Is Fragrance Causing Your Irritated Skin? Here's What a Dermatologist Says

The answer might surprise you.

Is Fragrance Causing Your Irritated Skin? Here's What a Dermatologist Says

Thanks to TikTok and Instagram, we're absorbing more skincare content than ever, and because of that, we're becoming more and more aware of the ingredients we want to put on our skin, and just as importantly, those we don't. Some skincare ingredients have been pretty much universally accepted by skincare experts, editors, and enthusiasts—think hyaluronic acid, retinol, and vitamin C. Others, well, not so much. The ingredients that have made consumers particularly wary include the likes of parabens, phthalates, and (what might be one of the most controversial of them all) fragrance.  Why is fragrance such a concern for some people? It all comes down to its potential to cause irritation, which can be a problem for anyone who has sensitive skin (like yours truly). Thinking that it's better to be safe than sorry, some people go as far as to swear off fragranced skincare products altogether. But I have to wonder, is that really necessary? Keep reading to find out, straight from a leading dermatologist. 

What many people might not know is that "fragrance" is a vague and nebulous term. It doesn't refer to a specific ingredient. Instead, it refers to a variety of cosmetic ingredients that might make up the scent of a product. So, basically, it's more of a category than an actual ingredient.  Take it from Chris Tomassian, MD, Chief Dermatology Resident, and leading authority on DermTok. "Many times, it just states 'fragrance' on the ingredient list rather than the individual ingredient. Many products will be labeled as 'unscented,' however, that may still mean there are masking fragrances in the product which you can be allergic to." That's why he recommends looking for the term “fragrance-free” rather than “unscented." 

According to Tomassian, the answer isn't necessarily yes or no. It's that it could be. "Fragrance is a very common culprit when it comes to allergic and irritant skin rashes," he explains. "Fragrances have the potential to stimulate an immune reaction which can result in redness, swelling, blisters, and itching. This is more common in those who have an impaired skin barrier like eczema." 

Oh, and another thing: Many people claim that a fragrance is less irritating if it's natural rather than synthetic. That's simply not the case. No matter if a fragrance is natural or synthetic, Tomassian says it can still cause irritation, and one isn't necessarily any better than the other.  Natural fragrance includes essential oils, which are included in many skincare products not only for scent purposes but also for other formulation benefits, such as their antimicrobial properties. Even though they're 100% plant-derived, they can still be irritating. It just goes to show that the natural versus synthetic debate is a moot point, at least in regards to fragrance. 

So, what's the verdict? Is cutting out all fragrances really the best thing for sensitive skin? Tomassian says that the answer isn't as cut and dry as some people might think. "In general, I would say to exclusively use fragrance-free products if you have sensitive skin," Tomassian says. "However, many people love fragrance and the experience of using products with fragrance." In other words, it's up to the individual. If the sensorial experience of a fragranced skincare product appeals to you, and leads you to better care for your skin in a consistent way, then go for it. It's also worth noting that just because fragrance generally has a high irritation potential, that doesn't automatically mean every single skincare product that contains fragrance will cause irritation for you. Everyone's skin is unique, as are their skincare routines and preferences. It's not accurate to say fragrance is inherently good or bad. It depends. 

Still, if you have sensitive skin, Tomassian recommends testing fragranced products before jumping right in and applying them to your face. "For those with sensitive skin, I would say always spot test an area before applying it all over. The inner upper arm is a great place to spot test." There you have it. There's no right answer when it comes to fragrance in skincare, and it all boils down to personal preference. With that being said, some people prefer to steer clear of fragrance in their skincare routines, and that's okay. If you do, keep scrolling to see some of our favorite fragrance-free skincare products to shop, from Who What Wear's sister brand, Versed. 

This sunscreen is one of my favorite Versed products. It has a peach tint that blurs imperfections. You know that means, right? No white cast—ever.

This gentle retinol serum won't irritate sensitive skin.

Anyone who has dehydrated skin will love this gel-cream hybrid. It's like a tall glass of water for your skin.

A daily toner that leaves the skin calm, bouncy, and hydrated. It's just what my parched complexion needs.

Vitamin C is a notoriously unstable skincare ingredient. It degrades quickly and loses efficacy, but not this one. It has a powdered formula that stays fresh and potent, so you can be sure it's giving your skin all the antioxidant, collagen-boosting benefits it needs when you mix it into your serums and moisturizers. 

This milky cleanser leaves skin squeaky clean without drying it out or causing excess irritation and redness. 

This night cream uses fermented purple tea, green coffee, and microalgae to smooth skin and reduce fine lines and wrinkles while you sleep. 

If clogged pores get you down, this purifying mask might just be your new best friend. It uses two types of clay, along with charcoal, to draw out impurities and excess oil from the skin. 

This little bottle contains super-hydrating hyaluronic acid. Use it alone or add it to another product to boost your skin when it's feeling parched. Follow up with moisturizer, and voilà, you'll have hydrated skin. 

This one goes out to anyone with perpetually dry skin. It's a rich moisturizer that leaves skin feeling soft and bouncy, thanks to two hero ingredients–squalane and red algae extract. 

Moisturizing ceramides and soothing rosewater make this gel cleanser gentle enough for daily use. 

Vitamin C, licorice root extract, and niacinamide work together to treat and prevent hyperpigmentation and boost overall radiance. 

A trio of willow bark extract, niacinamide, and zinc work together to calm inflammation, decongest pores, and soothe redness.

Next, this $8 cleansing tool is the zero-effort secret to youthful skin