What “Fragrance-Free” Really Means

In recent years you might have seen the term, “fragrance-free,” on some of your favorite cosmetics and cleaning supplies.

clear perfume bottle

At first glance this label is confusing. After all, doesn’t everything have some sort of odor or fragrance, no matter how faint?

This marketing buzzword actually refers to a series of mystery chemicals that sum up to one vague ingredient: “fragrance.” People in the synthetic fragrance industry are allowed to use this term to conceal their trade secrets, the complex combinations of chemicals that would become worthless if competitors could copy them.

The secrecy, however, is not the only controversial aspect of this substance. There is evidence that synthetic fragrances can trigger allergies and negatively impact the health of its consumers. To capitalize on these concerns, many brands have created alternatives such as “natural” or fragrance-free products.

But like “natural,” there is no federal legal definition for “fragrance-free.” The language can mean whatever brands want it to. Cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson said, “I’ve seen companies who said their products were fragrance-free, and then listed fragrance components like linalool, citronellol, and citral on the label separately.”

“Fragrance-free” can also indicate that a product doesn’t have fragrance added as an “experiential ingredient,” according to Lizzy Trelstad, a chemist at Beaker who has worked with both synthetic and natural fragrance brands. In these cases companies are not trying to delight consumers with signature scents they will remember and associate with the product.

These types of fragrances are a method of masking unpleasant odors that might be emitted from raw materials in the product. Some of these ingredients double as preservatives, Trelstad said, or they act primarily as preservatives but have the extra benefit of neutralizing nasty smells.

Brands often use the term, “unscented,” to refer to the use of these types of chemicals, according to the EPA. Nonetheless, there are many companies that instead rely on the “fragrance-free” label. Because there is no consensus on the definitions, the language alone does not have much meaning.

Speaking of the EPA, it seems to be the only organization that has a relatively clear definition for “fragrance-free.” The agency oversees the Safer Choice program, a set of standards that include a fragrance-free certification. To qualify, brands need to prove a product only contains ingredients on the EPA’s Safer Chemical Ingredients List [SCIL]. Those who pass the test are allowed to stamp the Safer Choice and Fragrance-Free EPA labels on the item.

Depending on your perspective, however, you might not think the EPA requirements are enough to ensure a high level of health and quality. If you look at the fragrance section of the SCIL, you’ll notice a key with a few symbols:

The vast majority of chemicals in the database are marked with a yellow triangle, and only a handful have earned the full green circle. Here is that short list:

On the negative side of the equation, the European Commission recommends avoiding these 26 fragrance ingredients:

  • Amylcin-namyl alcohol
  • Amyl cinnamal
  • Anisyl alcohol
  • Benzyl alcohol
  • Benzyl benzoate
  • Benzyl cinnamate
  • Benzyl salicylate
  • Cinnamal
  • Cinnamyl alcohol
  • Citral
  • Citronellol
  • Coumarin
  • d-Limonene
  • Eugenol
  • Farnesol
  • Geraniol
  • Hexyl cinnamic-aldehyde
  • Hydroxycitronellal
  • Hydroxymethylpentylcyclohexenecarboxaldehyde (Lyral, Kovanol, Mugonal, Landolal)
  • Isoeugenol
  • Linalool
  • Methyl heptin carbonate
  • Oak moss extract
  • Treemoss extract
  • 2-(4-tert-butylbenzyl)propionaldehyde
  • 3-methyl-4-(2 6 6-trimethyl-2-cyclohexen-1-yl)-3-buten-2-one

Based on all the issues we have discussed, here are a few ways you can define “fragrance-free”:

  • Does not contain the ingredient, “fragrance”
  • Does not contain the ingredient, “fragrance,” or any of the known chemicals that tend to be in that ingredient
  • Only contains fragrances designed to mask odors that might otherwise be unpleasant (these are usually not listed as “fragrance”)
  • Does not contain any of the above
  • Does not contain any of the aforementioned ingredients the European Commission has cautioned against
  • Product has the EPA fragrance-free certification and seal
  • Only has ingredients on the SCIL list (some companies don’t want to pay for the certification but are willing to adhere to the standards)
  • Only has ingredients with a half green circle on the SCIL list
  • Only has ingredients with a full green circle on the SCIL list

If you want fragrance-free products, the easiest strategy is to keep this information in mind and peruse the ingredients in whatever you are interested in buying. You don’t necessarily have to memorize or reference every chemical, though. To save time, subscribe to brands that have earned your trust.

Natural brands are a good place to start looking. There may be little regulation of the “natural” label, but natural products do tend to contain less controversial ingredients. You can also download apps — such as Think Dirty and EWG’s Healthy Living App — that scan ingredients and let you know if they are problematic.

If you want to avoid certain chemicals and don’t care about how a product smells, fragrance-free is the way to go. Sometimes the most satisfying scent is the light, authentic smell that comes from products and brands with nothing to hide.

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