Most people love to smell their products. I used to buy shampoo completely on smell alone. When I was in high school, back in the day, Bath and Body Works was the place to get really nice lotion and soap. Cucumber Melon was my favorite. I’m not sure the scent really resembled cucumbers or melons, but that didn’t matter.

I’m also not sure at what point I started shifting my stance on smelly stuff, but I do know this. Whenever I am reading a magazine and there are perfume samples inside, I get a slight but instant headache, and my throat tightens up just a bit. I always thought that was strange. Strange and telling.

So I slowly started switching to fragrance-free products. Not because I thought scent was an evil thing, but because for some reason it began to really bother me physically.

It wasn’t until recently however that I started to learn about “fragrance” and how the word is so much more than meets the eye…or nose, as the case may be.

My scented soap box

Here’s where I’d love to go ahead and rant about things like scent-boosting laundry pellets and plug in air fresheners (let’s add heat and electricity to our chemicals!), but I will hold off and try to stick to the facts, for now. And truth be told, this type of article, the “fragrance is shady, watch out” article, has been written many times before. But for some reason, most people still haven’t gotten this important message, nor has it resonated in the way I believe it should. So here’s my hat in the ring.

Scent in itself is not necessarily a problem. Most products are scented because, well, most people like their products to smell good. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Scent in nature is very important. Heck, even the center of our galaxy reportedly smells like raspberries.

To add scent, manufacturers basically have two options; use natural fragrances, such as essential oils, or use synthetics. You might think you know where I am headed here, and you would be right. Except that not all essential oils are safe (particularly true for pregnant women), and not all synthetic fragrances are toxic. Some natural oils tend to cause sensitivities, and some synthetic fragrances are high quality. It’s all chemistry in the end.

In large part though, when people refer to health concerns associated with fragrance or fragrance-related ingredients, they are referring to synthetics. Scented products emit a vast array of volatile organic compounds, many of which are classified as toxic and hazardous. Fragrance ingredients have been associated with a number of health concerns, including allergies, neurological and developmental problems, and cancer. As if that weren’t concerning enough, there is another issue with fragrance.

Any of thousands of chemicals

If I gave you a new food to try, and on the nutrition label one of the ingredients was listed as “any number of 3,000 or so chemicals, some of which are associated with health problems” would you eat it? I’d wager not.

But this is what happens with the vast majority of home, beauty and personal care products.

fragrance in hair cair products
An entire aisle of hair care products. Almost all contain the nonspecific ingredient of “fragrance”.

Fragrance (or Parfum) may be used as a trade secret catch-all for any combination of thousands of chemicals, thanks to a loophole in the FDA Fair Packaging and Labeling Act. Many of these chemicals have evidence of being harmful to you and your health.

As consumers, we need to protect our health by urging manufacturers not only to disclose fragrance ingredients, but to avoid using chemicals which have evidence of harm. Yes, some major manufacturers are moving in the right direction, phasing out big offenders, and planning to disclose ingredients online. Yet we still have far to go.

Forgo the Fragrance

Meanwhile, you can do something to move towards safer choices. And no, it doesn’t mean that you have to completely give up scented products, if that’s your thing.

Whenever possible, my goal is to avoid purchasing products with the word “fragrance” on the label.

It’s as simple as that. If I see the word fragrance, and there is no indication of what the word means in that particular product (e.g. fragrance only from these essential oils, no synthetic fragrances etc.) I don’t buy it. I don’t use it.

On rare occasion I will inquire with a company about their fragrance, such as with my beloved deodorant brand, but generally it’s a go or no-go situation. It’s a safety thing but also a principle thing. If you don’t know what a product is made of, you simply can’t decide for yourself if it’s a risk.

Safer Smells Good on You

So what can you do? First, take a glance at the products in your cabinets and on your counters. Chances are many will have fragrance listed as an ingredient.  Take a mental (or actual) note of these types of products (shampoo, body lotion, dryer sheets…you’ll be surprised at how many products contain fragrance!).

The next time you run out of any of them, look for a fragrance-free version, or, one that clearly discloses where the fragrance comes from. Side note: be aware that “unscented” products may still contain fragrance ingredients.

You likely won’t be able to change everything all at once. But if you believe in using safer products, then committing to making at least one or two changes at time is a worthy goal. As I’ve said before, switching to, and sticking with, safer products is a process that often takes a little time. There are still things that I want to change, and even one or two that I may never change. And that’s ok, for me.

For a list of health and beauty companies that offer fragrance-free and safer-scented products, check out my post here. It’s a great place to start.

For those of you who just love scent, there are some safer swaps to consider.

  • If you’re a fan of wearing perfume, check out Skylar and Phlur, two perfume companies that work towards producing safer scents and offer reasonably-priced sample packs (the cost of which can be applied to a future order, which is awesome).
  • If you just love your home to smell nice, ditch those heavy and fake-smelling plugins, sprays and candles. Instead, look into an essential oil diffuser, or candles made with natural waxes and oils.
  • If you prefer cleaning products with a little scent, my favorite scented lines are Honest and Seventh Generation, both available via their websites or at my favorite store, Target. These brands perform well and are committed to avoiding synthetic fragrances and dyes.

Last but not least, be aware that when you start to avoid heavy, fake fragrances, you’ll likely find yourself  more discriminating, and perhaps even sensitive, towards scent.  So don’t be surprised if all those detergents, candles, sprays and lotions suddenly start to smell way too heavy and fake – because they are.

By being smart about your fragrance choices, you can move towards much healthier home and beauty products. Leave me a comment and let me know what products you would most like to swap out. Then go out and smell the (real) roses.



Disclaimer: This site is intended to share my own experiences and opinions in an effort towards helping people more easily find safer products. It should not be considered health or medical advice. Always do your own research and due diligence before trying out new products. 

3 Comments on Fragrance – Don’t let it fake you out

  1. Agree, candles have been the hardest for me to give up, and some of the perfumes I have enjoyed over the years bring me such joy (scent tied to memories and all), that sometimes I cheat and wear perfume. Very rarely, though, because I know how “bad” they are.

  2. we all as consumers need to be more educated as to products with possible harmful ingredients.
    Thank you for useful information

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.