Generally speaking, I don’t mind having some fragrance in my products. However, if my skin is particularly sensitive, if I’m having a migraine or feel like one is coming, or if I’m going to be around someone who is fragrance-sensitive, I try to dial it back. As a result, I’ve learned to be aware of which of the skin care products I’m using contain fragrance, and which don’t. The products listed here are ones that I have used frequently and can personally attest to their effectiveness.
Clinique Take The Day Off Cleansing Balm ($29, Nordstrom) is one of the best oil balm cleansers I’ve used. It takes off even the most stubborn makeup–even my Urban Decay liquid eyeliner is no match for this stuff! I use the balm cleanser at night, followed by a water-based cleanser to remove any residue left behind, though this doesn’t leave much. I know everyone in the K-beauty talks about Clean It Zero, but I’ve found this to be a lot more effective, and it has a lot less greasy feel. It’s a little more expensive, but it’s worth it. There is also this version of Clean It Zero which is formulated without fragrance, but I’ve only used the original, so I can’t attest to how well it works.
CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser ($10.49, Target) is the standard second stage of my double cleanse even on days when I’m not restricting fragrance. With skin that is prone to losing water content, the hyaluronic acid helps lock it in, and the ceramides help to rebuild my skin’s moisture barrier. I also use it as a single cleanser in the morning. The best part about the CeraVe is the low pH; skin’s natural pH is slightly acidic, between 4.5 and 5.5, and most foaming cleansers are neutral to alkaline, leading to a disruption in the skin’s acid mantle (aka how my skin became so dehydrated in the first place). This cleanser clocks in at a 5.5, which is just about perfect.
I don’t use a toner when I’m staying away from fragrance, because I haven’t found a fragrance-free one that I like. However, my skin gets plenty clean from my double cleanse, so I don’t need the Western-style “get what cleanser leaves behind” style toner, and I pump in enough hydrating ingredients to make up for the lack of an Asian-style hydrating toner. I have heard excellent things about the Hada Labo Gokujyun Premium lotion from Japan, with multiple different forms of hyaluronic acid, but I have yet to try it.
The first thing you need to know about Cosrx Galactomyces 95 Whitening Power Essence ($16, Jolse) is that when Korean brands say “whitening,” that’s not what they really mean. They mean that the product brightens the skin, getting rid of dullness. This essence is made from 95% galactomyces ferment filtrate, which brightens and evens skin tone as well as having antioxidant properties. I generally use this in the morning after cleansing with the CeraVe hydrating cleanser, before any serums or ampoules, but if you’re not using those, you can skip straight from this to moisturizer. On days when I’m avoiding fragrance, I also use it instead of my usual nighttime essence.
I have talked before about my love for snail products in skin care, especially Mizon Snail Repair Intensive Ampoule ($15, BeautySesh). This product is made from 80% snail mucin, which does amazing things for healing skin after breakouts and for protecting the moisture barrier. It also claims to contain Epidermal Growth Factor, a controversial peptide that encourages cell growth but can trigger outbreaks in people with psoriasis. However, EGF is the very last ingredient, so unless you actually have psoriasis, I wouldn’t be too worried.
Yeah, yeah, so I’m a fan of the Snail Repair line. Mizon Snail Repair Eye Cream ($22, Peach & Lily) is another that is mostly snail mucin, which is lovely to have around the eyes, but I have gotten to the point that I only use it on no-fragrance days. Because of the dryness and fine lines under my eyes, I prefer something thicker. This is another that contains EGF, as well as sweet almond oil, so those with psoriasis or tree nut allergies would be better off with Clinique All About Eyes ($32.50, Sephora).
Missha Time Revolution Night Repair ampoule ($25, Amazon), known affectionately in skin care circles as the Long Name Ampoule, is often mentioned as a more affordable dupe for Estee Lauder’s Advanced Night Repair, and is another ferment-heavy product. Rather than the brightening Galactomyces in the Cosrx essence, this contains Saccharomyces, which is more for anti-aging purposes, along with lactobacillus, bifida, and lactococcus, good bacteria that naturally occur in and on the body. It also has a whole long list of trace ingredients, but I usually go with “my skin likes the ferments” as a reason to use it, not “This contains 0.045% retinol.” It’s also available in store at Target, but I’ll wait the two days to get it shipped rather than pay double the price.
Josie Maran 100% Pure Argan Oil Light ($48, Josie Maran) is what I use when my skin needs a touch more oil to it. Generally, my skin loses water, not oil, but as a general rule, skin needs both to maintain its condition. What makes it “light” is that instead of being a natural oil, it’s an isostearylic ester of argan oil, making it absorb faster and feel less heavy on the skin. I still prefer to use it at night rather than during the day, because my sunscreen doesn’t absorb properly with oil under it. This oil is also lovely if you have some dryness on your cuticles or the ends of your hair. If you don’t want to shell out the money for the full size, you can always test it out by getting the trial size, like I did.
Hada Labo Shirojyun Milk ($15.99, Mentholatum) is a great lightweight moisturizer for the face, but I have found myself using it on my arms a lot lately. It contains meadowfoam seed oil, a lightweight moisturizer, as well as arbutin, which is highly effective for hyperpigmentation and sun damage like the freckles that run all up and down my arms. If you have darker skin, make sure you aren’t using this directly after an alkaline cleanser like a bar soap, because theoretically, in a sufficiently alkaline environment, arbutin can convert to hydroquinone, which can bleach your skin. I haven’t seen any evidence of it actually happening, but the science says there’s a hypothetical risk. Interestingly, Hada Labo is part of the same company as the Mentholatum lip balm that, when I was a child and got colds, my mother would try to put on my chapped nose. I hated it!
Sunscreen is a non-negotiable for me, and I fervently believe that it should be for everyone. The one I have been using lately is Neutrogena Pure & Free Liquid ($12.99, Ulta). It’s a non-greasy liquid that absorbs well and layers nicely under a water-based foundation. If your skin tone is medium or darker, this one may not be a fit for you, because it is a mineral based sunscreen, and that means there is a slight white cast that can make darker skin tones appear ashy. However, I’m about two shades short of glowing under black light, so it doesn’t show on me. I do wish it came in a bigger bottle, though, because 1.4 ounces goes fast.
It may seem intimidating to try to assemble a skin care routine without fragrance. It can feel like it’s in everything! When I was growing up, it seemed like an impossible task to find products that wouldn’t set off my mother’s asthma. But it seems that as companies are becoming more aware of fragrance sensitivities, and fragrance-free workplaces are becoming more common, unscented products are only going to become more common.
Have a favorite product that I didn’t mention? Let me know in the comments!