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Why I Only Use Skin-Care Products That Smell Bad

The sense of smell is an emotional and experiential one, as opposed to survival-based or biological. Our perception of what smells good and what smells bad is determined through context and the power of suggestion; as much as enjoying things that smell pleasant is a learned behavior, so is enjoying things that do not. Nobody is born craving durian, and people do not choose their skin-care products based on which ones smell the worst. All I’m saying is that… maybe they should?

Most people, when looking for something with which to slather their faces, opt for something that smells nice, whatever “nice” means to them. For me, a product that smells “nice” is an instant red flag. It’s Gandalf with a big stick in one hand and a sword in the other, telling a demon, “You shall not pass.” And he’s right, I won’t pass, because in my experience — and I have had a lot of experience — there is nothing more likely to rile up my highly reactive skin than to put something that smells like a flower or a fruit right on it.

Artificial fragrance or bespoke concoction of five carefully-chosen essential oils, it doesn’t matter. Lab-grown lavender listed as “fragrance (parfum)” or freshly-harvested orange flower blossom essence extract water, my skin can’t seem to make the distinction. I have been forced to unlearn the very foundation of what product formulators and my 10-to-20 million olfactory receptors have both been trying to tell me for a very long time, which is that good-smelling things are good on my face. They’re not.

And really, which would you prefer: smelling the potent, results-driven ingredients that are doing the work to give you better skin but might sort of smell like a foot, or an aromatherapeutic “blend” that’s in there for no reason other than to trick your brain into thinking you’re relaxed? I know where I stand. When I stopped asking myself, “Does this serum make me feel like I live in a spa?” and started asking, “Will this toner make me gag a little when I’m hungover?” instead, only then did I see real results.

These are the products that have worked wonders for my skin, and you better believe they don’t smell very good. I know what that means (and you will, too, soon enough): It’s working.

Here we have a product that smells truly, unmistakably bad, like vinegar and onion swirled in a vat of battery acid, which makes sense considering it contains vinegar, onion, and acid (lactic, citric, malic, phytic, and salicylic, not battery). Now, I avoided trying this strange solution for a long time — not because of the smell, but because I have this thing where I develop a strong biological aversion to anything that other people gush about nonstop.

When I finally caved and gave it a shot, I was so mad at myself for not doing it sooner, which is exactly how I felt after I refused to watch Game of Thrones until season 3 for no real reason at all other than everyone else liked it too much. All those years I wasted not having smoother, clearer skin and tiny pores, and not knowing how iconic Peter Dinklage is as Tyrion Lannister! A shame, really. A damn shame.
Biologique Recherche Lotion P50, $101, available at Toska European Spa

This lightweight serum is good for everything — rosacea, cystic acne, dark spots, unidentifiable rashes and dermatitis, assorted bumps and bug bites — and also smells like the copper pennies that have accumulated at the bottom of a large fountain over decades of wish-making by the local children. It smells like your (my) hands after you pay for your cold brew in quarters. But it is as kind to your skin as it is ruthless to your nostrils, soothing, healing, reducing inflammation, and smelling like spare change for no longer than 20 seconds after application.
iS Clinical Pro-Heal Serum Advance+, $148, available at Amazon

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I am known in certain circles for my very good nose but even I cannot describe what this (highly effective, incomparable, frequently sold out) moisturizer smells like. It mostly smells like nothing, I guess, but a weird kind of nothing? A damp wool blanket would be my best guess.

So please allow me to make the case for why someone would want to spend $265 on a cream that smells like a damp wool blanket: because it’s the best cream ever, that’s why. You’ve got your antioxidants, your amino acids, your vitamins, your lipids, your Trigger Factor Complex that promises to “activate regeneration of the body’s own stem cells” — so who needs a pleasant scent when you have everything you need to cling desperately to the last dregs of youth for as long as possible instead?

Augustinus Bader The Cream, $265, available at Violet Grey

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Ah, the beloved hot-dog water, widely considered the best anti-aging serum on the market, known as much for its peculiar scent as its transformative brightening and firming properties. If I’m being honest, I don’t personally use this serum that often — I think I am frankly just too young to see an appreciable difference from it, which will obviously change in the future as I continue my slow march to the grave — but no list of foul-smelling skin care is complete without it.

SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic, $166, available at SkinCeuticals

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This underrated multitasker from an equally underrated brand has a strong herbal, almost medicinal scent, sort of like a Ricola cough drop but… less good. It’s really not that bad, but if you’re expecting something a little more subtle than the eye-watering combination of witch hazel, camphor, and campfire when you put a few drops on a cotton pad, you will be sorely disappointed — even disgusted, perhaps.

What is not disappointing, nor disgusting: the amazing things it does for your skin! It’s full of nourishing ingredients like aloe, sodium hyaluronate, allantoin, arnica, and amino acids, plus an exfoliating kick from lactic acid. It’s a solid gateway drug for more hardcore chemical exfoliants, but it’s also just really nice for balancing and making sensitive, angry skin less so.

Circcell Dew pH Perfector, $60, available at circcell

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I’ve been using this calming clarifying formula for years — the same jar, even, and I actually think they might have adjusted the formula since I got it so maybe it’s time for a new one? Anyway, this clay mask -on-steroids has every ingredient anyone has ever suggested you use to curb excess oil and fight breakouts: sulfur, kaolin, zinc oxide, bentonite, willow bark extract, and retinol, plus aloe and a few oils, so it’s not drying in the least.

But, like most things that contain high concentrations of sulfur, it smells like sulfur. Sulfur, as you may or may not have read in a little book by the name of “the Bible,” is supposedly what Hell smells like; non-god-fearing individuals might say rotten eggs instead. Either way, that’s what you’re getting here, but I’ve come to think of it as the sweet aroma of knowing I’ll wake up with any blemishes significantly reduced and also that it’s time to wash my pillowcases.

Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Clarifying Colloidal Sulfur Mask, $42, available at Sephora

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