“Fragrance Free” is a misnomer. Is it fragrance free ENOUGH?

I’ve got bad news. You cannot trust a label that says “fragrance free”, “unscented”, or “scent free” to actually be free enough for your purposes. How I wish it were that simple! From naturally fragrant ingredients, to products that are smelly due to processing methods, to “masking fragrance” (yes, it’s a thing!) the feel-good terminology is on the label to help you buy it, not to help you figure out if the product is right for you.

Going fragrance free is a bit of a process and can feel complicated, but the journey gets easier as you learn the ropes. Here’s how I approach it.

1) Check the label

Even though you can’t trust it, you still want to start here. The goal of this step is to quickly eliminate products that are obviously not going to work. Rule out anything that is scented, even if the label claims it’s “discreetly scented” or “lightly scented”. Fragrance is designed to linger long term, and more sensitive folks will notice it even if you don’t.

Most products aiming to be fragrance free use specific terms to indicate such, so it’s an easy place to begin your search.  Such wording can include examples like:

  • Unscented
  • Free & Clear
  • Scent free
  • No added fragrance
  • Fragrance free
  • Free of Dyes & Perfumes

But be careful! Some manufacturers use words that sound good, but don’t mean anything. A classic example is PalmOlive’s “Pure + Clear” dishsoap, which contains fragrance. This is the exact reason our next step is so important:

2) Read the ingredients

Reading the tiny print is a pain, but it’s absolutely necessary. The good news is you don’t need to know what every single lengthy unpronounceable ingredient means. I just look for the main offenders:

  • Fragrance
  • Masking fragrance (causes reactions in most fragrance-sensitive folks)
  • Parfum (another term for fragrance)
  • Essential oil(s)

Any of these ingredients tells me that the product is not even worth trying, if the goal is living fragrance free. It saves me a bit of hassle from buying things that definitely won’t work!

Quick note about essential oils: They aren’t all created equal. Essential oils from distillation or cold pressing tend to cause fewer reactions than solvent extracted ones, and some types dissipate more quickly than others. We had a guest once who used patchouli oil. It took us weeks to get the smell out of the room after she left! Whereas other exposures have cleared within a few days.

Also, essential oils can cause allergic reactions, which are common amongst fragrance sensitive individuals and MCS sufferers. Lavender is a particularly notorious offender.

In short, if you’re going to use essential oils or products that contain them, don’t say you’re fragrance free without that disclaimer. Since they’re used for their smell, they count!

Which brings me to the next step:

3) Determine how “fragrance free” is “free enough”

Now comes the harder part. Almost every ingredient smells like something. You know this. Natural products, for example unrefined Shea butter, can have a SUPER strong odor. Plant extracts might not technically qualify as fragrance, but they aren’t neutral, either. When does it cross the line into having a “fragrance” or “scent”?

The answer? No one knows!

It’s entirely subjective based on how sensitive your nose is. This factor can be a frustrating divide between the highly sensitive folks and those attempting to accommodate such sensitivities.

What I recommend is if you wish to accommodate someone specific, ask them which products work for them personally. Use those as a starting point. In general, products with the shortest ingredients lists are the safest. If you want to live fragrance-free or mostly so for your own benefit, then you have more wiggle room. Fragrances and most essential oils linger for weeks or longer, whereas the ingredients that fall under the “not-a-scent-but-still-smells” category tend to dissipate fairly quickly. This means you could always go stricter at a later date if you wanted to accommodate a sensitive friend, but in the meantime you get to choose from a wider range of options.

4) Test it out!

Okay, so you have checked the ingredients, you know how fragrance-free you’re aiming for, and you’ve purchased the product. All is good, right? You can finally be done with this ridiculous process?

Not so fast.

Sometimes even great-sounding ingredients result in a bad smelling product.

Due to sourcing, processing, and other manufacturing factors, some ingredients can be either awfully smelly or wonderfully fine. For example, I once purchased a bar of soap by Kiss My Face that was just pure organic saponified olive oil, with no other ingredients. To my shock, the stench was unbearable. And it lingered in the air and on my hands. Reviewers compared it to tar. Just like the quality of cooking ingredients affects the final flavor, so also the quality of product ingredients affects the ultimate outcome.

I saved that soap for years, thinking surely olive oil can’t be that bad, I’d be able to tolerate it eventually. The day never came.

5) Get comfortable in the grey area of “free enough”

There isn’t any One True Way when it comes to living fragrance free.

There is no secret list of totally safe products all sensitive folks will tolerate. There are no guarantees. And you have no way of knowing if something is actually fragrance free enough for your own purposes until you try it. You can eliminate some products by the labels indicating fragrance, and you can rule out more by reading ingredients lists and knowing what to look for. The remaining products fall somewhere amidst the vast grey area of subjective standards.

It is in this grey area that I set up camp and invite you to join me in exploring the possibilities. Who knows? You just might find what you’re looking for.