Have you ever picked up a bottle of unscented lotion or shampoo but seen the word “fragrance” or maybe “parfum” listed in the ingredients? Yeah, me too. How can something without scent have fragrance in it?
The personal care industry does not have strict labeling policies. Unlike the U.S. food industry that requires companies list every single possible thing that could be in the product…or even in the facility where a product is produced, therefore potentially making its way into a product.
Companies and consumers alike often use the words “fragrance-free” and “unscented” to try and portray the same thing. But they’re totally different!
Unscented products don’t have a particular scent identity. So like, your lotion won’t smell like a fruit explosion, it will just smell like whatever the ingredients smell like. Some ingredients don’t smell pleasant so chemists will add a fragrance agent to mask the scent. Unfortunately, chemicals (whether natural or synthetic) aren’t regulated for what hides behind the word “fragrance” and often times they contain phthalates which have been liked to cancers, organ damage and reproductive harm. Sneaky, right? You think you’re buying something better for you but really you could be worse off.
Fragrance-free products, on the other hand, have no masking agents – no ingredients added at all to create a different scent. So whatever the ingredients smell like is what the product smells like. I’ve used some fragrance free products. A particular shampoo comes to mind. It didn’t smell like the Herbal Essence of my youth but any stretch. It kind of smelled like nothing. And kind of smelled like the plastic bottle. But it was a squeaky clean shampoo that did the job.
Which is better?
This is a loaded question and can vary a lot depending on who you ask and what your goal is in seeking an unscented or fragrance-free product.
First of all, avoid all products – whether they’re personal care, home cleaning, candles, you name it – if the word “fragrance” is listed in the ingredients. (You will sometimes see parfum or perfume instead. Avoid these as well. It’s just another word for the allusive fragrance.)
If you are incredibly sensitive to scents or if you suffer from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, I recommend looking for fragrance-free options or at least products that list the actual names of their fragrance ingredients. Companies may also list something along the lines of “naturally fragranced with essential oils.” I would still avoid those. Some essential oils can cause reactions so you’re better off knowing exactly which essential oils are in the product.
The bottom line is: LOOK FOR TRANSPARENCY. Even if you can’t pronounce all of the ingredients (not all synthetic ingredients are necessarily harmful), at least be assured that all of the ingredients are listed out. When you see something that just lists “active ingredients,” put it back on the shelf. If you have the full ingredient list, you can do your own discerning as to whether or not the product is right for you. If you don’t know what the ingredients are, it’s just a guessing game.