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What’s That Smell: Fragrance in Facial Moisturizers

By Amalah

Dear Amy,
You don’t have to post this but if you would get back to me I would really, really appreciate it. After reading your column and being at my wit’s end with my skin I purchased the Philosophy “starter kit”. I have seen a difference which is great but I have a question about the Hope in a Jar….is it supposed to smell……..I don’t know…..spoiled? The smell goes away (or gets covered by the perfume applied after) but I can’t help wondering if I just spent a lot of money for something that has sat on a shelf forever. No one I know uses this product and I am not all that close to a store that sells it so this is why I am turning to you.
Please tell me the smell is normal.
P.S. Congrats on the pregnancy!

I’ve had several people write and comment about the “smell” of Hope in a Jar. I’ve heard it described as “weird” and “fishy” and now…”spoiled.” I just opened my own jar and took a deep whiff, and…eh. I don’t get any of that. It doesn’t really have much of a smell to me. I smell something, and while I wouldn’t describe it as flowery floral bouquets of fresh-baked bread, I also wouldn’t describe it as rancid fish guts, either.
A truly spoiled moisturizer will “look” bad — which in the case of Hope in a Jar, would mean it would look runny and separated instead of creamy and fluffy, and yellowed instead of pure white.
So I’m thinking that different noses smell different things in the stuff, especially noses that are used to fragrance being added to their face creams. (Very common among certain drugstore varieties — Olay, L’Oreal, etc.) You’ll see it listed simply as “fragrance” on the box. And when you see “fragrance” listed on an moisturizer, the proper response is to put that box back on the shelf and find something without it.
Fragrance doesn’t belong on your face. It can trigger allergies and skin sensitivities, it can aggravate dry, flaky skin AND it can clog pores and cause blemishes. It’s stupid, stupid stuff. By all means, lather up your arms and legs with lotions that smell like fruit cocktails or chocolate-chip cookie batter (although I prefer fragrance-free EVERYWHERE), but keep the stuff you put on your face fragrance-free.
A lot of skincare lines have figured this out and proudly advertise their wares as fragrance-free (Aveeno, Clinique, Philosophy, etc.), so I don’t know why some products continue to add the fake floral scents — maybe to mask a really bad smell or like you suggested, to make the product smell nice after a year on the shelf. Or their customers just really want their moisturizers to smell “pretty.”
So while I doubt your moisturizer really is “spoiled,” obviously if the smell turns your stomach I’m not going to tell you to suck it up and smear rotten egg on your face day after day. With time, you’ll probably get used to the non-fragrance fragrance. If you aren’t convinced or your Jar looks spoiled, like I described earlier, return or exchange it. (Both Sephora online and QVC are pretty good about returns and exchanges, I’ve been told, and also offers customer service.)

Published March 17, 2008. Last updated March 17, 2008.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Cassandra

    March 17, 2008 at 1:46 pm

    When I started using my Clinique moisturizer, I almost gagged about the smell. The best way I can describe it, to me, is that it smells old and musty. But I got used to it, and after I put it on, no one else claimed to smell it (even when I shoved my face in my boyfriend’s and DEMANDED HE SMELL MY SKIN AND TELL ME IF IT WAS BAD).

  • Michelle

    March 17, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    I’m pretty sure the lady at Sephora told me there were “essential oils” in the Hope in a Jar stuff…a quick google search confirms that.

  • Emma B

    March 17, 2008 at 2:02 pm

    I don’t notice any smell to my Hope in a Jar, and I have hyperemesis gravidarum and smell EVERYTHING.
    The thing I do have a problem with, though, is the When Hope Is Not Enough (I have the dry skin starter kit). It smells like… yeasty oatmeal, maybe. Something disgusting, at any rate. My skin loves it, but there are plenty of days I can’t bear to put it on.

  • BridehoodRevisited

    March 17, 2008 at 2:23 pm

    I don’t really notice a smell with my Hope in a Bottle. To me it smells a little more pungent than an unscented lotion, but I don’t find it off-putting. I do, however, gag even upon seeing my Environ moisturizer which is made with colustrum and smells like sour milk. GAG.

  • Francie

    March 17, 2008 at 2:27 pm

    I agree with the last post about the When Hope is Not Enough (the serum, not the cream). The smell of it reminds me of raw meat and makes my stomach turn. I think Hope in a Jar has a funny smell, too – I concluded that it smells slightly citrusy.

  • mollyawesome

    March 17, 2008 at 2:32 pm

    I think it might just depend on the batch you get, too. My first try with Hope in a Jar really depressed me, because I smelled like my dog after a bath, or maybe fish, or I don’t know, but it doesn’t exactly rock you to sleep to put this stuff under your nose before bed. But I believe in the Word of Amalah, so I bought another when I was done, and there’s no problem with this one. So for me, as long as it’s helping my skin and there’s a chance that it won’t stink, I’ll keep buying it.
    Also, Cassandra, I’m surprised! I love the smell of the Clinique moisturizer, to me it’s the definition of clean. But I’ve been using it for years, so maybe there are things you just get used to.

  • margot

    March 17, 2008 at 2:34 pm

    I thought I was just the only one! I think my Hope in a Jar smells like lavender in the pot, but once it’s on my face it definitely morphs into a noticeable and mildly unpleasant odor. I love what it does for my skin, so I’ve adapted. In the morning after slathering it on, I immediately put the Smashbox primer over top and that tempers it a bit. At night, I put the lotion on before brushing my teeth so then I just smell the mint from the toothpaste which helps too. It’s so funny how different people have such different reactions to these things!

  • hakeber

    March 17, 2008 at 3:22 pm

    I have said for years that Hope in a Jar smells like wet dog, but no one else ever agrees. I’m glad to know I’m not crazy!
    (Oh, and Clinique yellow moisturizer smells like motor oil to me.)

  • Emily

    March 17, 2008 at 7:12 pm

    I always thought Hope in a Jar smelled like oranges (but not in a good way). I switched to the formula for dry sensitive skin because I didn’t think it smelled so bad. (but some obviously think it’s bad too!)

  • Imanitsud

    March 18, 2008 at 10:55 am

    I’d have to second the comment about batches smell differently. Based on Amalah’s suggestion I started using Purity face wash, but the first bottle I had I SWEAR smelled like diluted lemon pledge. I wasn’t going to buy anymore of it b/c I really didn’t like it, but my mom gave me some more, and that bottle didn’t smell at all. Now at least I know I’m not crazy.

  • Aimee

    March 18, 2008 at 11:54 am

    I’ve never had any problem with facial moisturizers smelling funny. I actually enjoy the Aveeno moisturizer with SPF– it sparks memories of Costa Rica trips (must just be the sunscreen I was wearing at the time, given CR is 11 degrees from the equator!). But there was this fancy hand lotion my mom had in her guest room I used when I was visiting. I can’t remember if it was from France or Switzerland, but after I used it, I smelled pee. It took me a while to figure out it was the lotion and not the cat. Listed in the ingredients was “urea.” I still can’t figure out why this is an ingredient. Gross!

  • boofyq

    March 18, 2008 at 12:29 pm

    Huh… Hope in a Jar smells fresh, light and springy, to me. I just wish it came in a pump bottle instead of a jar I have to stick my finger into.
    But then we have the Boudreaux’s Butt Paste for the babies… DH thinks it smells nice and the label says “clean scent” — to me it smells like burnt plastic. Ugh.

  • Cassandra

    March 18, 2008 at 1:09 pm

    mollyawesome, I think I’m just a little weird. No one else claims to smell the old mustiness. They claim to not smell anything, or if anything, that it smells pleasant. *shrug*

  • PixelMaven

    March 18, 2008 at 3:44 pm

    I got a bum container of Hope in a Jar once (it looked yellowish and gloppy, ew) but the good containers I’ve always thought had a mild but unidentifiable pleasant smell. Smells citrusy once I add the vitamin C powder of course.
    Now, the Hope in a Bottle I think smells like Windex. I hate putting it on, but I only apply it to my T-zone and use the Jar stuff for the rest of my face. Complicated, but it works!

  • jomama

    March 19, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks hope in a jar smells funny. I only wear it at night because I was afraid to go out in public with it on my face. It smells like an old hand lotion you find in the bottom of a purse you haven’t used in years.
    I also have a Joey New York Pore Mask that smells like super glue.

  • Marnie

    March 19, 2008 at 11:46 pm

    This is hilarious that everyone smells something different.
    I think it smells very plastic-y and glycerin-y. I love its whipped-ness, but, alas, it really doesn’t work for me. Totally made my face break out, so I kept the philosophy, microderm, and anti-blemish serum, but ditched the hope.

  • Janna

    March 20, 2008 at 1:37 pm

    On a semi-related note, I used to have the “on a clear day” hydrogen peroxide cream, which comes in the same kind of clear jar. But if you ever buy hydrogen peroxide in the drugstore, it’s in a brown bottle because it’s light-sensitive. I wrapped foil around my jar to protect it…maybe doing the same with the Hope in a Jar would help the weird smells?

  • umi

    March 20, 2008 at 2:53 pm

    My boyfriend hates the smell of Hope in a Bottle. I mean, I still wear it, but he smells it at night when he leans over for a kiss.
    It’s gone missing this week and he swears he doesn’t know where it is…

  • Amy Corbett Storch

    March 24, 2008 at 1:14 pm

    (Sorry for the late comment, sign-in issues with Typekey had me totally locked out of the comments.)
    I also think it’s hilarious we all smell something different. This week I’ve been sniffing it trying to find the citrus everyone talked about and totally can’t. Certainly the different batch theory could be true, although I’ve always gotten identical-smelling jars.
    I also wanted to interject that “essential oils” are VERY different than simple “fragrance” listed on a product. Philosophy products use a lot of fruit and plant and seed oils in all of their stuff, chosen because they are GOOD for your skin, and not because of how they smell. (Although some of them do smell lovely.) Fragrance is just straight-up unnecessary perfume.

  • nennycakes

    January 30, 2016 at 11:29 pm

    When I used Hope in a Jar, my boyfriend at the time said it reminded him of when we dissected baby sharks in biology class.