Fragrance no longer seem like luxurious indulgence when a few spritzes result in a painful skin reaction. We checked in with dermatologist Melanie Palm, M.D, and Mark Crames, CEO of Demeter Fragrance Library, to educate us about why our skin is often less than fond of the scents we love—and more importantly, how to prevent and treat allergic reactions.
Why does our skin negatively react to fragrances in the first place?
"With over 5,000 fragrances formulated into products today, the possibility of being sensitive to [some of them] isn’t astonishing,” Palm tells InStyle. "If someone has a contact allergy to a certain ingredient in a fragrance, their skin reacts in an inflammatory manner," which translates to redness, swelling, itching, and even blisters. Read the label before you buy a new product, and if you're allergy-prone, avoid these common culprits: geraniol, hydroxycitronellal, a-amylcinnamaldehyde, eugenol, cinnamaldehyde, cinnamyl alcohol, isoeugenol, and oak moss.
How to Prevent Skin Sensitivities
Reduce your risk of allergic reactions by opting for products labeled as fragrance-free. “Don’t be misled by the term “unscented,” she says. “These products often include masking fragrances that may cause a rash.” And although it's counter-intuitive, all-natural fragrances might be more likely to cause a skin allergy than a lab-created scent, according to Crames. "They tend to trigger more reactions than the well tested synthetics that are mostly used in perfumery today.” He also notes that a fragrance's concentration might impact how your skin reacts to a scent. Eau de cologne is the least concentrated, followed by eau de toilette, eau de perfume, and finally pure perfume. "The more sensitive you are, the lower on the scale you want to be."
Most moisturizing creams contain a scent of some kind, so stick with those that are specifically formulated for people with allergy-prone or sensitive skin. We like Vanicream Moisturizing Skin Cream ($11; drugstore.com), a long-lasting formula that is free of fragrance.
How to Calm a Reaction
To treat a flare-up, Palm suggests applying 1% hydrocortisone cream twice daily until it subsides. But you can also use your reaction as an excuse to soak in the tub with a product that contains soothing colloidal oatmeal, such as Aveeno's Soothing Bath Treatment ($7; drugstore.com). For your daily skincare regimen, swap out your standard cleanser for something that contains hyaluronic acid or ceramides, like Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser ($7; drugstore.com) or CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser ($5; drugstore.com), both of which are scent-free and effective.