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A World Without Fragrance? – What going fragrance-free really means

It seems that more and more consumers are demanding fragrance-free products, be it for household cleaning or personal care. Some believe that in doing so, they are purchasing a more natural product. But do consumers truly understand what is involved in the production of fragrance-free? Is it merely a case of not adding scent to the finished product? Or is an additional ingredient introduced to mask the scent that naturally exists? Most importantly, does anyone truly benefit from a scent-free lifestyle?

Every one of us has that scent that brings back a specific cherished memory. Whether it is the cinnamon smell that reminds us of grandma’s apple pie, or the aroma of newly-laid asphalt that takes us back to childhood summers, we all have a particular trigger. At the same time, most of us have an aversion to certain smells, perhaps because they trigger unpleasant memories. While the sulfurous odor of rotting eggs may be uniformly undesirable, other disliked scents vary widely. One person may love the scent of baby powder, being transported back to the early days of motherhood; another may find it somewhat abhorrent.

Fragrances are undeniably tied to emotion. They evoke strong sensations of like and dislike in each of us, and can even affect our perceptions of attractiveness, based upon whether we happen to like the scent in question. Someone with a scent of patchouli is likely to view a person wearing it in a different light than they might judge the same person wearing rose. To remove fragrance from a product means removing that emotional association. Studies have found that consumers judge shampoo products in a very different light, depending on their scent, even claiming that the very same product lathers and cleans much better when the only real difference is the presence or absence of fragrance. So, for those consumers convinced that fragrance-free equals more natural, is that truly the case? Does “fragrance-free” on the label mean that no scent has been added? In short: no. Just about every product, no matter its ingredients, will have some odor. Oftentimes, some degree of fragrance needs to be added, if only to disguise what might be a rather unpleasant “naturally occurring” smell. Thus, the difference between many scented and “unscented” products is not that something (i.e., fragrance) has been left out. Rather, it has been added, albeit in a much smaller quantity, sufficient to disguise but not to be recognized in its own right.

Proponents of all-natural, fragrance-free products often cite Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), a term that conjures up images of harmful chemicals and air pollutants. However, VOCs are frequently misunderstood; the so-called volatility refers merely to the probability of evaporation. VOCs occur wherever there is scent, whether it is perfume from the department store, the freshly-blooming gladioli in the garden, or the onions sizzling in the skillet. With no VOCs, there is simply no smell.

To sum up, when it comes to safety, fragrance-free does not mean “without added scents,” nor does it automatically mean “more natural” or safer. Fragrance additives, whether created in a lab or in the garden, are typically monitored and tested by teams that may be composed of toxicologists, pharmacologists, dermatologists, and environmental scientists as recommended by regulating bodies in the industry: the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM) and the International Fragrance Association (IFRA). While this does not eliminate all risks of an allergic reaction for 100% of the population, the study of scent additives can help to explain the cause of any sensitivity experienced by a consumer, or if it is linked to any of the other ingredients in a product.

Ultimately, the reasons for adding fragrance to a product are many. Fragrance can cover some of our naturally-occurring (and less pleasant) scents. It can also enhance a sense of attractiveness. It can enhance mood, both for those wearing it and for those who come into contact with the wearer. Finally, it can evoke a strong emotional response, potentially creating brand loyalty. There is little indication that fragrance-free is by definition safer, or more natural. And a world without scent would certainly be “scentsless”.

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