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Is The Fragrance In My Shampoo (And Lotion) Drying Out My Skin?

Photographed by Eylul Aslan.
I love a beautiful, complex perfume and a simple, hydrating body lotion individually. But for my lifestyle and general laziness, combining the two, using a fragranced body lotion makes more sense — it's two birds one stone kind of thing. 
Although, I've found this to be a tricky product category. In my experience, the nicest smelling lotions are lacking in the hydration category and the really-good moisturizing lotions have little to no smell. It makes sense. Dermatologists have told me that unfragranced skincare is a safer bet for those with sensitive skin, eczema, psoriasis, or rosacea. So, in considering my own winter body-care routine — my skin is already dry with a capital 'D' thanks to radiator heat — I'm exploring the question, are these heavily-fragranced lotions actually hydrating enough? (I've heard TikTok rumblings to the contrary.) More pointedly, should I quit my Brazilian Bum Bum Cream and commit to unfragranced body lotion and add a spritz of perfume over top?
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Does fragrance counteract moisturizing benefits in body lotion?

Because I'm neither a doctor nor a skincare formulation expert, I brought my questions to the dermatologists. I wondered, is a fragranced body lotion less moisturizing than a non-fragranced alternative? The answer: not really, but fragranced lotion does have a higher likelihood of causing an adverse drying reaction. "Fragrance does not necessarily counteract moisturizing or hydrating benefits," explains dermatologist Marisa Garshick, MD, "but it is important to note that some individuals with dry or sensitive skin may develop a reaction with certain types of fragrance, which may lead to further redness, dryness, and itching of the skin."
Because while fragrance does not directly impact hydration levels, it can obliquely cause dry skin. Fragrance can impact the skin's barrier function, which impairs its ability to retain hydration. "If a fragrance is irritating, it can compromise the skin barrier," explains dermatologist Ramya Garlapati, MD. "When the skin barrier is compromised, it is unable to retain water within the skin leading to a decrease in hydration. Skin needs to be adequately moisturized to repair and maintain the skin barrier to function properly."

"If a fragrance is irritating, it can compromise the skin barrier. When the skin barrier is compromised, it is unable to retain water within the skin leading to a decrease in hydration."

dermatologist Ramya Garlapati, MD

Are fragrance-free lotions better for my skin?

According to dermatologists, you don't have to give up fragranced lotions if they're not bothering you. Similar to the way some people can't tolerate gel nail polish because they have damaged, over-processed nails, those with a compromised skin barrier might have a lower tolerance to fragranced skincare. 
Personally, I've never thought about my tolerance to fragranced body lotion (just gel polish, and it's low), but now I'm more curious about it. I've gathered that winter might be a good time to try cutting out fragrance since I know my barrier is more delicate — yours might be, too.
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"With the cooler months I’m seeing a lot of patients coming in with dry skin and compromised skin barriers," explains Dr. Garlapati. "This mainly occurs because of several changes in the cooler months such as, decreased humidity in the air, people are turning their heaters on and taking long hot showers. All of these factors can compromise your skin barrier and dry out your skin. People may not be using the right moisturizers to support their skin barrier as not all moisturizers are created equal."

Are 'fragrance-free' and 'unscented' lotions the same thing?

So what are the 'right' moisturizers to support the skin barrier? Dr. Garshick recommends looking for 'fragrance-free' labels — which are not the same as 'unscented', 'clean', or 'natural' products. "Even natural products may contain fragrance, so it is important to remember that just because something is natural doesn’t mean it doesn’t have fragrance or won’t cause potential irritation," explains Dr. Garshick. "Another important reminder is that some products may be labeled as unscented, but this just means there is a masking fragrance to cover up a natural scent, so unscented is not the same as fragrance-free."

"Some products may be labeled as unscented, but this just means there is a masking fragrance to cover up a natural scent, so unscented is not the same as fragrance-free."

dermatologist Marisa Garshick, MD
I try to avoid synthetic, additive fragrance in my facial skincare — though some products still come with a funky natural scent, like Skinceuticals CE Ferulic Serum, which smells like hotdog water (some consider it a "smell of efficacy"). For my dry legs, I'm skipping coconut-y body lotions for the time being. Instead, I'm going to try one of the admittedly-boring dermatologist recommendations, like the Cetaphil Moisturizing Lotion, Vanicream Moisturizing Cream, or even a Vaseline stick as an occlusive; they're not sexy, but they're affordable and they work to keep your skin hydrated, if that's your goal. More luxe options include Nécessaire Body Lotion (the body wash is also fragrance-free) or U Beauty's The Super Body Hydrator.
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I won't forsake fragrance altogether. I'll spray perfume or apply perfume oil on my pulse points after moisturizing. According to a study on perfume layering, well-moisturized skin helps the scent last longer anyways.

Can fragranced hair products cause scalp dryness?

In the winter, I'm also prone to the pesky seasonal dry scalp. Truthfully, I usually don't do anything about it (except complain). But since my dry scalp is an extension of my dry skin, I asked the dermatologists if fragrance in shampoo is something to think about. "Yes, just like the skin on your body can be affected by fragrances, so can the skin on your scalp," says Dr. Garlapati. "If an individual is prone to dry or sensitive skin, I would recommend opting for a fragrance-free shampoo to prevent any unwanted irritation or flare of their skin condition."
Again, this is not a one-size-fits-all recommendation. "Those with a dry scalp do not necessarily need to use a non-fragrance shampoo or conditioner unless there is concern for a sensitivity to the fragrance," adds Dr. Garshick. "That said, those with dry scalp should look for hair products containing hydrating and nourishing ingredients, regardless of fragrance." Some hydrating ingredients include hyaluronic acid, vitamin E, argan oil, glycerin, and peptides. For fragrance-free shampoo, I would recommend Nécessaire The Shampoo, DevaCurl Fragrance-Free & Hypoallergenic No-Poo Original, or SEEN Skin-Caring Shampoo.  I'm keeping my conditioner away from my scalp, so I think fragrance is a non-issue there.
Ultimately, my scaly legs and itchy scalp are probably not all that impacted by the fragrance in my shampoo or body lotion for that matter. However, I get why people are getting on the fragrance-free train, because it seems to be a lot safer, albeit less sensorially satisfying. Maybe I'll just put some eucalyptus in my shower.
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