Living An (Almost) Fragrance-Free Life

Some of you may recall my 2015 post (Scents and Sensitivity) wherein I discussed the flowers that do or don’t trigger my fragrance allergies. It recently occurred to me that it might be helpful to also talk about some of the products that I’ve found to be either ‘safe’ or almost entirely so.

You might hear some people quibble about the difference between ‘fragrance allergy’ and ‘fragrance sensitivity’ but my feeling is this: If the presence of a fragrance/scent/smell/whatever makes your body react in a way that you find unpleasant, do the semantics really matter? I say that it doesn’t; and if, like me, you’re not inclined to go reaching for a pharmaceutical in response to every bodily vicissitude, avoidance becomes the order of the day. In other words, fragrance-free products only.

Fragrance sensitivity can also change over time. As a child, I had a long list of allergies: milk, eggs, wheat, citrus, chocolate, dust mites, feathers, dog, cat, and apparently every pollen in the plant kingdom. Most – but not all – of them disappeared at the onset of puberty, but that was also when I first experienced reactions to perfumes and colognes. Those had not previously been an allergen, and it turned out that the only two I myself could use were Jean Naté and Guerlain’s Chant d’Aromes. Anything else sent me into sneezing fits. But at that point (my teens and twenties) products other than colognes and perfumes didn’t cause a problem.

As I moved into my thirties and forties, more and more scented products began to “bother” me. During pregnancy, every smell caused me to gag but that’s considered par for the course – except that it didn’t entirely go away after my son was born. (Post-pregnancy was also when every member of the Allium family – onions, garlic, shallots and leeks – became pure poison to my digestive system, permanently.) Using any kind of scented hand lotion, sunscreen, or laundry detergent became a huge no-no because sniffles, congestion, headache, and coughing would immediately result. Getting older and getting more sensitive to scents definitely went hand-in-hand! I’d always been blessed/cursed with an overly keen sense of smell but it, and all my remaining sensitivities, went into hyperdrive during chemotherapy in the early 2000s and has remained that way. I guarantee that if you use lavender-scented laundry detergent or fabric softener and walk past me in a store, I’ll know it (and will also hold my breath, because that particular scent is especially problematic for me; I dearly wish it was not so popular!)

Anyway, through trial and error over the years, I’ve discovered a selection of personal and home care products that really are fragrance free. Perhaps you already use these, but others may be new to you and possibly worth a try.

Fragrance-Free Personal Care Products

We’re talking here about hair and skin care products (including sunscreen) because I can’t speak to makeup, having given up wearing any about 30 years ago; even when I did wear it, Clinique and Almay were the only brands tolerable. Of those two categories, hair care is the trickiest in which to find something that (a) is truly fragrance free, (b) doesn’t irritate the scalp, and (c) doesn’t make your hair look like something that a bird or small critter might use for nesting material. Perusal of the one- and two-star ratings of any given product on Amazon will show how variable people are in their reactions!

I apologize for starting off with a product that is a lot easier for my Australian and UK readers to get, than for anyone else – but my excuse is that it’s really, really good. It is made by Purist and was marketed under two brand names: Al’chemy and A’kin. The products – in this case the Unscented Very Gentle shampoo and conditioner – were the same under both labels. In the early 2000s they had ONE American distributor, out on the West Coast. Between the product cost and the shipping, it was expensive but worth it. Zero fragrance, not drying, and just basically amazing…until Purist stopped shipping to the USA. Yes, you can find it on Amazon nowadays if you want to pay $48 for a 16-oz bottle plus another $14 for shipping. Or on eBay for $24 plus $30 shipping to the USA from Australia. I still have two bottles that I use once in a while, just to eke them out. I will say that if you have soft water, this product will lather up and rinse out like a dream; but with moderately hard water, you won’t get as many suds per dollop and you’ll need to spend more time rinsing.

The product on the left (VMV Hypoallergenics Essence Hair and Body Shampoo) is currently the one I use regularly. It lathers acceptably in my fairly-hard water, and rinses clean without leaving my hair too dry. If you can get past the somewhat overenthusiastic “medical-ese” advertising prose, it’s a good product. Manufactured in the Philippines, and currently sells for around $26 on Amazon for the 500 ml/16.9 oz bottle.

The product on the right is one that I just recently tried, as a replacement for a product that has been discontinued entirely. Sometimes you just need a shampoo with a bit more ‘oomph’ after a dripping-sweat stint in the garden or to remove all traces of a hair product you wish you’d never tried. The discontinued one was Naturelle Hypo-allergenic Fragrance Free Shampoo. The DHS Clear Shampoo may be a workable substitute; so far so good although I’ve only used it once yet. Manufactured in the USA, and currently sells for around $17 for the 480 ml/16 oz bottle on Amazon.

This is my “splurge” shampoo because of the price: $15 for the 355 ml/12 oz bottle. Ouchy. Although apple cider vinegar is the fifth ingredient of fourteen, there is no vinegar smell at all. It also contains no SLS, which is unusual in a shampoo that lathers nicely in hard water; even some of the SLS-containing shampoos sometimes have trouble. Manufactured in Canada.

There are quite a few moisturizers on the market that claim to be fragrance-free, or have “no added fragrance”, but not many actually are. And sometimes a product is truly fragrance-free but either doesn’t moisturize enough, or does it too well and leaves skin feeling oily or slippery. These are the three products I’ve found that hit the mark on all three points, for my own skin at least.

These are my two ‘daily drivers’ but not for the same areas. The DML moisturizing lotion is for my face only; it’s light and absorbs quickly. It’s not heavy-duty enough for the rest of my body, though. It does not contain any parabens; the first three ingredients are purified water, petrolatum, and glycerin. The average price for the 480 ml/16 oz bottle on Amazon is $17; if ordering, pay attention to the bottle sizes because this comes in an 8-oz size as well.

The Cerave product is what I use elsewhere; it’s essentially the same price as the DML product for the same size bottle, give or take a dollar either way. This is a little heavier than the DML but absorbs in a minute or so. It does contain methylparaben (13th ingredient) and propylparaben (18th ingredient, of 23) though, if that is of concern to you.

This post really is not an ad for Person & Covey, honestly! But it is true that after trying literally every fragrance-free SP-50 sunscreen product currently on the market, this is the only one that also works on my skin. Yes, it is a chemical sunscreen which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve tried the mineral kinds (even by this same manufacturer) and they were all disastrous: Either irritated my skin, or didn’t work, or weren’t really fragrance free. Sometimes more than one of the above! The Solbar 50 is labeled as a cream but it goes on more like a lotion. It does absorb within a short time; no white mask. I burn easily but, in most instances, I will get two hours’ worth of screening (no water) from this, which is excellent, believe me. This product does have oxybenzone in it. The 4-oz bottle is $13 on Amazon.

The Alba Botanica Sport is a runner-up and is different enough to merit a mention. It too is completely fragrance free, and is also a chemical sunscreen although some of the ingredients and percentages differ from the Solbar 50; it is also rated slightly lower, at SP45. It has no oxybenzone. It is a very smooth silky cream that is thicker than the Solbar product and feels great when applied, but after removing this product my face feels drier than after washing off the Solbar – possibly because the Sport product takes more effort to remove. It is almost half the price of the Solbar product, at about $8 for the 4 oz tube on Amazon. I would wear something like this if I garden in the evening, when the sun is low and not as strong as earlier in the day.

It was always a real challenge to find a fragrance-free hand sanitizer, but the COVID-19 pandemic really blew things up bigtime! Suddenly my go-to Clorox Bleach-Free Hand Sanitizer (71% alcohol, glycerin, and water) was not available anywhere. I discovered this in the early 2000s after Sani-Hands stopped making their excellent individually-wrapped “for kids” wipes which were thick, moist and fragrance free. These little spray bottles are actually even better because they fit almost anywhere and there’s nothing to dispose of. It’s a liquid that dries fast and yet somehow manages to leave your hands smooth. The little cap fits tightly as extra insurance against leaks.

Until very recently the only other fragrance-free hand sanitizers were both gels: Dial Professional Fragrance-Free, and Purell Fragrance-Free. A newcomer to the market this year is from (who else?) Person & Covey, labeled as a “solution” rather than a gel. However, it is midway between a true liquid – which the Clorox product is – and a gel. The Dial and Purell products are both thicker than this. Unfortunately, none of these three come in a handy 2-oz spray. They are fine in a pinch but a 4-oz squeeze bottle isn’t very practical for on-the-go hand sanitizing.

Fragrance-Free Home Care Products

Happily, there are more fragrance-free options nowadays for getting your clothes and/or dishes clean than there used to be!

Dishwashing liquids really come down to a combination of your home’s water quality and your cooking style (“burnt offerings” being a special case!) but I’ve settled on these two brands as my go-to. The Nature’s Promise brand is found at Stop & Shop supermarkets in the northeast. The only difference I’ve found is that one is a little thicker than the other but as far as how well they clean, it’s a toss-up. Pricing is within a few cents of each other also, and so if one happens to be on sale, that’s the brand I’ll grab.

Although I have a dishwasher, I don’t use it very often. When I do, I found that the Free-and-Clear Seventh Generation tabs work better than the powder version, and are one of very few such products that have no fragrance at all. I’ve been using their laundry detergent ever since it first came on the market in the early 1990s, and have seen no reason to change although a couple of other brands have since come out with “free of” products. An upside to the Seventh Generation one is that it contains no optical brighteners or other extraneous chemicals that remain on your clothing even after it’s washed. Needless to say, I don’t use fabric softener either. It sudses well in hard water; a bit too well, actually, because in my front-loading HE washer I need to program in an extra rinse cycle even with using a minimal amount of detergent.

If you dislike the strong ammonia-based smell of Windex, and live in the Northeast, the ‘Nature’s Promise’ house brand at Stop & Shop supermarkets has a fragrance-free (and dye-free) alternative in their “Free From” line. I admit I had my doubts about this but was amazed to find that not only is it completely fragrance free but doesn’t ‘streak’ either. There are only four ingredients: Water, Ethanol, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Sodium Gluconate, and Tris (N-Hydroxyethyl) Hexahydrotriazine which according to the label makes this product 95% plant-based. Bye-bye, Windex!

As for other hard-surface cleaning, there really is no 100% fragrance-free option. In its simplest, easiest form – depending on the surface – there’s always good old 70% rubbing alcohol in a spray bottle. It can be used on solid-surface and engineered-quartz countertops and sinks, as well as porcelain bathroom fixtures like toilets and tubs. I’m not sure about granite or marble, never having had either, and I don’t know how it would affect the grout between tiles in a shower, because it’s been decades since I switched to solid-surface shower walls (see the Saga of the Six-Month Shower for an example). However, I’ve used a 50/50 mixture of 91% rubbing alcohol and water in a spray bottle to clean a grouted tile floor with no issues. This gives a net alcohol content of slightly less than 50% – it won’t disinfect but does clean. Straight 70% alcohol does both. Of course, if the smell of alcohol bothers you, this isn’t an option.

I recently learned about using a citric-acid-and-hot-water combo to clean hard water/soap residue from shower glass; it’s on my list of things to try. Supposedly this works better than using vinegar, which is even more nose-twitching than alcohol. If my amazingly successful test of using citric acid to de-scale an electric kettle is any indication, there should be no detectable scent from the  spray.

There is no such thing as a fragrance-free toilet bowl cleaner, unfortunately.  You’d think that if they can send a man to the moon…. *sigh*

Two Oddly-Safe (for me) Products

Okay, now we come to the two outliers that I use in spite of every other non-fragrance-free product being a huge problem. I have no idea why these two are ‘safe’!

If you are looking for a truly effective (yes, even against COVID-19) disinfectant that does not stink, either olfactorily (is that a word?) or in performance, this is what you want. It is also the ONLY non-chlorine disinfectant that will kill Serratia marcescens. This is the bacteria that creates a pink ring inside your toilet bowl, pet’s water dish, and anywhere else that is either constantly or chronically wet…like your shower floor, for example. Serratia is a close relative of Legionella, which everyone has heard of, and likewise thrives in water. The pink that you see is the colonies of millions of Serratia, each individual bacterium being pink and which also forms a biofilm. A 10% bleach solution, left in place for at least five minutes after pre-cleaning, will kill most of it, depending on the thickness of the biofilm, but it will also smell like a large swimming pool. If you don’t want to use bleach, your only other option is this quaternary disinfectant. It does not require pre-cleaning and will kill pretty much any virus or bacteria you can think of (look here under Efficacy if you’re curious) in a contact time ranging from 30 seconds to two minutes. SARS-COVID and Serratia are both in the 2-minute category. It is labeled as fragrance free but my bloodhound-like sniffer detects a very slight, very light, and very temporary soap-like scent best described as “what clean smells like.”

You will not find this in retail stores; I originally got mine from a medical supply company online. It’s considered a professional/commercial product, and if you’re in the healthcare industry you may already know about it. I see it’s now available on Amazon at about $13 for a 32-ounce spray bottle; you can also buy gallon refills, which are more cost-effective. Last year (pandemic Year One) it was out of stock everywhere. It has a 5-year shelf life but I stupidly had allowed my stash to get down to less than a gallon in late 2019. I sure won’t let THAT happen again!

Anyway, for some reason the soap-like and very transitory scent of this product doesn’t cause any problem for me. It is eminently workable, and if Clorox ever discontinues it, I will be mightily peeved!

And finally, this is the soap I use. It is not 100% fragrance-free, although the scent is extremely light and rinses off completely. I began using it in the 1970s on the advice of my dermatologist who suggested a glycerin soap for my sensitive skin. I didn’t care for Neutrogena (smelled like lemons to me) and then found this. When my son was born in the 1980s, this was the only soap that ever touched his – or my – skin, period. Twenty years later, Crabtree & Evelyn decided to discontinue it and I panicked. Every other soap on the market triggered my fragrance allergy, even the hard-milled Aloe Vera which C&E was still making at that time. A frantic call to their corporate headquarters in Connecticut resulted in them finding several cases of it still in stock at a retailer somewhere in the Midwest but absolutely nowhere else. I said I wanted them all, and the devil take the expense. Based on my current typical usage, I should have enough bars to last me until I’m 89 years old. Not kidding. It’s still the one and only soap that I use.

I have no idea why I’m not sensitive at all to this particular fragranced item, even though I’ve become so overly reactive to everything else. Maybe it’s because I have been using it every day of my life ever since the time when I was reacting to fewer products; perhaps my histamine receptors became de-sensitized to this one thing – much like the weekly allergy shots that I was given as a child were supposed to do (but didn’t, apparently.) ‘Tis a mystery!

Please do chime in with any fragrance-free products that have worked well for you. 😀

(To see which garden flowers are likewise safe bets for me, check out Scents and Sensitivity. The only difference is that nowadays, even white iris inside the house can be chancy, and white miniature narcissus have to be in another room instead of on my desk.)


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