"Fragrance-Free" and "Unscented" – What do these terms REALLY mean?

The terms "fragrance free" and "unscented" are presently used by the cosmetic industry virtually without restriction, since the expressions have no legal definitions. The majority of consumers consider these terms to be equivalent and interchangeable and understand these terms to mean that a cosmetic product so labeled has no perceptible odor.

Many raw materials used in the manufacture of cosmetics have characteristic odors that may be considered offensive to consumers. Because of this undesirable odor, cosmetic manufacturers add ingredients to their products to both cover any offensive odor originating from ingredients and to impart a fragrance for marketing purposes. In the case of products labeled as "fragrance free" or "unscented," manufacturers generally add fragrance ingredients to cover the offensive odor, but less than what is needed to impart a noticeable scent.

According to the law, all cosmetics offered for sale must include on the label a list of ingredients in descending order of predominance. While most ingredients must be listed by their chemical names, fragrances or flavors may be listed simply as "fragrance" or "flavor". Although the cosmetic regulations do not require the listing of fragrance ingredients present at low levels to cover the off-odor of other ingredients, most manufacturers choose to list them on the label.

In most cases, consumers may be able to purchase "unscented" or "fragrance free" cosmetic products by examining the label to confirm the absence of the word "fragrance" in the list of ingredients. By reading the ingredient listing, consumers may be able to avoid cosmetic products which contain ingredients to which they are sensitive or otherwise wish to avoid.


Fragrances in Cosmetics

U. S. Food and Drug Administration
Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
Office of Cosmetics Fact Sheet
December 19, 1994

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