Unscented vs. Fragrance Free: What's the Difference?

By Erica Loop in Natural Products

Is fragrance free the same as unscented? You've seen both descriptors on the labels of your favorite soaps, lotions, and other personal care products, but the meanings are a little unclear. How do you know whether to choose unscented vs. fragrance free? If you have allergies, are super-sensitive to scents, or just want a perfectly pure product, you may want to learn more about these two common categories.

Is Fragrance Free the Same as Unscented?

Do fragrance free and unscented sound almost identical to you, too? After all, unscented seems to imply that a product lacks scent. Even though both terms may seem the same, they aren't always interchangeable. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), some unscented products may actually contain fragrances. Still confused? Let's break it down.


An unscented product may not have a noticeable aroma, but it can still include fragrances that mask the smell of other ingredients. Some ingredients have odd or even unpleasant odors; these aren't scents that you would necessarily want in your hand soap, shampoo, deodorant, or other body product. To neutralize unwanted odors, some manufacturers add scents to cover them up. These scents aren't in-your-face smells. Instead, they're used to delicately mask the aromas of other ingredients, resulting in a nondistinctive scent.

Fragrance Free

Unlike unscented products, fragrance-free products are exactly what they sound like. These products are free of all fragrances and don't contain aroma-masking or neutralizing ingredients, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Some of these products go a step further than simply labeling their product as "fragrance free." As a companion to its Safer Choice label program, the EPA also offers a fragrance-free certification. These products must meet the EPA's Safer Choice Standard for human and environmental health and do not contain ingredients or chemicals used to create a scent or mask an odor.

If a product contains chemicals that appear on the International Fragrances Association (IFRA) Transparency List, it does not fall under the EPA's Safer Choice fragrance-free designation. This master list includes substances used to create fragrances or odors and functional ingredients that mask odors or add to the durability of a product's scent, such as preservatives, solvents, and diluents. As of 2022, there are 3,619 ingredients on this list.


Unscented vs. Fragrance Free: Factors to Consider

Now that you know more about the difference between unscented and fragrance free, you're ready to choose bath, body, and beauty products. While you might not want a strongly perfumed product, you also might not be 100 percent sure which category to select—or whether it matters.

Keep in mind that fragrance isn't necessarily a bad thing. Naturally derived fragrances that come from botanicals, such as flowers or plant leaves, provide a spectrum of aromas in an Earth-friendly way. But synthetic fragrances are a different story. According to research published in the journal Air Quality, Atmosphere, and Health, more than 34 percent of the participants reported migraines, respiratory issues, or other health problems after exposure to synthetically fragranced products.

The word "fragrance" in a cosmetic product ingredient list could include any number of scents or chemicals that create aromas or mask odors. The FDA notes that the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act allows cosmetic companies to keep "trade secrets" to themselves. If a "trade secret" includes a scent formula, the company only has to use the broad category "fragrance" in a product's ingredients list. This means scented and unscented items could contain unlisted chemicals.

Chemicals used to mask other ingredients in unscented products (listed or unlisted) could potentially trigger allergies or reactions in people with certain sensitivities. If you're prone to developing rashes, dry skin, or hives from products with fragrance, you may want to avoid unscented products and choose a fragrance-free option instead.

Which Is Best for You?

The answer to this question lies in your personal preference and your health history. While naturally derived scents can enhance the experience of your personal care routine in a way that you can feel good about, fragrance-free products are typically the best option for anyone who has known sensitivities to scents. If you're unsure whether you have an allergy to fragrance but have a sensitive system, or if your daily life involves close contact with someone who has a fragrance sensitivity, sticking with fragrance-free varieties over both scented and unscented products is a safe bet.

Fragrance-free products may also have a lower environmental impact than some stealthily scented unscented picks. Some personal care products include chemicals that travel through the air or get into the water system. These synthetic fragrances can affect air quality and more. A study conducted by Stanford University, for example, found that musk scent chemicals negatively affected some aquatic wildlife. These effects lasted up to 48 hours after the scientists washed the chemical fragrances away. If you're looking to reduce your environmental impact, consider going fragrance free or choose a scented or unscented product without artificial fragrances.


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Why It's Good

If you have sensitive skin, allergies, or if personal care products tend to irritate you in any other way, learning more about what unscented and fragrance free really mean can help you make better choices for your body.