Jun 15, 2023

The best fragrance

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Given 60 per cent of people describe their skin as sensitive, this fragrance-free skincare, haircare and make-up should be on your radar

Whether or not to avoid fragrance in personal care products is a topic that is widely debated in the beauty world. The primary benefit of including perfume in products is sensorial – it appeals to our sense of smell, a benefit that can enhance mood and relieve stress. This is true not only of synthetic fragrances but natural scents (via essential oils and other botanicals derived from plants, trees and flowers), although these ingredients are often harnessed in product formulations for their other properties, which can include any number of things from being antiseptic to bactericidal. But for those with sensitive skin and specific allergies, products formulated with fragrance – or fragrant ingredients – can have the potential to irritate and cause inflammation, or even trigger specific health conditions such as migraines. This is why many might benefit from shopping fragrance-free.

Dr. Barbara Sturm, aesthetics expert and anti-inflammatory pioneer feels that "not only are fragrances unnecessary, but they can also put skin at risk of inflammatory reactions and trigger allergic reactions or irritant contact dermatitis, which is caused by fragrance irritating the outer layer of skin". Dermatologist Dr. Sam Bunting agrees: "Given that as many as 60 per cent of people describe their skin as sensitive, it makes little sense to use up the precious space in your skincare products with ingredients, like fragrance, that can potentially irritate and offer absolutely no benefits to the skin."

Instead, both feel that every ingredient in a product should be working hard to deliver results that you can actually see (as opposed to smell). Both Dr. Bunting and Dr. Sturm choose to formulate their own products under their eponymous brands without any perfume or essential oils, and for Dr. Sturm this approach extends beyond face and body skincare and applies to haircare, plus her new Laundry Detergent – a gentle plant-based formulation.

Those who are sensitive to fragrance should also consider their hair products (given that they come into contact with skin) and make-up accordingly, as well as toiletries like deodorant. As Dr. Bunting points out, something like haircare is less likely to be problematic, "as the dose reaching the skin tends to be small, and irritant dermatitis is typically dose-dependent". However, "allergic contact dermatitis can be triggered by a tiny exposure to the culprit. Once an individual becomes sensitised, and given that a small but significant number of people become allergic to skincare ingredients through exposure, it's possible to react to something that you’ve previously used safely". Here, differentiating between irritant dermatitis and contact dermatitis is important, so it's worth consulting a dermatologist to be sure of the diagnosis. Though either way it makes sense to avoid fragrance in your products, especially now so many elegant alternatives are available.

Dr. Bunting is a long-standing fan of the Avène Cicalfate and La Roche Posay Toleriane lines, which are used in her clinic, but in addition to those which boast cult followings, many modern brands are launching with fragrance-free options as standard. Hair and body brand Nécessaire, for example, have fragrance-free products that feel like decadent elevated essentials as much as their fragrant counterparts. As do natural spa brand Susanne Kaufmann, organic beauty brand Green People, affordable luxury do-it-all Beauty Pie and science-first skincare Paula's Choice – each offering something sans fragrance for every taste and budget. "What is interesting is, as soon as you get used to unscented products, you prefer them," Dr. Strum observes. "I have received this feedback so many times, from customers, my teams and friends and family."

Below see our pick of the very best fragrance-free beauty buys for top-to-toe:

We rate all of Nécessaire's fragrance-free offerings, which include this shampoo and its corresponding conditioner, a body wash, body exfoliator, deodorant gel, body serum, body lotion and hand cream.

This soothing three-in-one body cleanser is fortified with vitamin E to nourish and strengthen skin and hair. Plus, the weighty glass bottle feels as chic to use as it looks.

Fragrance-free anti-perspirants are becoming more readily available, and leading the charge is Vichy's version, which is ultra gentle yet reliably effective.

CeraVe is one of our key go-to brands for fragrance-free skincare that performs beyond its humble price tag. For sensitive eyes, this specialist cream doesn't hold back on granting aesthetic benefits, reducing the look of dark circles and puffiness as well as boosting hydration.

Entirely fragrance-free, Dr. Bunting's excellent skincare range offers complete skincare routines for all. While she is a champion of active ingredients, like retinoids, the brand's basics are just as effective as the treatment products. This hydrating gel cleanser is a particular favourite, making the removal of make-up and daily impurities a genuine treat.

In addition to Dr Sam's Flawless Cleanser we love Bioderma's Micellar Water, which gently but completely removes all make-up and refreshes skin in a swipe.

Australian sunscreens are highly regarded for the strict standards they meet, and this one is a bargain to boot. As recommended to Bazaar by cosmetic chemist and beauty science educator Michelle Wong, she says this is "a light textured chemical sunscreen with no white cast that works well for a lot of people".

Often people are religious about fragrance-free skincare only to pay less attention to those present in their make-up. There are plenty of excellent options out there, though. Take Beauty Pie's foundation, a medium-to-full coverage lightweight formula that lends skin a long-lasting polish.

Mascara is an obvious choice to shop fragrance-free, too, especially if you get itchy eyes. Trust La Roche-Posay, who's entire Toleriane range has a cult following for fragrance-free fans, to make an excellent one.

"Each ingredient I include in my products has been studied for its scientific abilities to treat and soothe the skin, avoiding inflammation and addressing irritation," Dr. Sturm tells us. Her Face Cream is one of her brand's hero products that's both anti-inflammatory and anti-ageing.

This firming body cream is an example of what Biossance do so well: formulating scientifically-driven, sustainably sourced ingredients that get results without compromising the environment or one's skin.

Often hailed as the gold star alternative to a retinoid (which many a sensitive type can't tolerate), Bioeffect's serum – with its plant-based replica of EGF (a naturally occurring human protein) – reduces the appearance of fine lines and pores while increasing radiance.

Paula's Choice is a famed advocate of the fragrance-free beauty philosophy. While you won't find fragrance across the board, should you have sensitive skin look to the brand's Calm range. This anti-ageing exfoliant is gentle enough for even rosacea-prone skin.

A cult classic, Avène's Cicalfate+ is a true multi-tasking skin soother, relieving rashes, chapping and friction, as well as localised dryness. Everyone should own a tube.

Especially suitable for those pre- and postnatal, this carefully formulated body wash is designed to balance, protect and nourish skin wherever used.

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