A Plea for the End of Scented Makeup

Rachel Krause
Getty Images

Getty Images

I have terrible eyesight, a below-average ability to identify flavors (“oh, very dry,” I say of all wines, uncertain of any other descriptors), satisfactory yet selective hearing, and transient paresthesia in my legs from years of wearing skintight jeans during key developmental stages. Directly resulting—or so I’m convinced—from the inadequacy of four out of five of my senses is my excellent sense of smell, and so too my love of fragrance. I’m equipped to appreciate the nuances of scent, which is a small consolation for being so bad at most other things.

And so I hoard expensive perfumes, layer fragrances like a pro, stop and smell the flowers whenever possible, and can smell rain in the air before it comes as well as differentiate the smell of fresh pizza from reheated. This extreme sensitivity comes in handy, like when my boyfriend suggests that something may be burning and I’m able to confirm that it is not an electrical fire but rather just the smell the flat iron makes when it’s heating up, and also not so handy, like when I go to use a new bronzer and have to rule it out immediately based on the overpowering scent. Womp.

This shouldn’t happen. Skin care frequently, understandably, carries some kind of fragrance, and that I can do, so long as it’s powered by essential oils or extracts and not made in a beaker. But when I open a powder compact and am immediately hit with a waft of perfume, or squeeze out some foundation onto the back of my hand and find myself suddenly overcome with the smell of artificial roses, I’m out on principle.

MORE: The Great (Though Largely Unsuccessful) Aphrodisiac Perfume Experiment

My personal conviction: It’s inconsiderate, I think, even an affront, to produce something you ostensibly want people to purchase and wear and then make it smell. It’s not just that it’s unnecessary; it’s also that most artificial fragrances, when applied to the skin, can be wildly irritating. Perfume in makeup is the stuff breakouts and irritation are made of, which is exactly why most products marketed as safe for sensitive skin are also fragrance-free. I want all makeup to be fragrance-free, not smelling of peanut butter and jelly or its own “unique fragrance,” the “legendary scent” of “character and mystery” that plagues a bronzer I adore but that forces me to hold my breath during the application process. I do not understand why anyone would think this is a good idea in the first place.

“Fragrances are usually added to cosmetics for one of two reasons,” cosmetic chemist Ron Robinson of BeautyStat told me, by way of an explanation. “The first is to mask the odor of an unpleasant-smelling ingredient in the product, and the second is to make the product smell appealing for the customer, to make for a more pleasing experience.” Neither of these answers satisfies me—in fact, they raise more questions. What are they putting in makeup that smells so bad? Who actually finds a blush that smells like laboratory-made lavender more appealing than one that doesn’t smell at all?

Characteristically, I want answers that I’m not going to get—answers that are in my favor. I want everyone to agree with me and call for the end of scented makeup altogether, but the fact remains that consumers like it, and as long as consumers like it, brands will continue to do it. And if I really wanted to make a difference, to start a movement, I’d do it myself, and you’d see me on one of those morning talk-show specials about entrepreneurial women who noticed a gap in the market—”so she did something about it, and now she sold the company for two billion dollars!” Which sounds like a lot of effort, so I’ll probably just keep holding my breath while I apply bronzer instead.