What Does "Clean Fragrance" Really Mean?

Major airlines only banned cigarettes in 1990. US hospitals allowed smoking until 1993—even despite knowing there were detrimental risks associated with secondhand smoke. Nowadays, it’s uncommon for a nonsmoker to even catch a whiff of cigarette smoke on a crowded street. You can go weeks or even months without being exposed to it in the biggest cities. 

But the same can’t be said for detergents and artificial fragrances. They are everywhere. And some experts think they can be just as harmful as the secondhand smoke of decades past. It’s even sparked a clean fragrance movement. Here’s what you need to know.

 

What is fragrance?

Woman spraying perfume

If you don’t know what fragrance is, you’re not alone. Brands—whether they’re selling you an actual fragrance like a perfume, or they’re selling you a scented laundry detergent—don’t have to disclose what they’re using to scent those products. The government gives them a pass chalked up to “proprietary” formulations. But the truth is, fragrance can contain harmful chemicals. One class in particular, known as phthalates, can be particularly worrisome. 

Phthalates are used to extend the length of scent. It’s why laundry smells “fresh” for weeks after you’ve pulled it out of the dryer. The phthalates keep the scent intact. But exposure to phthalates poses risks. They’ve been linked to a number of health issues including asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, breast cancer, obesity, type 2 diabetes, low IQ, neurodevelopmental issues, behavioral issues, autism spectrum disorders, altered reproductive development, and male fertility issues.

Sensitivity to these chemicals has earned them the “new secondhand smoke” moniker. Nowadays, you may board an airplane and find it smoke-free, but you could find yourself inundated by an aisle mate’s fragrance. The known side-effects to fragrance have led to a rise in unscented or “free and clear” products (spoiler: those can also have fragrances added).

But is it enough?

What is clean fragrance?

hand holding random bottle of perfume with some flowers behind it

Products made without any detergent-based fragrances are the only way to ensure a truly clean experience. But that doesn’t mean you have to go entirely fragrance-free. In fact, clean fragrances offer a whole new world of scent and benefits.

While the free and clear options exist, it can be tricky to read between the labeling lines when it comes to products marketed as containing clean or natural fragrances. Since brands don’t have to disclose the proprietary ingredients in fragrances, it’s easy for the consumer to be confused or outright misled. Fortunately, a growing number of brands are relying on pure and natural essential oils to develop clean fragrances. These scent blends are purely botanical in nature. That means no phthalates or detergent-based scents. Essential oils are concentrated extracts from flowers, citrus peels, and other botanicals. Don’t be misled there either—just because they’re natural doesn’t mean they don’t come with risks (get the smallest amount of orange oil in your eye and you’ll understand). But the risks are generally less severe than those in phthalate-based fragrances.

 

How to tell a “clean” fragrance from a fake one

dramatic picture of random photo of perfume

There are two really simple ways to know if your fragrance is truly clean.

The first: use your nose. Does it smell like something you know? Lemon oil will smell like real lemons. You can tell the difference between a lemon “fragrance” and a lemon essential oil. One smells “lemony”; the other smells like lemons. The more you smell clean fragrances, the easier it will be to identify the difference. What does a popular laundry detergent smell like? Brands usually use vague words to describe these products, like “fresh” or “clean” or “breeze.” These aren’t actual scents. They are marketing angles to make you connect an artificial scent with a word because they suggested it. If it doesn’t smell like something real, then it likely isn’t.

The second way to know if your fragrance is clean or not is how long it lasts. You may think that you’re not getting your money’s worth if the scents wear off within a few hours. But that’s kind of how the natural world works. A scent that lingers for days (or weeks!) is not natural. So, yes, your cologne or perfume may need to be reapplied during the day. So may your deodorant. But when you’re avoiding fragrances that aren’t clean—and may actually be harmful—isn’t it worth it?

There is another way, too. Are there fragrance ingredients listed on the product label? Or the company’s website? That’s a very good indicator that the ingredients are about as clean as they can be. You can also peruse the Environmental Working Group’s SkinDeep database for ingredients and product rankings.

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At Kinder Beauty, we’re committed to doing the hard work for you so that you can ensure that your beauty products are clean, cruelty-free, and vegan. We hope you’ll join our community by becoming a subscriber. There are plans perfect for everyone.

Jill Ettinger is an LA-based writer and editor focused on vegan and cruelty-free living.