Did you know that there are more than 5000 different fragrances and 200 or more chemicals that make up what we know as “fragrance” in our skin care and cosmetic products? Of course, some of them are kind of pleasant, such as almond oil, rose, lavender and other floral type derivatives. If you are sensitive to any of these, you’re typically in luck because most companies consider them as selling points. Meaning, they don’t mind listing them as ingredients in their products. Unfortunately, that’s about all the good news to share with you regarding this topic because the rest of the information will most likely be more than just a little disheartening at best.
Up until the 20th century, all fragrance was made using only natural ingredients. This changed drastically once perfumes and personal care items became widespread. Once the demand was there, the need to make these items less expensive to produce was high on the list of priorities for a lot of companies. The manufacturers developed a formula that was most commonly used, as well as a way to rate how an individual might be affected by it. The rating system is based on determining “IP” or “irritation potential” and “ER” or “enhancement ratio”. Irritation potential is based on 102 tested chemicals so the list goes from best to worst case scenario. Enhancement ratio is about permeability. Extensive testing was done in 1977, although it wasn’t publicized. The testing basically showed that the manufacturers should improve on the formula called “Formula 1” at the time. What was found was that roughly 70% of all allergic reactions could be traced back to use of this formula. Hence the creation of “Formula 2”, which didn’t come about until 2002.
What is in these mysterious formulations? Lots of things, but you won’t see them listed on the back of a bottle. Why, you may ask? Because there is a law protecting these companies (not you, the consumer) so they won’t get copied by competitors. Some of these ingredients are the same as those in gasoline. Limonene, linalool, and benzyl alcohol have to, by law, be listed in the EU because of links to cancer potential. Alpha amyl cinnimic aldehyde, cinnimic alcohol, geraniol, eugenol, and iso eugenol are suspect in allergic reactions from mild to severe. Certainly, if you have a condition called MCS (multiple chemical sensitivity) or if you are just plain sensitive, you might not take a chance on their product. This is precisely why they attempt to hide it from you.
The bottom line is you have to be careful about interpretation of the words “fragrance free”. Literally, they can put the words “fragrance free” or “unscented” on a bottle and what it boils down to is “there is no fragrance because we added a masking fragrance to cover up the smell of the other chemicals and now you don’t smell those.” Your best bet is to find a trustworthy company who will tell you that no synthetic fragrance has been added, or if there is fragrance, it will be followed in parenthesis by exactly what it contains. Good luck and careful label reading!