There's more to buying fragrance-free than you might expect.
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When shopping for a new shampoo, you likely start by standing in the aisle and staring at the dizzying array of options. Do you want a clarifying shampoo to remove build-up? A purple shampoo to cut brass? Once you're thoroughly overwhelmed by the choices, you'll probably resort to grabbing bottles off the shelf until you find the one that smells the best. While that buying practice may work for most, if you've been noticing your scalp looking flaky, itchy, or red, that beloved fragrance may be to blame.

"Most shampoos contain fragrance, and fragrance is the number one cause of allergic contact dermatitis," says Peterson Pierre, M.D., dermatologist and founder of the Pierre Skin Care Institute. (FYI: Allergic contact dermatitis is a reaction resulting from contact with a substance or an allergy to it, according to the Mayo Clinic.) Similarly to how fragrance can irritate the skin on your face, it can also cause a reaction on the skin of your scalp. The symptoms for contact dermatitis could be redness, itching, or rash, says Trang Vu, a cosmetic sciences researcher and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cincinnati.

People with sensitive skin, known fragrance allergies, or a poor skin barrier would benefit from fragrance-free shampoo formulations, says KP Ananth, M.S., doctor of engineering science, professor and director of the cosmetics science program at the University of Cincinnati's James L. Winkle College of Pharmacy. Scalp conditions, such as dandruff, may also contribute to a poor scalp barrier. If you feel itchy or have an irritated scalp after using a shampoo with fragrance, it's an indication that you may need to make the switch to a fragrance-free shampoo. (P.S. If you've never had sensitive skin before but you're having issues now, you may have "sensitized" skin.)

How to Buy Fragrance-Free Shampoo

Some fragrance ingredients are considered allergens (head to the Food and Drug Administration for a full list) and are required to be listed on the label if they're above certain amounts, says Vu. However, due to the complex (and proprietary, meaning owned by that specific brand) nature of a fragrance formula, all of the ingredients aren't usually listed. This makes it difficult to know which ingredients cause the adverse reactions, she adds.

Be sure to read the label carefully as unscented products can still contain masking ingredients (ingredients that conceal smell or fragrance and give the perception that a product is unscented—often labeled as "parfum" or "fragrance" on the ingredients list) versus being truly fragrance-free, which contains no added perfume at all. ("Unscented" doesn't always mean fragrance-free, but rather smell-free.) It's also worth noting that fragrance-free shampoos may still have a scent but it is due to the smell of its other non-fragrance ingredients, says Ananth. (See also: The Best Skin Care Routine for Sensitive Skin.)

Finding the right shampoo for your sensitive skin or scalp involves a lot of trial and error. Keep scrolling for the best fragrance-free shampoo to try.

Earth Science Shampoo for Sensitive Hair & Scalp Fragrance-Free

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Credit: Walgreens

This fragrance-free shampoo contains coconut-based cleaning agents to gently wash hair and emollients, such as jojoba oil and chamomile extract, to moisturize and soothe the scalp. (Related: Home Remedies for Dandruff Your Scalp Will Love.)

Kristin Ess Fragrance-Free Daily Cleansing Shampoo

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Credit: Target

Fan-favorite hairstylist Kristin Ess, queen of drugstore hair products that don't feel budget, answered the call to make a fragrance-free line of products. The formula in this shampoo boosts shine and adds volume—all while being cruelty-free, vegan, color-safe, and, yup, free of added fragrance, sulfates, parabens, phthalates, silicones, and gluten. The fragrance-free line also has a hydrating mask, detangling tonic, texturizing paste, grooming cream, and dry shampoo powder. Just one more reason to love Target (and Kristin Ess).

Desert Essence Organics Fragrance-Free Shampoo

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Credit: Amazon

Unlike other shampoos on the shelves, fragrance-free shampoos lack irritating chemicals that would otherwise come from fragrances, and, thus, are gentler on the skin on your scalp, says Dr. Pierre.

The biggest difference with fragrance-free shampoos is that they lack the irritating chemicals that would otherwise come from fragrances and, thus, are gentler on the skin on your scalp, says Dr. Pierre. He recommends this gentle formula, which has aloe and jojoba oil to hydrate the hair and scalp. The line is also vegan, dye- and sulfate-free.

DHS Clear Shampoo Fragrance-Free

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Credit: Amazon

For workout fanatics or those who have oily hair and need to wash on the daily, look for a gentle formula to clean both hair and scalp without stripping away some of the natural oils. Designed by dermatologists to treat scalp conditions such as dandruff, psoriasis, eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, and hypersensitive skin, this formulation uses mild detergents to clean but maintains the skin's pH level. (See: What to Know About Your Skin's Microbiome)

Pipette Fragrance-Free Baby Shampoo/Wash

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Credit: Target

While developed for newborn's sensitive skin, baby shampoos can be used by adults who need ultra-gentle formulas. This plant-derived shampoo is hypoallergenic, dermatologist-tested, and formulated without sulfates, parabens, phthalates, mineral oil, petrolatum, or synthetic fragrances. The hero ingredient is sugarcane-derived squalane, which moisturizes and smooths hair.

Paula's Choice All Over Hair and Body Shampoo

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Credit: Dermstore

You have to love a dual-purpose product, especially when it comes to saving space in a gym or travel bag. Panthenol, derived from vitamin B5, and aloe vera soften skin and strengthen hair in this fragrance-free formula.

Free & Clear Sensitive Skin Shampoo

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Credit: Target

Fragrance-free shampoo essentially eliminates one potential reason for irritation in those with sensitive skin or compromised scalp barrier, says Ananth. The next step towards preventing scalp irritation is to also look for shampoos that use mild surfactants, such as sulfate-free formulas. While detergents are important for cleaning hair and scalp, they need to be mild to prevent scalp dryness and itch, he says. This fragrance-free shampoo has a laundry list of ingredients not included, such as lanolin, parabens, proteins, and dyes, to be super safe for even the most sensitive of skin types. (See also: The Best Sulfate-Free Shampoos, According to Experts)

Philip Kinsley No-Scent No-Colour Shampoo

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Credit: Dermstore

Inspired by Philip Kinsley's wife, who battled breast cancer, this shampoo is gentle enough for those undergoing chemo or radiation treatments (which can seriously irritate your skin). The formula is paraben-, dye-, and fragrance-free yet contains essential fatty acids to give hair lightweight moisture so it looks shiny, soft, and healthy.

Function Of Beauty Custom Shampoo

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Credit: Function Of Beauty

If you can't find the exact hair smoothing, volume-boosting features you're looking for in a fragrance-free formula, consider going the custom route. Function Of Beauty has you take a quiz to personalize your formula with color, scent, and some ingredient choices. Opt for a fragrance-free (and dye-free) version if you have sensitive skin. (More on Function Of Beauty and more, here: Is Customizable Hair Care the Future of Shampoo and Conditioner?)

Seen Shampoo

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Credit: Seen

Dermatologist Iris Rubin, M.D., developed SEEN after realizing the effects hair products have on the scalp and body. She created a line of products that won't clog pores or lead to breakouts and is also safe for sensitive skin. This non-comedogenic shampoo has no sulfates, silicones, phthalates, parabens, or other irritants. The formula is sold in a fragrance-free version and one with fragrance, so check that you're buying the correct version for you.