Scent is an important part of human life. Our memories, our emotions, and even our perception of time are all influenced by the smells that surround us. But when it comes to skincare, it’s also a divisive issue. From the rise of food-scented makeup in the 1930s to Rihanna’s latest Fenty Skin launch, fragrance has inspired countless debates — and allergic reactions.
In a video explaining the inspiration behind her tropically-scented new line, Rihanna said that fragrance “is a crucial part of the experience” for her when it comes to beauty. “It’s a huge part of the texture, the lathering...I want you to always feel triggered and have an emotion connected to that experience.”
But not everyone is a fan. “Fragrance is a bit of a polarizing ingredient in skincare and makeup,” esthetician Nicole Hatfield says. “If people are sensitive to fragrance...it can cause them to react, especially if you are already prone to allergic reactions from other ingredients.”
From the earliest days of the modern beauty industry, cosmetic companies have been playing around with the smells of fruits and florals, the notes of woods and musks. Who can forget the fruity florals of Lancome’s Juicy Tube in the ‘90s, or the distinct vanilla cupcake fragrance of MAC Lipglass’s puzzling 2018 turn towards culinary inspiration. It’s no surprise that fragrance has found its way into the beauty aisle, where a luxe scent can be the thing that sets one moisturizer or eyeshadow palette apart from the many others. But for some people, it can also cause a skincare debacle.
“Allergies or sensitivities to fragrance are very common and can cause mild to severe health effects,” Dr. Blair Murphy-Rose says. One 2019 study found that, out of four countries surveyed, 32.2% of adults reported fragrance sensitivity. For 9.5% of people, the severity of the health effects was considered disabling.
Synthetic vs. Natural Fragrances
There is a difference between synthetic and natural fragrances. While the two types of scent are distinct, one is not definitively safer than the other.
Essential oils (sometimes seen on ingredient labels as “extracts,” which are a diluted form of the oil) are obtained through plant material and often appear in products that bill themselves as “natural.” (Essential oils are just one type of “natural” scent, which, according to the International Fragrance Association, is defined as being extracted through physical means and not chemically changed in any way.)