© Photo Floriana

The More in ‘Less is More’ – On the Culture of ‘Free From’ Products

It is hardly surprising that cosmetic manufacturers have given up on alcohol, parabens and aluminum as ingredients for their products. There is ample medical evidence supporting this. However, they are also increasingly promoting them as ‘free from perfume’ – the very feature which used to be the quintessential means of differentiation. Where does the sudden sobriety come from? Our author Dr. Bodo Kubartz interprets it as a trend to valuing the ‘more in less’.

Simplicity, clarity, deceleration. These emerging customer desires are detectable in many areas, reflected in product design, consumer decision-making, lifestyles and basic orientations. Applying a ‘less is more’ philosophy, the less relates to brands and customer acquisition, product-specific or general. The concept is usually communicated in visual and tactile form, with a tangibly manifest purism. The needs of consumers along these lines are now being accommodated in many areas of life, such as perfume-free products – the subject of the examination below.

Stripping the structure, dissipating the fragrance

Substantive reduction has come to be expressed in a large variety of forms. Products once quintessential in terms of sensual experienceability are following this trend – products which were given a distinctive olfactory element to generate greater attention and create differentiation such as household, personal care, skin and body care products, shower gels, shampoos and bath products. But olfactory differentiation is falling somewhat out of favor in many quarters. The British brand Green People offers fragrance-free skin, body, hair and sun care products as part of its portfolio. The brand Muji has a skin care product line specially designed for the needs of people with skin sensitivities. The skin is a site of confrontation and retreat for the self-empowered consumer who says “I determine myself what touches my skin”, in this case wanting more of the less.

The trend toward reducing olfactory stimuli in one’s environment has been picked up on by Febreze, a prominent manufacturer of fragrant products, which now offers a no-fragrance ‘fabric refreshener’ with the same functionality as before, simply omitting the perfume element. The product version is geared toward people sensitive to fragrances (rather than skin-sensitive people), having no effect on air smell.

The fragrance L’Eau Serge Lutens launched in 2010 by the Serge Lutens perfume brand provides an exceptional example of how a rethinking of the olfactory is being propagated and communicated. In an interview, perfume curator and aesthete Mr. Lutens himself related: “I had the idea of creating an ‘anti-perfume’ with a sensuousness that surrounds the wearer with a lasting aura of ‘purity’ rather than giving off a conventional scent. This represents a reaction against our over-perfumed world in which the original reason for wearing a fragrance – seduction – has been forgotten, putting it on now being an automatic exercise, as Lutens pointed out, adding:” A scent can help open up contact to what people have inside.” In response to the question, “Does this ‘eau’, like your other scents, have something literary about it?” Lutens responded: “Yes, it’s a blank page.” Quite a beguiling metaphor.

Having clearly recognized the trend, manufacturers of typically scented products are giving customers what they want: fragrance-free versions of deodorants, cosmetic and hair care products, ambient fragrances and functional fragrances that were already being marketed as free of parabens, alcohol and aluminum. Whence the newfound sobriety? In today’s stimuli-flooded world, this trend appears as a way to control one’s surroundings as a mode of self-expression.


Parfum-organ in Grasse © Photo Flickr Taco Ekkel 

Free to‘ and ‘free from

Consumers want and are demanding fragrance-free products. But what is behind this personal choosing of simplicity? Fragrance-free products have always been around – they are by no means new. However, perfumed products are significantly more prevalent, and more often marketed as scented, today than was once the case. Leaving out certain substances, including fragrances, represents a reactionary counter-trend in which products without added fragrance are perceived as tidier, more austere, perhaps even cleaner and more natural. Fragrance-free products have to do with freedom, and with the distinction between ‘freedom to‘ do something and ‘freedom from‘ something.

Perfumes in products have always functioned to anchor recognition, reliability or other marketed qualities of a brand, product or product group. Fragrance is generally linked with product functionality: a high-tech product smells different from a natural product; an anti-aging product smells different from aftershave. Thus doing away with the fragrance component in products represents a substantive reduction and license for the consumer to do with a product as he or she chooses as a sort of emancipation from the manufacturer’s agenda. The customer is freer to choose when scent is taken out of the equation as a relevant criterion.

Adding fragrances has always had to do with imparting associations of wellness or other notions aimed at promoting sales or customer retention. Perfumes are usually added to products to make their application more pleasant in general and more sensuously enjoyable than competitors’ products, the pleasant fragrance enhancing one’s feelings of well-being. Special and unique brands have been built from fragrances, but now fragrance-free products come along, releasing the consumer from this anchor or olfactory control instance, leaving the consumer freer in his or her sensual perception from outside dictates (free from). Manufacturers are responding to changing customer preferences, sacrificing the olfactory marketing element in granting consumers greater independence as part of a generally greater flexibility and openness regarding customer issues and requests.

Consumer protection and safety laws for molecules

Consumer protection and safety are of concern with perfumed products, as these may trigger allergies, necessitating consumer protection accordingly. Affected individuals avoid perfumed products either on their own or because of a doctor’s recommendation. There are 26 substances – some natural, some synthetic – which are believed to potentially cause allergic reactions when used in and as perfumes. Separate disclosure of these is required in labeling. Depending on the concentration within a formula, the duration of application and the individual user’s sensibility, substances may have an irritating or other allergic side effect.

In 1997 the EU formed the SCCNFP, a scientific advisory body tasked with intensively studying and making recommendations on issues of health and safety, which in 2003 published a list citing the aforementioned 26 substances. The Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS), which took over the former committee’s function, has identified further substances which are being studied as potentially causing contact allergies of varying intensity, possibly adding 80-120 more to the list. Extensive work will be required however, as there are many different stakeholders with differing interests involved in the process (researchers, businesses, lobbyists, politicians), all with various ideas of what parameters should be applied before making a decision. Debate over fragrances is part of a larger fundamental debate over how much regulation is necessary and instrumental.


INCI-classification – supposed transparency © Photo Renate90

Transparency and public trust

Transparency – a proven means to ensure consumer protection – would afford greater freedom in the sense noted above. While with fragrance-free products an element is taken out, transparency is about open communication of what is still in a product. In 1997 all EU member states and other countries adopted the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI). In labeling, ingredients are stated by content percentage in descending order, but the absolute meaning of the word “perfume” itself remains elusive. Perfume-free product buyers avoid the implications of this ambiguity, being able to rely simply on the labeling. And manufacturing transparency is on the march generally nowadays, with more and more disclosure offered of how, where and by whom a product is made. Transparency is thus the means to the ends of simplicity, clarity and deceleration … to the ‘more’ hidden in the ‘less’.