Can cosmetic and beauty products really be fragrance-free or unscented? Are these terms regulated? And, is it possible that some products claiming to be free of fragrance, or without scent, have actually had other chemicals added in order to mask the natural fragrance of the product?
Let’s take a look at the facts!
Nearly every cosmetic or beauty product that is manufactured will have some sort of “smell”. Think of all the substances that go into a typical beauty product (check the length of the labels), what’s the likelihood that none of those ingredients will have an innate scent? So, even if a product does not have added perfume or fragrance, and is lacking essential oils, there’s a good chance something in that product is going to give it some sort of scent.
But, the increase in allergies in modern times, increases in inflammatory concerns within the skin, and the over-use of synthetic fragrances has put a large sector of the population in increasing fear of anything with “fragrance” or that is not “unscented”. The beauty and cosmetic industries have not missed out on this trend. Any time fear is created about one type of product, there becomes a market for yet another type of product. And it is this fact that is driving the shelves at your local supermarket, beauty store, and possibly even your local day spa to have a host of unscented/fragrance-free options available for you to purchase. From shampoo and conditioner, body wash, lotions, makeup, skin care products, and even deodorant, household cleaners and laundry detergent – the realm of personal care products has been saturated with products labeled as fragrance-free and unscented.
Any time fear is created about one type of product, there becomes a market for yet another type of product.
The challenge with what I consider to be “shady labeling” is that these labels are often half-truths, if not completely dishonest. Often consumers trust the labels without much further thought to the matter, and because it lists fragrance free or unscented – it must be healthier, right? Wrong.
Many products listed as fragrance free or unscented have been formulated with “masking scents”. These chemicals can cancel out the odor of certain ingredients, but some actually work to decrease your ability to detect the existing odor of ingredients! You may even find product labels that list “masking fragrance” as an ingredient! I’m not sure what’s worse – something natural that I can smell (even if I don’t like the scent), or some chemical that masks my ability to smell it in the first place. Think about that for a moment.
Now, let’s be clear. I’m not saying the over-use of fragrance in beauty products and personal care products is a good thing. In fact, 97% of “fragrance” added into personal care products is considered synthetic material, and I’m definitely not a fan of that. Natural fragrance (seemingly safer) comes from essential oils, herbs and various botanicals. But, even these natural fragrances can create allergic responses in sensitive individuals. I believe it’s important to make your product selections based on solid facts, and not be overcome with exuberance for a product just because it’s labeled as fragrance free or unscented. These two terms do not mean a product isn’t harsh, is free of chemicals, cannot cause a reaction, or are somehow of higher standards or quality. The terms fragrance free and unscented have no legal definition, hence the terms are not regulated. Further, companies that add masking fragrance to their products are not required to list this on the label.
Many products listed as fragrance free or unscented have been formulated with “masking scents”. These chemicals can cancel out the odor of certain ingredients, but some actually work to decrease your ability to detect the existing odor of ingredients!
For me personally, I am fortunate to not have trouble with a lot of reactions to household products with scents (laundry detergent, room sprays, cosmetic products, etc.). However, a simple walk through any heavily perfumed store (cough Ulta!), can really get my eyes, nose, and throat going. I have had to leave stores like this more than once due to the feeling of an impending asthma attack. So, though I don’t experience a lot of trouble with fragrance-reactivity, I can certainly feel the pain of those who do. This is why I’m very selective of the types of products I use in my skin care practice and why I don’t scent my studio with the use of candles, sprays, or oils. You just never know if the next guest walking in the door may be a highly reactive type.
The terms fragrance free and unscented have no legal definition, hence the terms are not regulated. Further, companies that add masking fragrance to their products are not required to list this on the label.
This all said, I don’t buy into the hype of unscented and fragrance free products in my professional skin care selections, as I have seen people have allergic reactions to such products despite their lacking of a detectable scent. I opt for products where what I smell – is just what’s in the product – the actives- not added fragrance. I have a few products that have the scent of citrus, or smell a bit like vanilla. The reason? Because the products actually contain citrus and vanilla – not synthetic fragrance. If I have someone who doesn’t like either of those scents, obviously those would not be good product choices for the client. But, I would never dream of bringing in a line that claims to be completely fragrance-free or unscented because I know that in order to make a product have zero smell, there’s a huge chance that some chemistry-magic has been done to make that happen. It’s just unnatural for a product with 12-20 ingredients to have no scent whatsoever.
You’ll ultimately have to decide what’s for you, what you can tolerate, and what you can’t. But, the next time you see those friendly notices that a product is fragrance free or unscented, give it a second thought. And definitely start checking your labels for “masking fragrance”! Keep in mind, that the absence of masking fragrance on an ingredient list does not indicate that there aren’t chemical fragrance blockers in the product as these ingredients do not have to be listed.