Good to know: What "fragrance-free" and "unscented" mean in beauty labels

Do you make it a habit to read the label before deciding to buy product? It’s definitely a good idea to do so (even if it’s in Korean!) because you should always check for manufacturing and expiry dates to help ensure that the product is still safe to use. There also ingredients you should look out for because of their high potential as skin irritants, or because they help back up a product’s claims of being effective at treating acne or preventing skin aging.

If you are allergic to certain ingredients or have sensitive skin, it’s even more important to be careful about what you put on your face. Most would look for an “unscented” or “fragrance-free” product to avoid the risk of triggering an adverse reaction, and usually assume that the two terms mean the same thing. They’re actually completely different! Knowing one from the other may save you the trouble of using the wrong product for your skin. 

The two types of fragrances

Fragrance oils and essential oils are scents that we often find listed as ingredients of products. Essential oils are also known as natural oils because they are produced through distillation or extraction from the plants themselves, resulting in a pure essence. Aside from carrying the plant's natural fragrance, they also have its beneficial properties that have practical applications in skincare such as being an antiseptic or an anti-inflammatory.

On the other hands, fragrance oils are synthetic substances manufactured to “smell” like the real thing. A lot of different components go into the formulation, and companies are not required by law to disclose the particular ingredients. Instead, you'll often find perfume, aroma, flavor, oil blend in a product's ingredients list.

Using either fragrance type is often safe but if you have sensitive skin, it may be a good idea to stay away from artificially-fragranced products with mystery ingredients that can potentially trigger your skin. In case the full ingredients are listed, you can look for dibutylphthalate and diethylphthalate to help identify the presence of actual fragrance. Sniffing the product in the effort to detect scent isn't enough, however.

Fragrance-free means that the product has no fragrance agents added to make the items smell any different from how the ingredients naturally combine. These products can still have a scent but only because the ingredients used have a natural odor. An example would be the In Her Element Rose Gel Serum Moisturizer as well as the Low pH Rose Gel Cleanser. These have the distinct smell of roses, thanks to the inclusion of rose distillate in the formula. Rose distillate is not uncommon to find in skincare because of its antiseptic properties, and lends its rich fragrance to the product.

The In Her Element First Wash Cleansing Oil has a slightly coconut-y scent due to the organic oil blend. Other fragrance-free products such as the Celeteque Hydrolyzed Moisturizing Mist, Simple Eye Makeup Remover, Son & Park Beauty Water, and Clinique Liquid Facial Soap have unmasked natural scents. The ingredients themselves don't have a strong scent, and can thus smell neutral even when combined.

Because there are no added fragrances, other fragrance-free products can smell a little unpleasant or funny.

Contrary to what you may think, unscented products are actually made with fragrances that are designed to not smell like anything. The fragrance for these are designed to neutralize the scent that the product would naturally have, which may not be pleasant. Because of these additions, unscented products aren't always the best option for those with allergies or sensitive skin.

So, is one better than the other? The safer bet would be to use fragrance-free products, as the risk of getting a skin irritation is lower You would still have to check if you have sensitivities to the rest of the ingredients, which are ideally listed in full on the label. If you're neither sensitive or allergic to anything though, fragrant products can make application feel more pleasant and luxurious while unscented ones have a no-nonsense, all-business appeal. 

Whichever one you do choose, it pays to always read the label first before buying. Do a patch test before applying anything new to your face. Your skin will thank you for it!

Which one do you look for in your skincare products? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

References: Seed, McGill Blogs, The Cut