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When No Scents Makes No Sense at All

Post by Sandy Powell on October 4, 2014

Unscented, scent free, fragrance free… What's the difference? Believe it or not, there is no specific definition or standards of protocol for these words in Canada or USA. The terms are wide open to interpretation and subject to manipulation and misuse by many industries. It can also be misleading to the public especially when purchasing cosmetics.
I have been in the cosmetic manufacturing and natural product development industry for many years, working with companies and chemists, so I will provide my perspective on the subject based on my experience and how the industry really uses these terms. Hopefully it will be educational enough for those who seek out these types of products to make informed decisions.

person in shower

Before I explain each term, it is important to understand that virtually everything on this planet has an aroma or odour. Whether natural, or synthetic, all materials and ingredients to create finished goods from cosmetics, household cleaners, paint and building material will have some sort of detectable odor. Even water has an aroma. Therefore all products will have some combined aroma regardless of claim.


This term simply means that no ingredients which typically have the function of providing an aroma have been added to the product. This includes fragrances, perfumes, essential oils or aroma chemicals. The product itself may have an aroma as all of the ingredients combined will create a scent. Therefore, do not buy an “unscented” product expecting that there will be no aroma. It may be slight, but still there.


Fragrance Free
This term simply means that a fragrance (usually synthetic) has not been added. Yet another play on “unscented” it is just a bit more specific. You see this label on products which may have medicinal or other functional claims and uses. Adding a fragrance may be too overwhelming or they intend for it to have a specific aroma generated by some key ingredients. Once again, don’t expect it to not have some sort of an aroma.


Scent Free
Now this one is probably the most tricky and misleading of all. This term implies that there is no scent whatsoever in a product. As I mentioned earlier, all ingredients have aromas, so the resulting product will have a combined scent. To achieve “scent free”, companies will choose ingredients which are “cosmetic grade” (see definition below). Many of these were originally very natural and organic but with heavy processing, now contain very little or no scent. The other option is to add chemicals that mask any odors in the product. The aroma is still there, but these chemicals disrupt your senses that can detect them.
I find this particular label quite troubling as many consumers will choose scent free with the intent that it is natural as well. This could not be further from the truth. While the product may contain ingredients such as jojoba , avocado, shea butter or aloe as common examples, the ingredients are stripped of key components leaving that natural element completely diminished. Add harsh chemicals to deodorize and you have a product lacking any scent, with little therapeutic value and many potential hazards. Be careful when choosing your products based on how they smell or don’t smell as sometimes “no scents makes no sense at all”.


“Cosmetic Grade”
This term applies to Ingredients which are approved for safe use in cosmetics. Further to this, most cosmetic grade ingredients were originally organic in nature but have been refined to remove colours, aromas, impurities or anything else which affects shelf life, cause hazards, microbial activity or affects appearance and aroma. These ingredients can now be patented and standardized unlike the original raw materials and are much more attractive to companies which require consistency with products.

- Sandy Powell

Health Canada Regulatory Directive DIR2013-02, Notification/Non-notification

Canadian Centre for Occupational health & Safety Article “When Fragrances Offend”

SPEIAC Scented Products Education and Information Association Canada

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