Fragrance: What You Need to Know

Fragrance

What’s that smell? Unfortunately, there’s no way to know. “Fragrance” is considered a trade secret by law, so companies are not required to disclose the chemical components that add scent to a wide range of personal care products. According to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database, an estimated 80% of products – everything from colognes and body sprays, to shampoos, deodorants, and even make-up – contain fragrance. Even “unscented” products may contain masking fragrances, which are chemicals used to cover up the odor of other chemicals.

What’s Really in the Bottle?

Some hidden hazards that may be lurking in products that contain synthetic fragrance include:

Allergens and Sensitizers

One in every 50 people may suffer immune system damage from fragrance and become sensitized, according to the EU’s Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products and Non-food Products. Once sensitized to an ingredient, a person can remain so for a lifetime, enduring allergic reactions with every subsequent exposure. Fragrances are considered to be among the top five known allergens and are known to both cause and trigger asthma attacks. Product tests conducted by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in 2010 revealed an average of 10 sensitizers in each fragrance tested.

Phthalates

This class of chemicals has been linked to hormone disruption, which can affect development and fertility. Although some phthalates are being phased out of cosmetics under consumer pressure, diethyl phthalate (DEP) is still used in many products, including fragrance. In 2010, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found DEP in 12 of 17 fragrance products tested for our report, “Not So Sexy.” Product tests conducted by Consumer Reports ShopSmart magazine in January 2007 found the phthalates DEP and DEHP (which is banned in Europe) in each of eight popular perfumes tested. DEP is a ubiquitous pollutant of the human body, found in 97 percent of Americans tested by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recent epidemiological studies have associated DEP with a range of health problems, including sperm damage in men. Most fragrances don’t list phthalates on the label, but hide them under the term, “fragrance.”

Neurotoxins

As far back as 1986, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences identified fragrance ingredients as one of six categories of neurotoxins (chemicals that are toxic to the brain) that should be thoroughly investigated for impacts on human health. However, this research has not been demanded or funded. The FDA has taken no action on a petition submitted to the agency in 1999 requesting fragrance components to be listed on labels.

Synthetic Musks

2009 study of Austrian college students found that those who used the most perfume and scented lotion also had the highest levels of synthetic musks, including Galaxolide and Tonalide, in their blood. Research by the Environmental Working Group has even found synthetic musks in the umbilical cord blood of newborn U.S. infants. Preliminary research suggests that musks may disrupt hormones. Both Galaxolide and Tonalide can bind to and stimulate human estrogen receptors and have been shown to affect androgen and progesterone receptors. Tonalide has also been reported to increase the proliferation of estrogen-responsive human breast cancer cells. These musks have an environmental impact – they have been found to be toxic to aquatic life in numerous studies and can accumulate in the food chain.

What You Can Do

  1. Choose products with no added fragrance: Use the Skin Deep advanced search to find products that do not include fragrance. Read ingredient labels, because even products advertised as “fragrance-free” may contain a masking fragrance.
  2. Less is better: If you are very attached to your fragrance, consider eliminating other fragranced products from your routine, and using fragrance less often.
  3. Help pass smarter, health-protective laws: Sign our petition to Congress to voice your support! Buying safer, fragrance-free products is a great start, but we can’t just shop our way out of this problem. In order for safer products to be widely available and affordable for everyone, we must pass laws that shift the entire industry to non-toxic ingredients and safer production.
  4. Sign on to our letter to the celebrities whose fragrances we tested – Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, Halle Berry and Miley Cyrus – and ask them to show their true leadership by taking a stand against toxic chemicals in personal care products, beginning with their own fragrance lines. You can also contact other cosmetics companies to ask them to disclose their fragrance ingredients. We’ve put together talking points to get you started.
  5. Support companies that fully disclose ingredients in their products.

More Information

Report: “Not So Sexy” (2010)
Report: “A Little Prettier” (2008) 
Report: “Not Too Pretty” (2002)
Science: Synthetic musks
Science: Phthalates
Skin Deep product search: Fragrance-free cosmetics
Skin Deep topic: Fragrance
Research: Studies on the toxicity of fragrance cited in Pub Med
Beyond perfume: Fragrance in cleaning products

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  • JJ

    Also ask your employer to make a policy to not allow fragrance in the work place. That will help to protect you and spread the awareness to others that fragrances are toxic chemicals.