Shannon Peter: Why the best skincare products smell the worst

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Shannon Peter: Why the best skincare products smell the worstShannon Peter is an award-winning beauty editor and co-founder of beauty culture instagram feed, Painted Women. Below, she makes a strong case for odd-smelling skincare.


What are the markers you look for when in search of a sturdy skincare product? Is it a list of techy-sounding ingredients longer than your arm? Is it pared-back, clinical-looking packaging? Or do you fiercely Google the results of the consumer trials? Of course, all those things matter, but the sign that really tells me a product is worthwhile? Well, that can be spotted in the first twist of the cap or the first pump of the bottle – it’s the smell.

Don’t get me wrong, though. I don’t mean I make a beeline for products that smell like bunches of peonies or cucumber rounds. As lovely as they may be, my taste is far more perverted. I’m looking for pungent products that make my nose wrinkle, fermented odours that smell a bit ‘off’. I love tangy acidic serums and earthy-smelling face oils. In fact, if you ask me, the worse a product smells, the better.

I understand that might sound a bit twisted, but my odd olfactory addiction is actually part of a larger paradigm shift happening in beauty right now. Where once product developers were briefed to funnel heavy floral fragrances into formulas to disguise the true scent of the active ingredients, a slightly ‘off’ smell has become something of a badge of honour, a marker that a product is so hard-working, it doesn’t need to prove itself with superfluous perfumes.

As a new wave of ‘skintellectuals’, we want efficient products we can be sure are actually doing something beyond making our faces a little dewier for a hot second

It also speaks to the growing concerns over arguably unnecessary fragrance additives that some may find a little irritating to their sensitive skin. We’re not bothered about masking a slightly-funky smell, if that’s going to render the product completely unusable.

I’m no psychologist, but there’s definitely some cerebral drivers here too. Skincare used to be about pampering, and I spend my Sundays under slimy sheet masks, jade roller in hand trying to remind myself of that. However, as we’ve all become more clued up about ingredients and routines, skincare has taken on a more militant tone. As a new wave of ‘skintellectuals’, we want efficient products we can be sure are actually doing something beyond making our faces a little dewier for a hot second. That’s why we’ve schooled ourselves on acids, read up about vitamins and have researched antioxidants. We want the most active, potent formulas, that work quickly and offer effects that last. Medicinal or natural scents, well, just like serious-sounding names or the aforementioned clinical packaging, they work to give us that very impression. The sharp smell of a serum says ‘that flare up of yours doesn’t stand a chance’. The zingy odour of a exfoliator says ‘get ready for the smoothest skin of your life’.

NIOD’s Copper Isolate Serum is the perfect example. On application it smells a bit like an old penny (a smell that wears off quickly) but it is perhaps one of the most industrious serums I’ve tried, working to repair the skin, making it all-round brighter and bouncier. Online reviewers tend to comment on the strong smell of NIOD’s Sanskrit Saponins Cleansing Balm too, but the way it purges pores of all make-up and pollution build-up, it’s built up a serious fanbase, myself included. Alpha H’s cult Liquid Gold glycolic acid exfoliator smells not too dissimilar to vodka, but there’s nothing quite like it for brightening hyperpigmentation and levelling out patches of rough skin.

I’m not saying all nice-smelling products are bad, far from in. My bathroom cabinet houses plenty of balms and oils that emit fluffy clouds of floral fragrance with every use. But the real stalwarts of my regime? They’re the ones that smell the strangest.

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