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Unscented vs. fragrance-free: What do these labels actually mean?

These common skincare labels might not mean what you think they do.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 31, 2023 • 9 min read
Medically reviewed by Donna McIntyre, NP-BC
A Woman Enjoying a Scent
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 31, 2023 • 9 min read
Medically reviewed by Donna McIntyre, NP-BC
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

The labels on skincare products can sometimes feel like they’re written in a different language. Words and phrases like “unscented” and “fragrance-free” might seem straightforward, but they may not mean what you think they do. In fact, “unscented” doesn’t always equate to fragrance-free, and “fragrance-free” doesn’t always guarantee a scent-free product. Even more confusing, certain fragrances may be lurking behind other names on the ingredient list. 

Here, we’ll break down the complexities of unscented vs. fragrance-free labels, guiding you through their real meanings and implications. This will help you make more informed decisions, particularly if you have specific skin conditions, sensitivities, or preferences regarding skincare products. Let’s get into it!

What does an “unscented” label mean?

When browsing skincare products, you may have come across the label “unscented” and naturally assumed it means the product is free of any fragrances. However, the truth is somewhat more complex, and people often misunderstand the term.

“Unscented” doesn’t necessarily mean a product is fragrance-free. Instead, it may indicate that additional scents have been added to change or improve the natural smell of the product.¹ This might seem counterintuitive at first, but allow us to explain.

In making skincare products, ingredients like fatty acids, fatty oils, and surfactants are often used. These substances can produce an unpleasant scent.² So, to counteract this, manufacturers often add what’s known as “masking fragrances.” These additives neutralize the less-than-pleasant odors of other ingredients, which bring the product's scent back to a neutral state.

Now you might wonder why these masking fragrances aren't mentioned on a product’s label. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), if a fragrance additive is used as a masking agent and is present at an insignificant level, it may be considered an incidental ingredient. This means, per the FDA, it doesn't have to be declared on the label.³

So, when you see an “unscented” label, it means the product doesn’t have a noticeable scent, but it might still contain small amounts of fragrances used to mask other odors. If you have sensitive skin or want to avoid perfumes, look for products labeled “fragrance-free” instead. Although, as we’ll now explain, these products aren’t necessarily devoid of fragrances either. We know, it can be confusing—but we’re here to help!

What does a “fragrance-free” label mean?

It would seem logical to assume that a “fragrance-free” product contains no scented elements, but this isn’t always true. 

The FDA defines a fragrance as “any natural or synthetic substance or substances used solely to impart an odor to a cosmetic product.”⁴ So, when a product is labeled as “fragrance-free,” it means it doesn't contain any ingredients that are explicitly included to give the product a scent. However, this doesn't mean the product won’t have a smell.⁵ Following along so far?

Here's where it gets tricky. If a fragrance additive serves a purpose other than giving the product a scent, it can legally be included in a “fragrance-free” product. Donna McIntyre, a nurse practitioner at Curology explains, “Let’s take rose oil as an example. Rose oil naturally has a smell, but it also possesses moisturizing properties. If it’s included in a skincare product for these moisturizing effects, the product can still carry a “fragrance-free” label, even though the rose oil might give the product a faint smell.”

In essence, “fragrance-free” doesn’t guarantee that a product will be completely devoid of scents. It simply means the product doesn’t contain ingredients used solely for their scent. So if your skin is sensitive to fragrances, be aware that “fragrance-free” products might still contain scented ingredients that serve other functions in the product. Always check the ingredient list or consult a licensed dermatology provider to ensure the product suits you.

Unscented vs. fragrance-free: so which one do I choose? 

Choosing between “unscented” and “fragrance-free” skincare products largely depends on personal preference for most folks. However, the choice requires more careful consideration for those with skin conditions or sensitivities.

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends that patients with allergic dermatitis or eczema opt for products labeled as “fragrance-free.”⁶ These products don’t contain ingredients solely added for their scent. 

Though the advice seems straightforward, being aware of potential mislabeling is important. Some studies have found discrepancies in labeling practices. For instance, one study showed that 45% of moisturizers labeled “fragrance-free” still contained at least one fragrance ingredient.⁷ Another study revealed that 5 out of 31 personal care products labeled “fragrance-free” still had fragrances.⁸ So, checking the ingredient list is crucial if you're sensitive to scents.

Both “unscented” and “fragrance-free” products may contain masking agents. These are substances used to neutralize the odor of other ingredients. These masking agents can sometimes be allergens, cross-reactors, or botanicals that can potentially cause allergic reactions.⁹

If you're uncertain about a product, a patch test is a safe way to gauge its impact on your skin. To perform a patch test:¹⁰

  1. Apply the product to a quarter-sized test spot twice daily for seven to 10 days. 

  2. Leave the product on your skin for as long as you would normally if you were using it on your face, then wash it off. 

  3. If after seven to 10 days, you don’t have a skin reaction, such as red, itchy, or swollen skin, it’s probably safe to add it to your routine.

  4. If you have a skin reaction, gently wash the product off immediately, and don’t use it again.

Ultimately, the best way to address your skincare concerns is to consult a licensed dermatology provider. They can provide specific recommendations based on your skin type and condition. They can also perform in-office patch testing to identify specific allergens. This will help ensure that your skincare products are effective and safe for your skin.

What to look for on the label 

Navigating the world of skincare labels can be tricky, especially when you’re trying to avoid fragrances. Whether due to allergies, skin sensitivities, or personal preference, knowing what to look for can help you make informed choices.

Definite indicators of fragrance ingredients include terms such as “parfum,” “perfume,” “fragrance,” “aroma,” and “essential oils.” These terms are easy to spot and often indicate that a product contains added scents.

However, fragrances can sometimes sneak into products under less obvious names. Certain ingredients that may not be immediately recognizable as fragrances include “benzyl alcohol”¹¹ and different citrus ingredients (like “citrus aurantium dulcis” for orange or “citrus limon” for lemon), “lavender,” “eucalyptus,” and “tea tree.”¹² Although these ingredients serve other functions, they also naturally have scents and can irritate those with fragrance sensitivities.

Further, certain components found in essential oils can be allergenic and contribute to the scent of a product. These include:¹³

  • Linalool

  • Geraniol

  • Limonene

  • Citronellol

  • Citral

So, if you want to avoid fragrances in your skincare, you’ll need to do more than just steer clear of products labeled “fragrance.” It’s essential to check the ingredient list carefully and familiarize yourself with the different names that fragrances can go by. If you're ever unsure about a product, don't hesitate to consult with a dermatologist or skincare expert. They can provide personalized advice based on your skin’s needs and sensitivities.

Getting expert advice for your skin

When evaluating a new skincare product, remember that a product’s label claims are a starting point, not the full story, especially when deciding between unscented vs. fragrance-free skincare. Make sure to do your research and consult a licensed dermatology provider when necessary.

Here at Curology, we’re your personal skincare service for expert advice. We pair you with one of our licensed dermatology providers for a personalized treatment plan based on your skin’s unique needs—whether that’s acne, dark spots, rosacea, or early signs of aging.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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We offer products designed by in-house dermatologists to be non-comedogenic, fragrance-free, dye-free, paraben-free, and hypoallergenic—because we wanted to be sure you can use these every day. Our fragrance-free products include our Gentle CleanserGel Moisturizer, and Cream Moisturizer. To get started, sign up for a 30-day trial* today, and get closer to reaching your skin goals.

FAQs

Is it better to use unscented products?

Whether it's better to use unscented products is largely a matter of personal preference for individuals without skin sensitivities or conditions. For some people, fragrances are a common cause of contact dermatitis, a skin reaction that results in redness, itching, and inflammation.¹⁴ While unscented products may seem a safer choice, they may still contain masking fragrances used to neutralize the odors of other ingredients.¹⁵

Does “no perfume” mean fragrance-free?

Contrary to common belief, “no perfume” does not necessarily mean a product is fragrance-free. The term refers to the absence of added perfumes, but the product could still contain other fragrance additives serving different purposes. For example, rose oil may be included for its moisturizing properties, despite its natural scent. So, while a “no perfume” product won't have added perfumes, it could still contain scented ingredients that serve other roles.¹⁶

What scent is unscented?

“Unscented” doesn’t mean a product has no smell. Instead, it typically means that the product has a neutral scent, neither noticeably pleasant nor unpleasant. Despite the “unscented” label, these products may still contain masking fragrances.¹⁷ These are added to neutralize the often undesirable scents of other ingredients used in the production process, like fatty acids, fatty oils, and surfactants. So, “unscented” essentially signifies the absence of a prominent added fragrance, but not necessarily the absence of all scents.¹⁸

• • •

P.S. We did the homework, so you don’t have to:

  1. Tantry, E., et al. Labeling Laws for Personal Care Products: Potential Pitfalls for The Consumer. Skin Therapy Lett. (September 2021).

  2. Sharmeen, J.B., et al. Essential Oils as Natural Sources of Fragrance Compounds for Cosmetics and Cosmeceuticals. Molecules. (2021, January 27).

  3. Tantry, E., et al. Labeling Laws for Personal Care Products: Potential Pitfalls for The Consumer. Skin Therapy Lett. Ibid.

  4. Food and Drug Administration. Subchapter G - Cosmetics. Code of Federal Regulations. (1981, July 24).

  5. Tantry, E., et al. Labeling Laws for Personal Care Products: Potential Pitfalls for The Consumer. Skin Therapy Lett. Ibid.

  6. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How Can I Find Eczema Friendly Products?(n.d.).

  7. Xu, S., et al. Consumer Preferences, Product Characteristics, and Potentially Allergenic Ingredients in Best-selling Moisturizers. JAMA Dermatol. (November 2017).

  8. Lu, C.H., et al. Quantitative analysis of fragrance allergens in various matrixes of cosmetics by liquid-liquid extraction and GC-MS. J Food Drug Anal. (2021, December 15).

  9. Xu, S., et al. Consumer Preferences, Product Characteristics, and Potentially Allergenic Ingredients in Best-selling Moisturizers. JAMA Dermatol. Ibid.

  10. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to Test Skin Care Products. (2021, August 10).

  11. Tantry, E., et al. Labeling Laws for Personal Care Products: Potential Pitfalls for The Consumer. Skin Therapy Lett. Ibid.

  12. Sharmeen, J.B., et al. Essential Oils as Natural Sources of Fragrance Compounds for Cosmetics and Cosmeceuticals. Molecules. Ibid.

  13. Sharmeen, J.B., et al. Essential Oils as Natural Sources of Fragrance Compounds for Cosmetics and Cosmeceuticals. Molecules. Ibid.

  14. Pastor-Nieto, M.A. and Gatica-Ortega, M.E. Ubiquity, Hazardous Effects, and Risk Assessment of Fragrances in Consumer Products. Curr Treat Options Allergy. (2021, January 23).

  15. Tantry, E., et al. Labeling Laws for Personal Care Products: Potential Pitfalls for The Consumer. Skin Therapy Lett. Ibid.

  16. Tantry, E., et al. Labeling Laws for Personal Care Products: Potential Pitfalls for The Consumer. Skin Therapy Lett. Ibid.

  17. Tantry, E., et al. Labeling Laws for Personal Care Products: Potential Pitfalls for The Consumer. Skin Therapy Lett. Ibid.

  18. Sharmeen JB, et al. Essential Oils as Natural Sources of Fragrance Compounds for Cosmetics and Cosmeceuticals. Molecules. Ibid.

Donna McIntyre is a board-certified nurse practitioner at Curology. She obtained her Master of Science in Nursing at MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, MA.

*Cancel anytime. Subject to consultation. Results may vary.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Donna McIntyre, NP-BC

Donna McIntyre, NP-BC

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