Hypoallergenic, Fragrance Free, and Unscented: How to Tell If There's Truly No Fragrance in Your Skincare
These three terms can mean entirely different things.
Our sense of smell is so strong, so it's no mystery why a beautiful fragrance can make a skincare product so alluring. But that lovely fragrance can also make your skin irritated and rash prone—exactly the opposite of what you're trying to achieve. In fact, fragrance is one of the most allergenic ingredients in beauty products. "Fragrances are often a mixture of many different natural and synthetic chemical ingredients. Manufacturers are not required to list each individual ingredient, and can instead label it as 'fragrance,'" says Dr. David Lortscher, dermatologist and CEO of Curology. "Because of this, it's impossible to know if a product with fragrance contains an allergen." If you have sensitive skin, it's best to stay away from anything with fragrance in it.
But here's the thing: It's not always easy to tell if a product does contain fragrance. A few keywords are used to depict whether a formula is potentially irritating (enter hypoallergenic, fragrance free, and unscented) but these terms can be misleading because they aren't regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. "The FDA does not have the legal authority to approve cosmetic products and ingredients, aside from color additives," Lortscher says. "There is no regulation specifically defining or governing the use of the term hypoallergenic, nor for the labels 'safe for sensitive skin' or 'allergy tested.' Manufacturers may make those claims even if they have no supporting evidence." That said, there are general definitions of each term. Here, Lortscher breaks down what each one means—and whether you can tell if products labeled with them are free of fragrance.
This might surprise you: Products labeled hypoallergenic can still have fragrance in them. If a product claims to be hypoallergenic, it means the product produces fewer allergic reactions than other conventional cosmetic products, Lortscher says. The keyword here is fewer—no product can be labeled as nonallergenic, because no product can be guaranteed not to cause an allergic reaction.
You're not in the clear with an "unscented" product, either. That just means the product has been formulated to have no smell. It most likely contains fragrance chemicals that neutralize or mask unpleasant odors, Lortscher says. These are called masking fragrances, and they make scented products, well, unscented—and can be just as irritating for the skin as regular fragrance types.
To ensure a beauty product doesn't contain a scent, your best bet is to look for products labeled as fragrance free, as this indicates that fragrance materials and masking scents were not used in the formulation, Lortscher says. Still, you should always read the ingredient list, because a lotion may be labeled as fragrance free, even if it's made with an oil that has one (the purpose of that oil may be to serve as emollient rather than a smell), Lortscher explains.
If you don't react to natural oils—like lavender, vanilla, and rose—then you should be fine, but if you do, look for a symbol from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) when shopping. "The EPA developed a certification verifying a product is free of fragrance materials and chemical scents," Lortscher says. "Products are marked fragrance free in the left corner of the label." And, he adds, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has an extensive online database where you can see if there's fragrance in the products you use.
Looking for a few failsafe options, right here, right now? Check out CeraVe, Curology, Drunk Elephant, and Paula's Choice—all brands that Lortscher recommends. And, when in doubt, patch test a particular product on a small area of your skin to see how you react to it before using it daily all over your face or body.