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Fragrance free or unscented… which is better?

What does natural, synthetic, fragrance free and unscented actually mean? And why should it affect my product choices?

I used to think ‘Fragrance free’ and ‘Unscented’ were interchangeable. I knew that fragrances in personal care products were a bit of a land-mine due to endocrine disrupting phthalates often being used in formulations to hold scent for a longer duration. However, I thought either of these terms meant that my product was a safe one. I was wrong… Here’s how to tell the difference.

What does natural actually mean when it comes to fragrances?

Natural fragrances, as defined by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) must be plant derived from aromatic natural raw materials. They must be physically obtained from plants through mechanical extraction (through cold pressing for example) or distillation (via water or steam.) Examples of these would be essential oils or floral extracts.  They cannot be chemically altered or made from artificial materials.

The difference between natural and synthetic fragrances

Natural fragrances are beautiful; however the scent doesn’t last as long and the scent extracted can vary according to environmental changes and harvest variation.

Synthetic fragrances are lab created and designed to mimic natural scents. There are thousands of fragrance chemicals which are used in different combinations to create these different notes. Synthetic fragrances are more potent and contain added fixatives – often endocrine disrupting phthalates, to make the scent last longer.

Unfortunately, phthalates are associated with a whole host of negative health effects, including infertility, asthma, low sperm counts and genital malformation in young male babies. They have also been associated with endometriosis, diabetes and thyroid issues.

It is therefore important we are able to easily spot products using synthetic fragrance, so that we can avoid them.

Fragrance free vs. unscented

Fragrance free

Fragrance-Free means that no additional fragrances have been added to the formulation to make the product smell a certain way, or mask the scent of the ingredients the product contains. This means that the product may still have a scent, but just from the ingredients it includes.


Unscented refers to a product which may have had masking scents added to it, in order to try to create a formulation which doesn’t smell like anything. These may contain synthetic fragrances and phthalates.

What should I look out for?

To avoid synthetic fragrances, look for products labelled ‘Fragrance free’ or those marked ‘scented with essential oils only.’

Whilst with naturally fragranced products, the scent may not hold for as long, there are definite health benefits to using them over synthetic ones.

All the products in the Clean + Conscious directory are free from synthetic fragrances and endocrine disrupting chemicals. Explore our favourite Natural Perfumes and Perfume Oils here.

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