn’t be able to guide people on the potential allergic reactions that are associated with specific compounds.”

At the moment there are no standardised or regulatory guidelines to validate “clean fragrance”, a concept many brands use to endorse their artificial-perfume usage. Just like clean beauty, “clean fragrance” can be misleading – but the 2021 beauty consumer is aware of this, and knows what to look for and what to avoid. In the end, this helps keep brands accountable and transparent about their formulas. 

Five fragrance-free products to try now

Get ready to let sake become your dry winter skin’s best friend with Cocokind’s Prebiotic Sake Body Lotion.

Cocokind – Prebiotic Sake Body Lotion

Get ready to let sake become your dry winter skin’s best friend. Formulated with a fermented rice wine rich in smoothing enzymes and microbiome-friendly prebiotic sugars, this fragrance-free body lotion not only hydrates but also helps soothe, brighten up and gently exfoliate your skin so it stays smooth, well-moisturised and strong.

his hydrating, oil-free, fragrance-free formula will become your essential daily dose for visibly brighter, healthy-looking skin.

Supergoop – Daily Dose Vitamin C + SPF 40 Serum

This two-in-one formula combines the brightening powers of Vitamin C and the preventive properties of an SPF 40 sunscreen to deliver a luminous complexion that’s protected against UV and blue light, the two main causes of dark spots and wrinkles. This hydrating, oil-free, fragrance-free formula will become your essential daily dose for visibly brighter, healthy-looking skin.
Oat So Simple Water Cream by Krave Beauty.

Krave Beauty – Oat So Simple Water Cream

Formulated with less than 10 ingredients – oats, water, three moisturisers, two skin emollients, and two formula stabilisers – this lightweight, cooling moisturiser is what sensitive, inflamed skin dreams are made of. It quickly absorbs into your skin while calming irritation and rebalancing stressed skin damaged by environmental aggressors. 

The Ordinary 100 per cent Organic Cold Pressed Rose Hip Seed Oil is a true multitasker.

The Ordinary – 100 per cent Organic Cold-Pressed Rose Hip Seed Oil 

There’s only one component in this ingredient list: rosehip oil. This cold-pressed, organic formula helps reduce signs of photo-ageing, brightens and evens out the skin, regenerates and heals, helps with elasticity and collagen production and it’s an excellent option for hydrating dry, itchy skin. A true multitasker. 

Kinship Lemon Pads are formulated to smooth and resurface skin in a matter of minutes.

Kinship – Insta Swipe Lemon Honey AHA Pads

Clogged pores, meet your kryptonite. These exfoliating pads are formulated to smooth and resurface skin in a matter of minutes. The glycolic acid in the formula helps unclog pores and reduce the appearance of breakouts while manuka honey’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory powers soothe skin, leaving it bright and dewy one swipe at a time.