When Rihanna, queen of queens, launched Fenty Skin in 2020, the line sparked online debate regarding one particularly divisive topic: to fragrance or not to fragrance?

Fans and influencers who managed to get their hands on the Bad Gal-approved product wasted no time in pointing out that Fenty Skin contains fragrance, a feature that disappointed some and had others jumping to the defense of perfumed additives.

Now, anyone who dabbles in beauty and skincare knows that "fragrance-free" products are marketed as safer, gentler, and "cleaner" than their scented counterparts — mainly because of fragrance's potential to trigger allergic reactions or irritation in those with sensitive skin or conditions such as eczema.

But Dr. Joshua Zeichner is here to set the record straight: "For the overwhelming majority of consumers, fragrances are not problematic," the dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai tells Highsnobiety.

According to the expert, known in the biz as "JZ," fragrance isn't a purposeless, arbitrary additive. "Fragrances add to the sensorial experience of using a product," he says. "They can help change your skincare routine into an enjoyable ritual."

Fair enough. Last year, I discovered a body butter that worked exceptionally well on my dry skin. But it smelled so awful (I got a faint whiff of dirty diaper) that I stopped using it.

Ultimately, a product's efficacy means zilch if the user experience isn't pleasant.

Of course, "fragrance-free" is a necessary feature for people whose skin reacts negatively to scent. Customers should, by all means, have the ability to choose what's right for them — after all, some people simply don't like the way fragranced products smell.

If you're one of those people, beware that "fragrance-free" is not the same as "unscented."

"The term fragrance-free is used when no fragrances are added to a product," Dr. Z says. "In some cases, this might refer to the addition of any synthetic fragrances."

(If you need a refresher on the difference between synthetic versus natural fragrance, Caroline Hirons' website is home to an easy-to-understand guide.)

So if you're trying to totally avoid smells, check a product's ingredient list before buying. Something labeled as fragrance-free might not contain synthetic fragrance (usually listed as "fragrance/parfum"), but it might still contain natural fragrance, such as a botanical extract (limonene and geraniol are a couple of common examples).

"Unscented" is another tricky marketing term.  "In some cases, unscented products may contain masking fragrances to neutralize an odor," Dr. Z clarifies.

Again, a product's ingredient list is your best friend. Your unscented body wash doesn't smell like anything, but it could contain fragrance to cover up any unwanted smells. Tricky!

Beauty is a landmine of marketing buzzwords and fads, but at the end of the day, stick to what works for you.

"Fragrance-free" isn't one-size-fits-all — if you enjoy using a fragranced product and it doesn't irritate your skin, great! Keep using it! A dermatologist might recommend a fragrance-free product to a patient with a skin condition, but that doesn't mean dermatologists everywhere are anti-fragrance.

So was all the hooha regarding Fenty Skin's floral scent merited?  For those with ultra-sensitive skin, maybe — but for the rest of us, not so much. (That said, kudos to the brand for releasing a fragrance-free version of its lineup.)

As Dr. Z concludes, "fragrances have largely been villainized on social media, but the truth is, they’re not all bad."

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