What Does Fragrance-Free Mean?


Do you know how people say you should never judge a book by its cover? Well, you should never judge a product by its scent. Given that we’re not all scientists, it’s often tricky to know what is toxic and what is safe to use. It may also be confusing to spot the difference between unscented and fragrance-free products.

So in this blog, let’s break down what you need to know about fragrances, why you should avoid them, and if there are safe alternatives.

Why are Fragranced Products Dangerous? 

Most products today (e.g. shampoo, toothpaste, laundry detergent, dish soap, and cleaning wipes), are not fragrance-free. They contain chemicals to make them scented and more attractive to consumers. They are dangerous for two main reasons.

They are Loosely Regulated in the U.S. 

In a 2016 study on fragranced consumer products, 46.4% of Americans were unaware that “fragrance” is typically a mixture of dozens to several hundreds of chemicals. In the same study, they revealed that 64.6% of Americans didn’t know that fragrance chemicals do not need to be fully disclosed on product labels. Shocking, right? There’s more to it…

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates fragrance in cosmetics and personal care products, has stated some interesting laws on their website. 

Under U.S. regulations, mixes of fragrances are considered trade secrets (a.k.a confidential business information). For this reason, any combination of aromatic ingredients, whether they are toxic or natural, can be listed as just ‘fragrance’ or ‘flavoring’. Here’s another surprising fact.

The FDA has no legal authority to make companies list ingredients that may cause allergies or skin problems. You see the problem, right? This leads us to the second issue with synthetic fragrances.

They Raise Health Concerns

With the rise in consumers wanting clean and non-toxic products, more research has been done to make fragrance chemicals known. The International Fragrance Association, for instance, has a list of over 3,000 chemicals. Some of which have been found harmful.

Not to scare you with complex names, but here are a few to demonstrate the problem. Through extensive research, fragrance additives like hexyl cinnamal were found to have caused skin allergies. Phenol to cause neurotoxicants. And phthalates (which is used to make a scent last longer), cause reproductive problems. Research by a Harvard professor also found that it could cause neurodevelopmental problems for children. 

Phthalates and other synthetic chemicals have already been banned in countries like the EU, Canada, Japan, and Korea. But for some reason, research from dozens of countries is not enough proof for the U.S. to join in on the ban. 

If you still don’t believe synthetic fragrances are dangerous, think about the health risks that are more easily seen. When exposed to disinfecting wipes and perfumes, have you experienced respiratory difficulties, migraines, or itchiness?

Defining Fragrance-Free

If you’re new to the term fragrance-free, it’s common to think of it as an unscented product. However, unscented and fragrance-free labels are different. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), fragrance-free items do not contain fragrance chemicals or masking scents. For example, CeraVe and Aveeno are well-known fragrance-free moisturizers in America. They are unscented however fragrance-free products can still have a scent.

To be clear, fragrance-free isn’t about whether a product has a scent but whether aromatic fragrances were added to the product. Something like fragrance-free soaps can still have a scent from natural ingredients such as aloe vera or coconut. Now you may be wondering if fragrance-free products can have scent then what about unscented products?

Unscented products have little to no smell, but it doesn’t mean they are safe. The EPA noted that chemicals could be added to neutralize and mask the odors of other ingredients.

Are Essential Oils Fragrance-Free?

Essential oils may be natural but they are not fragrance-free. As mentioned earlier, fragrance-free products can’t contain added fragrance chemicals. And by extracting oil from plants, there are natural fragrances such as lavender. Essential oils, however, are still a better alternative to artificial fragrances. 

In addition, the global demand for essential oils is growing. Industries such as food and beverage, household, pharmaceutical, cosmetics, and fragrance are weighing in on the benefits. Not only are essential oils pleasantly scented but they have health remedies. 

A study published by the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI), shows that essential oils can help with sun protection, anti-aging, and anti-acne. Scientists have also proven that oils, specifically from orange and lemon, can help with skin elasticity, scars, and stretch marks. 

Essential oils have health benefits but they can contain sensitive agents. Those who are prone to skin irritation should thoroughly research the ingredients before buying, as they are highly concentrated.

Tips for Finding Fragrance-Free Products

As we have established, product labels with fragrances don’t always list their full ingredients. We also can’t rely on our senses to figure out if a product is toxic, so how do we buy fragrance-free products online or in stores?

To make this all less confusing, here are a few tips:

  • Look for the EPA Safer’s Choice Certified label. Products with this label let consumers know that EPA scientists have reviewed every ingredient. They do yearly checks to ensure that products with this label are safe for human health and the environment. You can find this label on brands like Seventh Generation, which produces fragrance-free cleaning supplies.
  • Use the EWG Skin Deep Database. The Environmental Working Group is dedicated to filling in where the industry and government left off. They review and rate personal care products based on ingredients and health concerns.
  • Use the Think Dirty App. This app allows you to scan the barcode of products while you are shopping in stores. They can also help you find everything from fragrance-free skincare to fragrance-free laundry detergent. From using the app, it may be easier to search for items directly in their search bar. Some may find their fragrance-free filter not as user-friendly.

The Takeaway

Products that smell nice are not always the safest. The same goes for unscented products. They both can contain chemicals that are toxic for many. With this said, we should also take caution with these products because they are under-regulated in America. It is also important to remember that fragrance-free products aren’t just for those with sensitive skin or allergies. They’re for anyone who wants to use safer products in their life.

Photo Credit:


About author View all posts

Shanna Lao

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *