Babies need special skin care products for their delicate, sensitive skin. But how do you know which products are safe for your little one? Take the terms “fragrance-free” and “unscented,” for example. What do these terms mean? Are they the same, or are they different?

In this article, the baby experts at Mustela will explain everything you need to know about fragrance-free vs. unscented products. We’ll start by telling you exactly what each phrase means. Then we’ll explain the difference between fragrance-free and unscented in greater detail. Finally, we’ll provide some expert insight about why fragrance-free products are the safest for your baby with extra sensitive skin.

smiling baby draped in white towel resting on elbows

What Does “Unscented” Mean?

When printed on soaps, shampoos, and lotions, the word “unscented” conveys two important points:

  1. The product does not have an aroma. It is considered unscented because it has no obvious scent. 
  2. It does not, however, mean that the product is free of fragrance chemicals.

This probably seems a little confusing. How can something not have an aroma if it has fragrance chemicals in it? The answer is that unscented products often contain chemicals that eliminate odors.

All of the ingredients used to make a skin care product—whether natural or synthetic—have an aroma. Sometimes, a product’s original aroma will be unpleasant. That’s why special fragrance chemicals are added to some items to give them a neutral smell. The skin care products that contain these special odor-neutralizing chemicals are considered “unscented.”

At first glance, this might not seem like such a big deal. Many products contain fragrance chemicals, so why does it matter if those fragrance chemicals are used to eliminate unpleasant smells? Because research suggests that the chemicals used to remove odors from skin care products are extremely harmful.

smiling baby lying on bed in a hooded towel

What Does “Fragrance-Free” Mean?

In theory, fragrance-free means that no chemicals have been added with the specific purpose of giving a product an aroma (even if that aroma is a neutral one). But some cosmetic companies use the term “fragrance-free” loosely.

For example, one study examined 174 of the best-selling moisturizers from Amazon, Target, and Walmart. The researchers found that a full 45 percent of the moisturizers labeled “fragrance-free” contained fragrance chemicals. This fact just adds to the confusion surrounding fragrance-free labeling.

As we noted above, just about everything has a natural smell to it. This is true for all ingredients in skin care products. It’s entirely possible for a fragrance-free item to have a scent, even if no fragrance chemicals have been added to it. If the product is made from ingredients that naturally have a pleasing aroma, then the product can have a nice scent while being “fragrance-free” at the same time.

This is most often true with products that use natural ingredients and essential oils. For example, aloe vera is a wonderful, natural skin care ingredient that has its own unique aroma. This scent comes naturally from the plant, so products that use aloe vera can be fragrance-free (assuming no extra fragrance chemicals are added) and still have a noticeable pleasant scent.

baby girl playing in sink of water next to fragrance-free bath products

The Dangers of Fragrance Chemicals

By now, you have probably determined that the main difference between fragrance-free products and unscented products is that fragrance-free products don’t (or at least shouldn’t) contain any harmful fragrance chemicals. But, as we mentioned earlier in the article, sometimes even products labeled “fragrance-free” still contain fragrance compounds.

This happens because the FDA treats shampoos, lotions, and moisturizers as cosmetics rather than medicines. Because of their cosmetic status, these products are not strongly regulated. There are no official, legal definitions of the terms “fragrance-free” and “unscented.”

The Federal Food, Drug, And Cosmetic Act, which was first passed by Congress back in 1938, strictly prohibits “misbranded” cosmetics. However, as “fragrance-free” and “unscented” are not legally defined, corporations are free to use the phrases according to their own loose definitions. They can get away with this because there are no official definitions to abide by. Basically, it’s a legal loophole.

Harmful Effects

You might be wondering what kinds of chemicals are used to give a skin care product its fragrance—and whether or not they’re actually harmful. Some fragrance chemicals are mild irritants that can cause discomfort, rashes, redness, dryness, and itchiness for babies, even those with normal skin. Babies with eczema-prone skin or skin that’s easily irritated are especially vulnerable.

It’s important to note here, however, that high-quality fragrances, such as those found in Mustela’s products, are free from potentially dangerous chemicals and won’t irritate your infant’s skin.

In addition to irritating your baby’s skin, certain fragrance chemicals may also bother your little one’s respiratory system when inhaled. This can also be true for adults, especially those with asthma or other respiratory conditions.

Frighteningly, these symptoms are some of the more minor side effects that fragrance chemicals are thought to cause. More serious health concerns have been associated with some fragrance chemicals.

Of particular concern are a group of plastic enhancers used in unscented skin care products called phthalates. These molecules are most often used to make plastics more flexible, but they’re also used in some cosmetics to mask the unpleasant odors of the synthetic ingredients they contain. Phthalates have been linked to some serious health problems.

For starters, the Environmental Protection Agency says it “is concerned about phthalates because of their toxicity and the evidence of pervasive human and environmental exposure to these chemicals.” In a report on phthalates, the EPA outlines a number of scientific studies that have linked phthalates to negative effects on human health. According to that report, phthalates:

  • Are suspected of being endocrine disruptors, which can disrupt hormones and cause problems in the reproductive system 
  • Have been associated with neurodevelopmental disorders in children by at least one scientific study
  • Are thought to contribute to asthma and allergies in children

Of course, you would never want to increase the chances of your child developing one (or more) of these serious health issues. The way to eliminate the risk is to never use any skin care products with phthalates—on yourself or on your baby. Instead, choose gentle, baby-friendly products that are phthalate-free and won’t irritate your little one’s skin, such as Mustela’s.

There’s only one question that remains: if phthalates are so harmful, why does the FDA allow cosmetics companies to put them in their products? The reality, as explained by the FDA itself, is this: “Under the law, cosmetic products and ingredients do not need FDA premarket approval, with the exception of color additives.”

In addition, the evidence that phthalates cause health problems for humans is not 100 percent irrefutable. The Center for Disease Control states that the effects of phthalates on human health are “unknown” and claims that “more research is needed to assess the human health effects of exposure to phthalates.” There is a great deal of research that suggests phthalates have harmful effects, but the evidence is not yet conclusive.

With regard to the harmful effects of fragrance chemicals, it’s important to make the distinction again here that quality fragrances made without these chemicals are perfectly safe for your baby. The most crucial thing to keep in mind when considering skin care items for you and your little one is what the products are made with. Mustela’s lightly fragranced products, for example, do not contain phthalates or other dangerous chemicals.

bare adult and baby feet on white background

Fragrance-Free: The Safest Option For Babies With Sensitive Skin

It has probably become obvious by now, but please allow us to be super clear: unscented products are not safe for your baby! Products that are truly fragrance-free are the safest and most gentle for newborns and babies with skin conditions like eczema or very sensitive skin.

Mustela offers a huge selection of fragrance-free baby products. This includes everything from diaper rash cream and baby wipes to shampoo and cleansing gel. We also have a Soothing Moisturizing Face Cream and Body Lotion that are both fragrance-free and perfect for your loved one’s delicate skin.

Mustela products are made almost entirely from natural ingredients, and we believe in naturally caring for your child’s skin just as firmly as you do. That means that even our lightly fragranced products are free of any ingredients—like phthalates—that could be considered harmful to your baby.