For a lot of consumers, scented cleaning products are an integral part of making their cleaning experience more pleasant.
It's difficult enough to understand the paragraph of ingredients listed on most cleaning products, let alone the complicated terms that brands use to describe fragrances.
What are fragrances exactly and do they change the effectiveness of the cleaning product itself? What does unscented and fragrance-free really mean? And, perhaps most importantly, how can we choose the products that work well—and still smell good? Below, we're breaking down every little thing you need to know about fragrances in your cleaning products.
First, what is fragrance?
A fragrance, or a perfume, is a chemical concoction that smells really good (or really bad, depending on your preference). You can find fragrances in many different types of products on the market.
Why use fragrance?
It’s because most people like when their home and laundry care products smell nice. Companies understand the power of a pleasingly fragranced product, and how that impacts a consumer’s buying decisions and their experience of using the product at home.
In general, fragrance is added to products to make them more appealing.
For many people, enjoying fragrances is one of life's luxuries. For those of you struggling with sensitive skin, though, even the most natural perfumes are a luxury you can't afford. There are three categories of fragrances—synthetic fragrances, natural fragrances, and essential oils. All of these fragrances can cause a problem if you have sensitive skin or are sensitive to fragrance.
What does "natural" actually mean when it comes to fragrances?
Natural fragrances, as defined by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) must be plant derived from aromatic natural raw materials. Natural fragrance molecules are single molecular entities derived from a natural source. They must be physically obtained from plants through mechanical extraction (through cold pressing for example) or distillation (via water or steam.) They cannot be chemically altered or made from artificial materials. Companies extract natural fragrances from flowers, spices, and more. For example geraniol, extracted from roses would be a natural fragrance. Natural fragrances are beautiful; however the scent doesn’t last as long and the scent extracted can vary according to environmental changes and harvest variation.
Essential oils are mixtures that are isolated from plant sources. Thus, they are natural fragrances.
Synthetic (aka artificial) fragrances contain chemicals that are not derived from a natural source—they are made in a lab. They’re synthesized using inorganic substances and designed to mimic natural scents. So geraniol synthesized in the lab would be a synthetic fragrance even though it is exactly the same substance. Of course you can also have fragrances that are synthetic and not found in nature at all. There are thousands of fragrance chemicals which are used in different combinations to create these different notes.
However just because natural fragrances are from nature does not mean they will be beneficial the same way that synthetic fragrances in a lab aren’t always going to cause harm.
Why so much anxiety about fragrance?
There are multiple reasons, one of which is the effect these compounds have on sensitive skin. The other reason is that manufacturers aren't required by law to list the ingredients they use in fragrance. The list of chemicals that are allowed under the “fragrance” label is constantly growing; as of late 2021, the list was nearly 4,000 ingredients long. Some of those chemicals are completely harmless (for example, “Lavender” is on that list), while others pose established threats to human and environmental health (we’ll get to that in a minute).
The word “fragrance” has been protected in the industry for many years as a “trade secret,” meaning that companies do not have to disclose all of the raw materials that make up a fragrance. They can instead list just “fragrance” or “parfum” as a catchall term. That means you could be introducing a host of toxic chemicals to your home without ever even knowing it. When you think of fragrance, terms such as phthalates and parabens may come to mind. Particularly concerning is the high concentration of phthalates, which we'll talk about more in a bit. Some synthetic fragrances can include nasty chemicals like benzene derivatives (carcinogenic) or toluene.
We are exposed to fragrance chemicals primarily through the inhalation of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that readily evaporate from the scented product into the air or direct skin contact.
Synthetic fragrances are more potent and can contain added fixatives – often endocrine disrupting phthalates, to make the scent last longer. Artificial fragrances are the #1 irritant on skin and one of the most potentially harmful ingredients we can encounter - because they contain phthalates. While evidence isn’t conclusive that phthalates are bad for people, there are links between phthalates and increasing rates of chronic disease. Phthalates have been linked from everything to testicular cancer to liver cancer, but allergies and asthma still remain the biggest side effect of artificial fragrance and studies reveal that women are even more susceptible to these side effects.
For more information about phthalates, check out these sources:
Not all synthetic fragrances are harmful.
Synthetic fragrances are not necessarily bad, but there has been some bad publicity in recent years given to parabens and phthalates, which can be found in synthetic fragrances. While phthalates can be found in non-natural fragrances, synthetics can indeed be made without such toxins. So are synthetic fragrances without phthalates safe? Though phthalate-free, synthetic fragrances aren't from nature, they're considered safe for your skin and body.
Here at Boulder Clean, we stand by safer scents — it’s simply what we’re made of. People + pets + the planet are always top of mind. Even so, we wanted to clear up any confusion about synthetic fragrances. They often get a bad rap, when in reality, you can have a safe household cleaner that contains them. We’re here to debunk the bogus myth that synthetic fragrances are unsafe, because it’s just not true. Let us explain...
The B-Clean Promise
Here’s what we promise to you: by using a combo of both safer synthetic + natural ingredients, you can rest assured that you won’t find any of the unnecessary fillers + nasty chemicals that dilute or pollute a scent. We never use any of this nasty junk because it’s simply not necessary when making a healthier synthetic fragrance, so we leave all that other stuff out to ensure a safer synthetic formula.
Be it synthetic or natural, we only choose the safest scents Every. Single. Time. That means we never use parabens, phthalates, PBTs, synthetic carcinogens, mutagens, etc. We follow the strictest safety guidelines from the IFRA. But that’s just our starting point. We also follow the EPA Safer Choice interim fragrance criteria, and then we slap on our own tough regulations on top of all that. Humble boast, but we’re sticklers when it comes to safety.
Why we use a combo of synthetic + natural fragrances
One big difference between our cleaners and many other natural cleaners is how they smell. While we make some of our products with all-natural oils, we also add phthalate-free fragrances to ensure an amazing scent. These synthetic fragrances may also be blended with essential oils for a more natural scent.
We call our scents "nature-inspired" because we use nature as the roadmap, but not the end-all-be-all source. Sure, we use our fair share of natural ingredients. But as we mentioned above, sometimes a fragrance in its natural state can still harbor some pretty nasty (natural) toxins in there. When it comes to natural fragrances, there can be safety hazards, respiratory sensitizers, allergens + carcinogens in those too. That’s why we only choose from the safest natural + synthetic ingredients. By making fragrances the right way, we make can sure none of those nasty chemicals, from naturally-occurring ingredients or from synthetic sources, ever make it into your air.
What we’re trying to say here is that it’s important to remember that the word "natural" does not mean safe.
Can synthetic fragrances be the safer choice?
Sometimes it’s actually safer to use a synthetic fragrance then a natural one (mic drop). This is because sometimes a natural fragrance can have harmful, toxic properties in its all-natural state. But when making a fragrance ingredient that smells natural, those natural toxins can be removed from the equation, making it safer to breathe but still smelling, well, like nature intended!
Essential oils can also be sourced in an unsustainable way, so it’s important that companies are conscious about how they obtain their natural scents from an environmental standpoint as well.
It’s also important to point out that unnatural (synthetic) fragrances don’t cause more allergic reactions than natural. Any fragrance can contain allergens, unless they are removed, because allergens come in all shapes + sizes (synthetically + naturally occurring).
Unscented + Fragrance-free
The difference between fragrance-free and unscented
Fragrance-free means that no fragrance materials—synthetic or natural—are used in the product. Instead, these products smell like the ingredients they contain. Fragrance-free products make them perfect for people with sensitive skin (or noses). These products also reduce the risk of reaction to known chemical sensitizers that your skin could come into contact with.
However, just because a product is fragrance free does not mean it doesn't have a scent. Simply put a fragrance-free product cannot have added fragrance. However, it can contain ingredients that have a scent of their own. For example, our liquid laundry detergent is made with a cold-pressed orange oil that has a smell. So it could still be labelled as fragrance-free because the purpose of the oil is to act as a degreaser, not as a scent. But it could not be labelled unscented.
On the other hand, unscented generally means that the product doesn't have an obvious fragrance. However, this statement can be misleading. While unscented products have no smell, they do use chemicals or other substances to neutralize or mask the odor of the product’s active ingredients (which don't always smell great). For example, if a product is formulated with lavender, for example, but some chemical is added to mask the smell, the product can be labelled as “unscented” but not fragrance free. These may contain synthetic fragrances and phthalates.
What to look for
It is very important when buying any products, especially if you have sensitive skin or allergies, that you check the ingredients of products. If you aren’t sure, check out the label or visit the product’s branded website. Look at the ingredients listed on products and avoid products that include phthalate, DEP, DBP, DEHP, DiDP, DnOP and DINP. If “fragrance” is listed as an ingredient and it isn’t specified as a phthalate-free fragrance, it’s best to avoid those products as well. Regulations do not require the listing of individual fragrance ingredients, so it’s not known if phthalates are present unless specifically listed. Alternatively, choose third-party certified, green cleaning products to lower harmful chemical exposures: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Safer Choice” fragrance-free label, Green Seal or ECOLOGO. Products with these certifications, ensure that fragrances used are phthalate-free.
If you like using products with fragrances, your best bet is turning to ones containing natural fragrances—like essential oils—provided that you're not allergic to the stuff. Anyone can be allergic to anything, so some individuals can have allergic reactions to certain essential oils. For example, those who are allergic to ragweed should avoid using chamomile. Keep in mind, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate the essential oil industry, which makes careful sourcing on the part of brands and consumers very important.