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Unscented and Fragrance-Free Products: Are They Safer?


Today's blog dives into one heck of a confusing topic. Are you ready to dive in? By the end of this article, my goal is to help you make more informed and safer consumer choices when purchasing cosmetics. Let's start with a brain-dumping session and throw down some questions that come to mind on this topic:

  • Are fragrance-free products free from fragrance? 
  • Are unscented products free from fragrance? 
  • Are the terms fragrance-free and unscented interchangeable? 
  • Are these claims valid (regulated) or just marketing hype? 
  • Do they make safer (non-toxic) choices than products containing fragrance? 
  • Is there a difference between fragrance and essential oils?


Is your head spinning yet? Wheeeee!!


I want to start with what our Canadian Government has to say about these terms (Resource):


The marketing terms "fragrance-free" and "unscented" are generally understood to mean:

  • fragrances have not been added to the cosmetic product, or
  • scents in the cosmetic product have been hidden by a masking agent. Masking agents can be listed individually, or under the term "fragrance" or "parfum" on the list of ingredients.

Therefore, if "parfum" or "fragrance" appears in the list of ingredients, the product contains fragrance or a masking agent.


Clear as mud? Let me explain, in other words.


Fragrance-free cosmetics *should* (and I stress the word should) ideally mean that no additional fragrance was added to the product (beyond the natural and innate aroma the ingredients already possess). For example, if I made a cleansing face oil featuring cold-pressed hemp seed and pumpkin seed oils, you may find that hemp seed smells kind of like green grass, and pumpkin seed smells like squash. I *could* label this product as fragrance-free if I did not add any additional essential oils or fragrance (even though you experience a smell to it).


In other words, a fragrance-free product can have an aroma from the ingredients in the formula. Still, it *should* not have any additional aromatic components to enhance or alter the smell (whether natural or synthetic). Most importantly, semantics aside, I want to caution that the term "fragrance-free" is not regulated, and any company can use this term at its discretion. To understand if a product is genuinely fragrance-free, you must read the ingredient list. If the words "fragrance" or "parfum" are listed, the product is not truly fragrance-free.


Unscented cosmetics, by general definition, should not have any aroma to them whatsoeverHowever, it is crucial to note this does not mean that the product is fragrance-free. Confused yet? Let's use the example from above again:


Imagine that I have created that same face oil as described above, but this time, I want to cover up or hide that formula's natural grass/squash aroma. I could choose to add a "masking agent" to my recipe (in the form of fragrance) just enough to cover the undesirable smell (but before the human nose detects it). In other words, unscented products can still contain fragrance; you just might not realize it.


This sneaky trick happens all the time in the beauty industry. Many products do not smell good when created (especially ones with many chemicals), so manufacturers use masking agents to hide undesirable aromas. The problem with this is that those masking agents are often toxic to our health. 


Ultimately, as you may have concluded by now, these two terms cause great confusion and can mislead people into thinking they are making safer or healthier choices, especially for the conscious consumer who knows the dangers of using fragrance. When making future purchases, to avoid disappointment, please do not assume that:


  • unscented products are non-toxic
  • fragrance-free products are non-toxic
  • you have avoided fragrance altogether when purchasing unscented or fragrance-free products 


I want to make one more thing clear, however. This article is not to say that you should stop buying these products if you have genuine sensitivities to fragrance or essential oils. I realize that aromas of any kind (whether natural or synthetic) can be a trigger for asthma or allergies for some of you. I only intend to inform you that these products are still likely to contain other harmful ingredients. I urge you to seek out cosmetics that are not only unscented or fragrance-free if you need them, but also ones that are truly natural and made from non-toxic ingredients. Have the best of both worlds, I say!


Lastly, please know that there is a difference between fragrance and essential oils. In the beauty industry, fragrance typically refers to a combination of chemicals that gives a product its unique aroma, many of which can cause adverse health effects. I choose to avoid the terms fragrance/perfume/parfum in my cosmetics whenever possible and urge you to do the same. I understand that fragrance can smell delightful, but they are composed of highly toxic substances. We must weigh the risks: cancer, reproductive toxicity, allergies, skin sensitivities, migraines, asthma triggers, neurotoxins, hormonal imbalances, bioaccumulative environmental impacts, congenital disabilities, respiratory problems, and so on. The more we learn about fragrance over the years, the scarier it gets!


Essential oils, on the other hand, are derived from natural substances like flowers, grasses, leaves, roots, bark, fruits, etc. The scented liquid is acquired using steam distillation (or pressure) and is used for its healing and aromatic properties, commonly known as aromatherapy. This is not to say that essential oils are harmless, though! Just because they are "natural" does not mean that they can cause no harm. Proper use and knowledge must accompany essential oil usage to have a safe and genuinely therapeutic experience. They are highly potent and deserve much respect. However, essential oils can ultimately promote health and well-being when used appropriately, unlike fragrance, which only has the potential to cause great harm.


In conclusion, you must read the ingredient list of cosmetics before you commit to purchasing them. It is the only way to ensure your safety!


As always, I would love to hear from you. Have you been led to think that unscented or fragrance-free products are generally safer? Perhaps you seek out these products to avoid allergies or sensitivities? I would love to know about your experiences, so comment below!


Until next time, stay safe!

xo Sarah

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