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Are There Hidden Fragrances in Your “Fragrance Free” Skin Cream?

Fragrance Free does not always mean that there are no added scents

Published on 02/04/2018
AestheticsIngredientsProduct LabelsSafety of IngredientsHow to Read Product LabelsSkingredientsWestern
woman holding fragrance free product in jar

What Is Fragrance?

Fragrances are an essential ingredient in many items. Products containing scent is not something people typically think about. Fragrance is in everything – cosmetics, toiletries, household, and laundry products. Fragrances are composed of a mix of chemicals that compound together to create a scent. They are most often chemically derived, meaning that they are not naturally occurring. However, some fragrances can be made of natural compounds to create a scent that is similar to naturally occurring scents.


Synthetic fragrances are made up of artificially derived chemicals. These fragrances used in skin care are of particular concern in those with sensitive skin due to their potential to cause irritation. Because of the negative reputation of synthetic fragrances, consumers have been opting to purchase products labeled with natural fragrances instead.


Unlike synthetic fragrances, natural fragrances are natural in origin, such as from plants. There are commonly seen as essential oils, extracts, distillates, and resins.

Although these natural chemicals might not contain artificial chemicals, they still contain allergens (components that trigger an immune reaction). One study found that products marketed as containing natural fragrances may, in fact, contain synthetic chemicals.[1] Contrary to the belief, natural is not always better when it comes to fragrances.

Why Is There Fragrance in Skin Care Products?

There are many reasons why scents might be added to a product. The sense of smell is the most primitive sense.[2] Research has proven that smell plays an important role in the physiological effects of mood, stress, and bonding.[3] Added fragrances can evoke an emotional response to a product, creating brand loyalty. However, fragrances are most commonly added to mask the naturally occurring or unpleasant smell of the raw product. 

While fragrance might add a touch of luxury to your daily skin care regime, they do come with risks.

Is Fragrance Bad for My Skin?

The skin is not an effective barrier to all substances.[2] It is one of the main entry points for some substances to enter the skin and cause an allergic reaction. When it comes to ingredient based allergies, fragrances are the most common cause of cosmetic allergic dermatitis.[4] There are over 2500 chemicals that are used to make a fragrance, and at least 100 of those chemicals are known to cause contact allergic reactions.[5] Approximately 1-2% of the population are affected by fragrance related allergies, especially those with eczema.[2]

How Do I Know If There Is Hidden Fragrance in My Products?

Under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that all cosmetics have an “ingredient declaration.”[6] This is a list of all the ingredients in the product. This law was enacted to ensure customer safety and allow consumers to make informed decisions. However, under the same law, it also states that if the chemical components of a fragrance are considered a “trade secret,” they do not need to be disclosed to the public. This means that cosmetic companies do not need to directly label every ingredient used within that product, and instead hide hundreds of chemicals under the word “fragrance.”

While the FDA regulates the chemicals that make up a fragrance, they do not have the authority to regulate the labeling of a product.[7] It is the responsibility of the manufacturer to label the product appropriately. This means that products containing fragrance can have words in them rather than “fragrance” labels. It is important to read the back of labels, and be cautious when you see the words ‘fragrance,’ ‘flavor,’ ‘parfum,’ ‘perfume,’ ‘essential oil blend,’ or ‘aroma’.

Can I Tell By Smelling the Product?

Probably not. Some products can be labeled as “Fragrance Free” or “Unscented”, but what that can mean is that fragrances have been added to the product to neutralize other scents such that it does not smell.[5] “Fragrance Free” and “Unscented” do not always mean “without added scents,” so beware!

“Fragrance Free”

When a product is labeled as “Fragrance Free,” it means that artificial fragrance materials or masking scents have not been added to the product.[8] However, products can still contain the following:

  • The product can still have ingredients such as essential oils that can still impart a scent and may still cause an allergic reaction
  • If the product contains fragrance molecules within their products for a purpose other than eliciting a fragrance, the product may be labeled as being “Fragrance Free”[9]


When a product is labeled as “Unscented,” it means that it does not have a scent. It does not mean that fragrances have not been added. In fact, products labeled as unscented may contain fragrance molecules to mask the smell of the natural product.[8,10] So, while the product might have a neutral scent, it may because of artificial chemicals making sure that it smells that way. Unscented does not mean it’s a product free of fragrance chemicals. One example of a chemical used in unscented products as a fragrance fixative is Phthalates.[11] Unscented products can be misleading by appearing to be chemical free, but they may be just the opposite!

Key Points About Fragrance Labeling on Products

  • Read the back of labels and be cautious when you see ‘fragrance,’ ‘flavor,’ ‘parfum,’ ‘perfume,’ ‘essential oil blend,’ or ‘aroma’
  • Products labeled "Unscented" or "Fragrance Free" might still expose you to fragrance ingredients
  • If you have sensitive skin avoid "unscented" products as they may contain chemicals that could irritate your skin
  • “Fragrance Free” products are not all created equal and some “Fragrance Free” products may cause irritation while another may not.

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