Will Fragrance-Free Products Save Sensitive Skin From Freaking Out?

Where I can avoid fragrance in skincare — whether that's face lotions or body care — I do. While that’s my own personal preference, I’ve always considered fragrance to be the Boogeyman in the corner, whispered about as being 'bad' — especially for sensitive skin, and particularly in the winter.
It seems I'm not the only one. On TikTok, the hashtag #fragrancefreeskincare has 39.5 billion views and counting, and everyone from skinfluencers to dermatologists are extolling the virtues of omitting perfume from skincare as the weather takes a turn. So what exactly is it about fragrance-free products that is preferable for the skin — and should you be switching to them this winter?

Is fragrance bad for your skin?

Unfortunately, some of the components that are commonly used in fragrances that wind up in skincare to mask the smell of certain ingredients can make them common allergens or irritants, explains product development specialist Charlene Valledor. Some of the most common fragrance allergens include: cinnamal, isoeugenol, limonene and linalool. Essentially, these fragrances can trigger negative reactions on the skin.
That sweet-smelling addition may be nice, but for many, it can disrupt the skin barrier, potentially resulting in redness, sensitivity and dry skin among other issues. A damaged skin barrier may allow for foreign and irritating substances to be let in, causing further issues such as infections. (We’ve been talking about the skin barrier all last year, and that doesn't seem to be changing in 2023, and there’s a reason we should be protecting it.)
Photo: Getty Images.
The most annoying thing about fragrance is that because brands are not required to list the ingredients used to create the fragrance itself —it is listed simply as ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’, so there's isn't always a way of knowing if the included fragrance might irritate your skin.
It isn't the same for everyone, though. “Some people have no issues with fragrance," says dermatologist Dr. Iris Rubin. Even if you’ve never experienced a reaction to fragranced skincare product before, every time you try something new without patch testing it first, you may be taking a gamble. 
Everyone who has ever tried Skinceuticals’ CE Ferulic will know that often, effective products do have a slight, odd smell to them. "Scent is an important component of any product formulation," says Valledor, "and it is a big contributor to whether or not we deem a product experience to be positive or negative." Sometimes a product’s scent can come from the ingredients in a formulation, or more commonly, it can come from an added fragrance — it's the latter we're talking about here.

Is fragrance-free skincare better for dry skin?

If you have dry and sensitive skin, it's likely you already treat it with kid gloves. But fragrance should be the first thing on your no-no list, especially if it doesn’t have any tangible positive benefit to your skin or hair, other than adding a nice scent. “Whether natural or synthetic, fragrance has been linked to inflammation,” adds Connecticut-based board-certified dermatologist, Mona Gohara, MD.
So many things can trigger sensitive skin, including stress, harsh skincare ingredients such as retinol or exfoliating acids. But mainly at this time of year, environmental factors such as dry, cold air are factors. Dry skin can be more susceptible to potential irritants, and is therefore more prone to reactions from fragranced products in comparison to skin that isn't dry. That said, any skin type can have a reaction. “Anyone can experience signs of fragrance sensitivity, which can affect the eyes, nose or even trigger a migraine," says Dr. Rubin. As a result, Dr. Rubin explains that fragrance-free products can have benefits that extend beyond the skin.

Should you ditch fragrance from your skincare in the winter?

Every expert interviewed for this article deeply encourages opting for fragrance-free skincare products, but especially in the cold months. This is due to our skin being the most vulnerable in the cold, says Dr. Gohara, who recommends using fragrance-free products in the fall and winter.
Before you throw out all of your products with any kind of fragrance, let the experts reassure you: Just because a product is fragranced does not mean it is bad for the skin, and not all skin reactions stem from a product’s fragrance component. Fragrance sensitivity is highly individual, and according to the professionals, a little random. If your current skincare product is working for you, that's great! We love to see that. But if you're noticing your skin is a little dry in some places around this time, and the product is tingling or stinging on application, it might be a sign to shelve it, or at least reassess.
Research has shown that some fragrance ingredients are more likely to cause irritation and allergies, including some essential oils. (Valledor suggests checking this extensive list if you're really worried.) What's more, it's best not to assume ‘natural’ fragrances are any better for the skin than synthetic fragrances. Both can lead to reactions in skin that is sensitive to fragrance. Yes, even if a product is said to be 'clean'.

What are the best fragrance-free skincare products?

Here's a fun fact: There's actually a difference between fragrance-free and unscented products. In some cases, products labeled as 'unscented' may actually contain fragrance to mask the scent of the product. If you really want something without perfume in it, it's best to opt for a product labeled 'fragrance-free'.
Let's start with cleanser: If you're after something ultra-gentle and sans fragrance, try the SEEN Fragrance-Free Face Wash, $32. Key ingredients are deeply moisturizing glycerin and squalane but even though it's nourishing, it removes all traces of makeup, sunscreen and daily grime. Also try DORÉ's Le Cleanser, $24, which is a gel that transforms into a lightweight milk on contact with water and won't strip the skin's moisture. I also like Farmacy's Green Clean Cleanser + Makeup Remover Balm, $36, if you want something heavier to cut through mascara and foundation.
Photographed by Eylul Aslan.
A serum like Tower 28's SOS Intensive Rescue Serum, $34, is great for reactive, dry skin that needs flooding with moisture. It includes hypochlorous acid (an anti-inflammatory and antibacterial ingredient) as well as hydrating hyaluronic acid and ceramides (essentially the glue which holds your skin together and keeps it soft). Plus, my colleague Megan wrote about how it saved her skin from a spontaneous freak out a few months ago.
When it comes to moisturizer, try the affordable BYOMA Moisturizing Rich Cream, $14.99, again with ceramides and also fatty acids to prevent flaky skin, or the La Roche-Posay Anthelios UV Correct SPF 70 Daily Face Sunscreen with Niacinamide, $34.99, if you want something with sunscreen. The niacinamide (otherwise known as vitamin B3) is deeply hydrating. This has also been tested for allergy-prone and sensitive skin.
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