Saturday Question: Skincare – Scented, Fragrance-free or Unscented?

With the current trends for “clean,” “organic,” “vegan,” “eco-friendly,” “cruelty-free,” etc. beauty products, the question of scent in skincare products is constantly being mentioned. With it comes some confusion: people associate scents with being harmful, while the absence of scents seems like a safer choice. In reality, it is not necessarily true. “Unscented” products might contain ingredients that neutralize or mask scents but are themselves irritants, while naturally occurring pleasant aromas might be completely harmless. Of course, having a fragrance added to the product (either to make it smell better or not to smell at all) will not necessarily irritate your skin, same as all-natural ingredients are not guaranteed to be safe, as we know from IFRA’s regulations for even those minuscule amounts that get onto your skin as perfume application. So, the safest combination for sensitive skin would be products that contain only safe ingredients (with or without their natural scent) and no added fragrance to either enhance or hinder our scent perception of the product. This is theoretically. But what in reality? Do you care for the scent in your skincare products?

Saturday Question on Undina's Looking Glass

Saturday Question #77:

Skincare – Scented, Fragrance-free or Unscented?

Do you care whether your skincare products have a scent (natural occurring or added)? Do you prefer it one way or the other? Do you make an extra effort to ensure that the product you’re getting smells the way you like (or doesn’t smell at all, if this is your preference)?

What are your favorite products smell-wise?

My Answer

I can’t say with certainty whether my skin is sensitive. I do have some skin allergies, but those seem to be triggered mostly by environmental factors: I started having any issues (other than mild acne, from which I suffered my whole life) only 3 or 4 years ago when we had the first huge fire in our area with air quality being classified as “dangerous” for a couple of weeks. At that point, my skin started reacting to everything, and that was when I switched to the simplest routine with a couple of products that I tolerated well. Back then the question of ascent or fragrance in products didn’t even occur to me.

A year of working from home miraculously healed my skin super-sensitivity, and I started dabbling in an enhanced skincare routine, as I described in one of my Sunday Self-care Series post. And that was when I realized that I do not enjoy skincare products that do not have any smell. The scentless Ilia Lip Wrap Treatment Mask was one of my least favorite lip products. I tolerate The Ordinary products, but mostly because those are super-simple “one-track” remedies. With everything else… I want a pleasant scent. My skincare doesn’t feel luxurious enough if I cannot smell anything at all. Among products that I enjoy, I’d name Emma Hardie Moringa Cleansing Gel, Guerlein Youth Watery Oil and Laneige Lip Sleeping Mask in Berry.

Lip Masks

So, if I absolutely have to (if my skin starts “misbehaving” again), of course, I will pay even more attention to what I react to, and I might decide to eliminate some of the products that do not swear not to make the situation worse (being “free-everything”). But until then I try to stick to products that provide enjoyment to all of my senses.

Speaking about satisfying all the senses… Check out this post (and a giveaway) on Jessica’s blog (Perfume Professor) for the review of the latest products from Boxwalla’s subscription.


How about you?

Skincare – Scented, Fragrance-free or Unscented?


23 thoughts on “Saturday Question: Skincare – Scented, Fragrance-free or Unscented?

  1. I don’t have particularly sensitive skin so scented skincare doesn’t bother me much. I don’t mind unscented – but some unscented products actually smell unpleasant. One of my favorite products (don’t use anymore due to the price) – Sunday Riley Good Genes – smells of lemongrass. I guess I don’t consider scent much either way, although I’m with you on lip products – much prefer scent/flavor – anything but rose.


    • Yes!!! As much as I like Rose scent, on my lips it feels wrong.
      Can you “stalk” your favorite products and get them on sale, or are they too expensive for you even if you were to get 20-25% off?


  2. I prefer a pleasant lightly scented product. Like you, it feels less luxurious if it doesn’t smell of anything or smells like a masking product designed to make it « unscented ».


    • It’s interesting how years of fragrant high-end (and probably not only) products conditioned us to associate good scent with luxury. I wonder, what will future generations think about it.


  3. I love all things scented, skin care is one area that remains scent free. My skin has never been sensitive, but from what I’ve read, fragrance in skin care is a major cause of contact dermatitis. This is especially true for people who use retinol or retin A, which I use. That said, it’s not worth the trouble and the benefits of using a scented product are next to none compared to the potential for irritation.
    The skin can develop a sensitivity to fragrance over time. I discovered that the hard way when I borrowed my husband’s Neutrogena sunscreen and spent six weeks slathering on cortisone cream to calm down a red angry rash.
    But, it was that or get sunburned, so it was a coin toss between the two.


    • I mostly agree with you, and under no circumstances are trying to pick up a “religious fight,” but I have a couple of points I want to mention (and disagree on one more):
      1. It might be a wrong impression from your comment, but it sounds like when talking about skincare, you equate having scent to containing fragrance (and, correspondingly, absence of scent to being fragrance-free), which is not the same. A pleasantly smelling potion with the smell coming from good for the skin ingredients that naturally have that scent will not irritate your skin, while a product that doesn’t smell at all might have a ton of added fragrance (I mean, what is considered fragrance in skincare production, not perfume in our understanding) that are there exactly for the purpose of tricking our noses into not smelling anything, but that fragrance itself is not a lesser potential irritant than the one that makes the product smell pleasant.

      2. How sure are you that your reaction to your husband’s sunscreen was a reaction to the fragrance? I’m asking because I’m a fellow-sufferer, and from many unfortunate situations I know that sometimes I get sun rush that requires quite a long recovery period – and it happens even when I wear proven sunscreens that usually don’t cause me any issues, so I suspect that it is a reaction to sun amount, maybe in combination with something I ate that day. Also, when my fire-triggered eczema flared up, I discovered that I react poorly to some ingredients in sunscreen: even within one brand – Paula’s Choice (!), one product was perfect and another one would cause a severe reaction. But I do agree that it might have been fragrance in that sunscreen that you reacted to.

      3. Where I disagree with you is the absence of benefits from using scented products. You come at it from the position that everyone would use them anyway, so as well they should avoid _potential_ sensitivity. In reality, a lot of people do not use products regularly (people forget to take medication – let alone put on a sunscreen or use a moisturizer!), so having something that is pleasant to use would be an additional incentive for many people to make that extra effort.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve followed you for quite some time and realize you’re not picking a fight. That said, upon rereading my comment, I can see where I came across as preachy or advising others to avoid scent, that was not my intent, and I apologize.

        I’m pretty sure it was the hubby’s sunscreen that caused the reaction. It was the only new item I’d put on my skin. Nothing else in my routine had changed. I use the same products, very gentle ones, day in and day out. I should have known better than to use his sunscreen. Neutrogena products have never worked for me. It might be something in the sunscreen base that’s an irritant, I’m not sure.

        Regarding the one point where we disagree. I love and enjoy using scented products, they provide comfort and enjoyment. I find scented products especially comforting and nurturing when I’m in the hospital 9-10 times per year. It’s what makes my life from a hospital bed at UCSF tolerable. I just don’t ever use those scented products on my face and neck.

        Liked by 1 person

        • No-no-no, your comment sounded completely reasonable, and I think that you are correct when it comes to the fragrance added for the benefit of smelling nice: having sensitive skin, you are absolutely right trying to minimize risks. I just wanted to clarify that scent fragrance :)

          Neutrogena has never worked for me either, even when I had less skin issues (I didn’t like the smell ;) ), so I decided not to experiment with it now – even though I was tempted by their SPF 100+ products. But I’ll stick to my tried and true SPF 50+ from Paula’s Choice and Shiseido.


  4. I prefer a light scent to my skin care products. I love the scents of Sisley and Chantecaille products, which both use a lot of rose water and rose essences. The Sisley black rose moisturizing masque is divine, works well and smells SO good. My Yon-Ka products are nice also. The serum has too strong an orange blossom scent for my taste, but it works very well so I’ll keep using it until I find something better.
    There was one Italian natural skin care balm I tried once, can’t recall the name, but it smelled terrible! Ugh! I sent it back. I also find that many of the ‘unscented’ products have a rather medicinal scent to them just from the ingredients themselves. So ‘unscented’ may actually have a scent. Good topic!


    • I’m eyeing Sisley black rose line… I heard so many good things (experience-wise, I’m skeptical about the efficiency of most products anyway :) ), that I’m afraid there will be no “turning back” once I try it… But I probably will try it anyway :)


  5. For me, it really depends on the product. I tend to get unscented products for my face, partly because I want to smell my perfume, not something else! Bit if there’s a light smell that comes from a functional ingredient, that’s fine. That doesn’t usually last long anyway, and I don’t have a sophisticated skincare routine, though I’m religious about sunscreen. I’ve liked some Aveda products that smelled lovely, but I’m not a regular user. I mostly use unscented bath oil, but I’ve enjoyed adding a dropper of SJP Stash to it (thanks for that idea, Portia!). I use lavender-scented Dove soap for bathing, because my skin is dry, and scented magnesium salts like Dr. Teal’s.


    • With products that are washed away in less than a minute, I definitely prefer to have them scented – I don’t enjoy them otherwise! All face skincare with a scent that I’ve tried so far didn’t persist for long enough to be bothersome or interfere with my perfumes – unless it’s a vitamin C products… At least some of those have scents that I don’t like much, and they stick around… But I’m fine with those at night.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. For the face, body lotion / cream and sunscreen, fragrance-free. Everything else can be scented but I am always cautious to test first because I have sensitive skin and don’t want to run the risk of having an allergic reaction. For what it’s worth, some really popular products don’t work for me even if they were touted as fragrance free (I’m looking at you Philosophy Purity face cleanser) and natural (pretty much the entire L’Occitane shea butter line).

    Agree with your comment that there could be a non-fragrance ingredient that one is allergic to so it’s always best to test before using.


    • When my skin was reacting, it reacted to EVERYTHING – scented, unscented, natural or not that much. So I know how it is and totally share the notion that one needs to minimize potential known issues with one’s skin sensitivity.
      But personally, I prefer even body products to have some mild scent. I don’t like perfumed body lotions, but completely scentless (I don’t know how it’s achieved – with or without harmful ingredients) products trigger a cognitive dissonance – probably because for the most part of my previous life nicely scented products were considered good. I probably won’t live to see that, but I wonder what future generations will think about the current obsession with “clean,” “all-natural,” etc. A century ago women used arsenic to whiten their skin…


  7. I have ridiculously – and annoyingly – sensitive skin as you know, but not everything scented irritates it. That Moringa Cleansing Balm does, sadly. I am constantly playing things by ear, but I would tend to veer away from anything whose ingredients label looks very perfumey


    • I’m sure that whatever irritates your skin in that Moringa Cleansing Balm isn’t a fragrance ;)
      If you remember, I predicted that you might be sensitive to it: for a year or more I couldn’t use it, my eyes would get puffy after I used it. But since my skin calmed down in the past year, I went back to my cleanser, and for now it works just fine – go figure!


  8. Hey Undina,
    Sorry I’m late.
    Since being part of the fragrance community I did try a couple of skin care type things. I use soap, water and after shave balm as my only skincare routine. I feel like it might muck about with the incredible good fortune of my good face skin if I start playing around with it.
    Aftelier does a Rose Face Oil and every so often I use a couple of drops of it on my face after taking my make up off from work. It’s super fragrant and if I wear it overnight can smell it when awakening.
    L’Occitane gave me a pot of their Immortelle Divine Cream to test for a fortnight and blog about. Quite fragrant also.
    Both of these products do amazing things to my skin and I quite like the fragrances. It does mean I can’t wear any other fragrance though because they get lost.
    Portia x


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