Fragrance formulas are extremely complex and can consist of hundreds of ingredients, so even if a product is labelled as fragrance-free you can still be exposed to fragrance ingredients. Oftentimes these ingredients are used as preservatives or used as an active in the formula.
Fragrance-free products cannot contain ingredients that are normally used to transmit a scent; however, a fragrance-free product may contain essential oils like tea tree and lavender. These oils often contain medicinal properties which is why they could be included in the formula. They most likely will not be listed as fragrance however, they can cause a reaction if they are used at high levels.
Research from the National Insititute of Health reports that, “fragrance is primarily made from synthetic compounds. Approximately 3000 compounds are recorded that can go into a fragrance blend.”
Not only are synthetic fragrances less expensive than natural fragrances, but they are also easier to manufacture. Synthetic fragrances don’t rely on nature which makes them more reproducible. However, by law in most countries manufactures are not required to disclose the compounds in the mixture which makes it difficult for the consumer to know what they’re buying.
Many manufactures are a part of The International Fragrance Association (IFRA). The IFRA has an established Code of Practice and safety standards used around the world to keep consumers and the environment safe from the effects of fragrance. According to the IFRA, “there is no official term for ‘natural in the fragrance industry.’” The IFRA defines natural, “as, means existing in, or produced by nature.”
The IFRA has a standard by which manufactures must follow in order to call their fragrances natural. The standard requires that aromatics are made by physically extracting the volatile fractions from plants WITHOUT chemically altering them. Natural aromatic raw materials must be physically obtained from plants using distillation, expression and extraction.
Essential oils are extracted from plants by cold pressing or distillation. The oil emits the plants scent and manufactures utilize the oil to then create a fragrance or use them as actives in a formulation. They are used as actives because of their medicinal properties but they still can be a very potent allergen.