Is Fragrance Bad for Your Skin

Is Fragrance Bad for Your Skin?

By Kylie Nicholson

MARCH 22, 2023

Fragrance is commonly added to beauty products as a way to enhance customer experience, either to mask an undesirable smell or to make the product more appealing. Unfortunately, the inclusion of such ingredients is often done at the expense of skin health, especially for people with skin sensitivities. So, should added fragrance be a dealbreaker when choosing healthy and safe skin care products? And if so, how do you know if a product is truly fragrance-free? Let’s dig into the research.

01 Is fragrance free better for your skin?

Fragrance is typically added to skin care products for two reasons:

  1. To enhance a user’s experience by creating an alluring scent
  2. To mask the smell of other ingredients in a given formulation1

While the addition of fragrance may sound like an innocent formulation decision, fragrances can often do more harm than good. In fact, fragrance allergy, usually in the form of contact dermatitis, is the most common culprit of skin irritation from cosmetics.2 More than two million Americans suffer from a fragrance allergy, which can cause uncomfortable symptoms upon exposure.3 Even if you don’t have a known fragrance allergy, exposure to new products with added fragrance can induce the development of such an allergy due to the extensive list of harmful chemicals that can be used as artificial fragrance.1

02 How do you know if you are sensitive to fragrance?

Skin allergies from fragrance can originate from many different products, such as moisturizers, hand sanitizers, deodorants, facial creams, soaps, and aftershave. A reaction is triggered by exposure to the skin, or in some severe cases, close proximity to the ingredient. Fragranced product allergies can even be triggered by exposure to others nearby who are wearing such a product, from aerosol room fresheners, or even scented magazine inserts. Because of the commonality of fragrances in personal care and home keeping products, it can be difficult to diagnose a sensitivity to added fragrance as opposed to other allergies such as pollen or dust.3

If you experience symptoms including rashes, redness, itchiness, burning sensations, or even blistering on the skin following the use of a topical product, you may be suffering from a topical fragrance allergy. Other symptoms from inhaling fragrance include sneezing, runny nose, congestion, headache, or even breathing difficulties. In some cases, fragranced products can cause heightened sun sensitivity, which causes allergy-like symptoms that are triggered by exposure to the sun.3 Also, existing skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, and rosacea can become exacerbated in reaction to added fragrances.1

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03 How do you know if fragrance is used in a skin care product?

Some products may place claims on their packaging, such as “fragrance free”, “unscented” or “hypoallergenic”. However, the only way to truly confirm their absence is by checking the ingredient label, as these claims are largely unregulated and have little oversight to their accuracy.1Additionally, not all added fragrances are the same when it comes to reactions and sensitivities. And to make matters more complicated, companies are allowed to list fragrance ingredients as “fragrance”, instead of specifying which specific additives are present.4 There are likely a combination of many different ingredients being used under the label ‘fragrance’, some of which could be potential irritants.4

So how can you ensure what you are using is a fragrance-free product? For personal care products, a good resource is the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) SkinDeep Cosmetic Database. The EWG provides a score for ingredients on the scale from 1-10, with 1 being the safest and healthiest. For example, Oneskin’s OS-01 FACE received an average score of 1.02 and a weighted average of 1.04 on the EWG’s scoring system, indicating that it is safe for use based on its ingredients, which are free of parabens and don’t contain any real or artificial fragrances, sulfates, and other common irritants.5‘Fragrance’ on product labels has received a rating of 8 by the EWG, which means that products containing it cannot be EWG certified, and has a high likelihood of causing adverse effects.14

04 What is the difference between “fragrance free” and “unscented” skin care products?

Though there’s no true definition of “fragrance free” or “unscented,” there are commonly accepted criteria for each. In general, products that claim to be “fragrance free” typically do not contain any synthetic fragrance chemicals including parabens, phthalates, acetates, stearates. 1,11 However, consumers should still be cautious of this claim, as companies can label products as “fragrance free” if they use natural ingredients for scent, such as tea tree oil, sandalwood oil, limonene, linalool, and ylang ylang oil,12 which can still cause irritation and sensitivity for some.4 Unscented products tend to be slightly riskier than “fragrance free” products. They could still very well contain fragrances, but just for the use of masking unwanted scents, making them unscented products. You should also not assume that products labeled as “natural” or “green” are free of fragrance, as they could still contain essential oils or other potentially irritating ingredients for the purpose of adding scent.1

05 Can fragrance in skin care products contribute to aging?

Because added fragrance can cause symptoms such as photosensitivity, irritation, oxidative damage and inflammation, signs of skin aging can be accelerated by the use of such products.6 In the case of inflammation, a prolonged inflammatory response can damage healthy cells and tissue as the body’s way of attempting to eliminate the offending substance.7 Another major offender of skin aging is UV exposure from the sun, which contributes up to 80% of the damage that skin suffers.8 Fragrance can cause increased photosensitivity, putting those with fragrance sensitivity at risk for higher amounts of sun damage and a heightened risk of skin cancer.9

06 Can fragrance in skin care clog pores or lead to acne?

While acne-prone skin in itself is not a special risk factor for fragrance sensitivity, those with acne-prone skin tend to be more likely to over-wash their skin. This strips the protective oils and barrier, making skin more sensitive in general.1

Certain fragrances can clog pores, especially in products that are created with synthetic ingredients, such as perfumes.10Specific fragrance ingredients that may clog pores include citronellol, cinnamal, geraniol, eugenol, lavandula angustifolia, and rose flower extract.13

07 Can fragrance affect overall skin health?

Fragrance can negatively impact skin health as it can cause skin sensitization, irritation, and allergic reactions, all of which can lead to inflammation and a compromised skin barrier.

If you’re unsure whether a product contains ingredients that will react negatively to your skin, consider performing a patch test before applying the product to the rest of your skin. To perform a patch test, wash and dry an area of skin that is not often exposed to many products, such as the inside of your wrist, apply the product, and wait 24 hours. Observe the area for any changes in appearance such as redness or irritation. If any changes occur, you are likely experiencing a negative reaction to an ingredient in the product and should not continue use. However, if the patch test causes no issues, then the product is unlikely to react with the rest of your skin.6

Due to the relatively high risk that fragrance can cause skin irritation, it’s ideal to use products like a fragrance-free lotion or gel cleanser that don’t contain fragrances. That’s why OneSkin chose to formulate all topical skin care products, including its peptide moisturizer and peptide eye cream free from fragrances, sulfates, essential oils, and other common irritants. Because of this, all OneSkin products have received a weighted average of less than 1.1 based on the EWG’s SkinDeep Cosmetics Database scoring guidelines. Our R&D team also goes one step further, performing a RIPT (repeat insult patch test) on every product to further ensure that undue harm isn’t caused by the ingredients chosen.

Key Takeaways

  • Fragranced skin care and other products can cause adverse reactions such as cosmetic contact dermatitis.
  • Symptoms of fragrance allergy from skin care products include redness, dryness, irritation, inflammation, and photosensitivity.
  • A patch test can be performed with skin care products to determine if you will experience adverse reactions to ingredients.
  • Oneskin’s products are free from fragrance, sulfates, essential oils, and other common irritants to avoid undue adverse reactions.


By Kylie Nicholson: Kylie is studying Biosystems engineering at the University of California, San Diego. She is passionate about scientific writing and women's health research.



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