Unscented, Asthma-Friendly Products: A Primer

Last updated: January 2020

"It barely has any smell, how can that bother you?"
"It'll wear off soon."
"Just stay away from me, you'll be fine."

These are all things people have said to me when they've put on a scented product and *then* realized (or were told, by myself or someone else) it bothers me. I have both asthma and headaches triggered by scented products, and it's not that simple sometimes to get someone to switch to products that are unscented or fragrance free. (Nor is it as simple as the people who say the things above to just ensure my health issues aren’t triggered by their fragrances!) While I give a pass to most people I don't see regularly and just suffer through it, I can't do the same with people whose living space intersects with mine (or, honestly, people whose fragrance emanates more than a few inches from their body).

You know those Febreeze commercials about going "nose blind"? While Febreeze is hardly a product I want to bring up on an asthma site (due to the very facts I'm writing about!), going "nose blind" is a good descriptor and it doesn't only apply to a teenager's bedroom or a soccer mom's van. The same effect happens when people wear a fragrance a long time, they can no longer smell it, and require more, so much you can literally taste it walking 10 feet behind them outdoors on a windy day downtown--an effect amplified by a calm day. This is typically the case with people who wear way too much perfume—they can’t smell their fragrance, leading them to put on more each day.

The other issue is subtle scents, whether the person has developed a tolerance or not, when people assume that because something doesn't smell "very much" it won't bother someone who's fragrance sensitive. I want to give props here--some people do get it. Back in July, my aunt put this very coconutty sunscreen on in the car, realized it was probably not super great for me, and asked about it. When I said I wasn't sure if it'd be a problem or not, she rolled down the windows and kept the fans going. She consciously has NOT put this sunscreen back on when we've shared closed air, saying “I won’t put this on with you in the car". (*Mad applause and mad props!*)

Making the Switch… To education?

I know that I cannot expect people to change if they don't know what the issue is, or what products to change to. Given I've had times where a deodorant labeled as "unscented" has been everything but (full of what they call "masking fragrances"), it's not exactly straight forward to figure out. I actually had headaches triggered by fragrances a couple years before I developed asthma--I, like many, have been navigating this for over a decade. It comes down to a few basic steps.

Defining fragrance levels

“Natural”. “unscented", and “fragrance free” don’t all mean the same thing! Their use may be regulated differently by country. Generally, here’s what these words mean—find out how they are used or regulated in your country.
Natural - Literally means nothing. There are no standards regulating the term “natural” ingredients.1
Unscented - Unscented products may seem to not have a fragrance, but may use a masking fragrance—this means people may react to a product even if they can’t tell what they are reacting to!2
Fragrance free - Again, not a sure-shot, but a better bet in most places (such as Canada, the US and the EU), for finding a truly fragrance free product, which does not use masking agents to cover fragrances used.3, 4, 5 

Read the ingredients

I am absolutely that person who stands in the deodorant or lotion or conditioner or whatever aisle forever, reading ingredients and on occasion popping tops open to determine the fragrance level myself. The exception to this is the laundry soap and cleaning products aisle, which almost always gives me an instant headache and I still don’t know how that works, so because I am lucky to live with my parents, I send my mom down there (given Amazon Drones should be here by the time I move out, I figure that’s how I’ll solve the problem in the future). If you have a supermarket with an organics aisle, you may be lucky to find a plethora of fragrance free or natural fragrance cleaning or body products amongst the quinoa and energy bars and organic chocolate.

Red flags to look out for include:

  • Parfum (may be tolerable if it’s at the end of the list, based on your sensitivity level or type of product)
  • Fragrance
  • Phthalates, and other complicated words. Phthalates, which may show up on labels as diethyl phthalate or DEP,4 has been under a lot of scrutiny, for a wide range of medical conditions, but evidence for this is inconclusive.6 The FDA maintains the safety of phthalates, including DEP, but if you have fragrance sensitivities, it’s something to be aware of.4

Making Recommendations to Non-“Scientists"

I realize, it’s often easier just to recommend products that have worked well for you and are unscented or fragrance free. In an upcoming post, we’ll take a look at some products that you can try for yourself or recommend to friends and family (and, of course, I’ll be crowdsourcing a list of things I’ve missed in the comments there, too!)

How do you identify fragrance free or unscented products that will help you stay healthy?

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Asthma.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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