Have you ever flipped over your bottle of shampoo, deodorant, laundry detergent, or lotion to find the ever-elusive ingredient listed as “fragrance”? If not, I challenge you to walk, if not run, to your kitchen or bathroom and take a good look at what you have sitting in your cabinets and under your sinks. Chances are, you will find this catch-all term “fragrance” sitting there silently, yet most likely, doing you harm.
Fragrance may be found in – lotions and serums, hair products, cosmetics, dryer sheets, cleaners, candles, air fresheners, wax melts, deodorants, soaps, sunscreens, and of course perfumes and body sprays – to name a few.
What do you mean, loophole?
The term “fragrance” acts as a loophole to the FDA’s (Federal Drug Administration) labeling requirements for personal care products. Ingredients added to provide a pleasant scent, or to mask a bad one, need only be listed under the generic term “fragrance.” According to the FDA, “fragrance and flavor ingredients do not need to be listed individually on cosmetic labels, because they are the ingredients most likely to be “trade secrets.” Instead, they may be listed simply as “fragrance” or “flavor””. This is part of the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1966. Yes, you read correctly – 1966. It’s safe to say an update is long overdue. The Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates household items such as laundry detergents, fabric softeners, dryer sheets, and room and carpet fresheners among other items. And guess what? The “fragrance” term still applies.
“Fragrance” – The Chemical Catchall
These chemicals dubbed “fragrance” may be added to products for a variety of reasons including to make sure a spray disperses well or that a scent lingers longer. The problem? When you see “fragrance” or “parfum” listed on an ingredient label, you are actually reading a blanket term that covers over 3,000 possible ingredients. This unidentified mixture of chemicals can include suspected carcinogens, allergens, respiratory irritants, and endocrine disruptors among others. Independent laboratory testing by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics revealed the average fragrance product contains approximately 14 undisclosed chemicals which are not listed on the label. While the European Union has banned many of these chemicals, they remain widely unregulated in the United States.
In the EWG (Environmental Working Group) report Not Too Pretty, over 75 percent of tested products containing the ingredient “fragrance” were found to contain phthalates. Among them – diethyl phthalate – an eye, skin, and respiratory tract irritant which has also been linked to hormone disruption in some studies. A later report, A Little Prettier, showed that phthalate levels had dropped in some, but not all, of the products previously tested. Years of research suggest that phthalates disrupt hormones and have been linked to diabetes, obesity, birth defects, breast cancer, thyroid irregularities, and autism among others.
Other chemicals listed as fragrance may include, but not be limited to:
Acetaldehyde – potentially carcinogenic to humans
Benzophenone – endocrine disruptor linked to liver tumors
Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) – listed as a carcinogen by California’s Prop 65 and classified as an endocrine disruptor by the European Commission
Dichloromethane (methylene chloride) – linked to mammary gland tumors
Formaldehyde – known human carcinogen, banned in cosmetics and toiletries in some countries
Propyl Paraben (propyl p-hydroxybenzoate) – linked to breast cancer
Resorcinol – In higher doses it is toxic and can disrupt the function of the central nervous system and lead to respiratory problems. It has also been shown to disrupt the endocrine system, specifically thyroid function and is restricted in all types of cosmetics in Japan.
Styrene – styrene acrylates copolymer is added to some cosmetics for color and can be potentially contaminated with styrene, a possible carcinogen
Synthetic Musks (tonalide, galaxolide, musk ketone, musk xylene) – highly bioaccumulative and have been detected in breast milk, body fat, and cord blood of newborn babies; studies link these compounds to hormone disruption and to be reproductive, developmental, and organ system toxicants
Titanium Dioxide – inhalation can lead to lung and respiratory system damage, listed as carcinogenic on California’s Prop 65; listed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a possible human carcinogen
1,4-Dioxane – a by-product of a process to make other chemicals less harsh, and because it is produced during the manufacturing process, the FDA does not require it to be listed as an ingredient on product labels; “reasonably anticipated” to be carcinogenic to humans by the National Toxicology Program
Even though the FDA is the agency responsible for regulating cosmetics, their website states the agency cannot legally require companies to warn of allergens in cosmetic products as they do with foods.
“Synthetic” is often associated with “cheap” or “cost-effective”, and this is no exception in the world of fragrances. As with many things, it all comes down to the dollar. The fragrance loophole protects companies from having to disclose potentially proprietary information at the risk of others capitalizing on their products; while it is also typically cheaper to make a synthetic fragrance as opposed to a natural one. Even a “fragrance-free” product can have chemicals added to mask the smell of other ingredients. And remember, according to the FDA any ingredient used to provide a pleasant scent, or to mask a bad one, need only be listed under the generic term “fragrance.”
You wouldn’t lather yourself in gasoline daily and expect no consequences, so why would you apply petrolatum-derived products to you skin and expect nothing to come of it? Little by little these things add up. Petrolatum is a by-product of petroleum refining and while the United States sets no requirement for refinement; the European Union mandates that for cosmetic use, the full refining history of the petrolatum must be known and proven to be non-carcinogenic.
So what about our skin?
Our skin is our body’s largest organ and protective barrier with an average surface area of 2 square meters. Although systemic absorption rates into the blood stream vary and can be affected by several factors – one thing is certain – the skin is not impermeable. If the skin wasn’t able to absorb molecules, we wouldn’t have an entire industry of topical pharmaceuticals in the form of gels, creams, lotions, and transdermal patches. Just like the rest of our body, our skin is made up of living cells which are susceptible to chemical pollutants.
Chemical Body Burden
It’s the additive impact of hazardous chemicals over time that leads to eventual adverse effects or illness, not necessarily any one exposure in particular. Biomonitoring of the body’s chemical burden is a growing trend, looking at the accumulation of synthetic chemicals in bodily tissues and fluids. One alarming study discovered 287 different chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of newborns, with 180 of those being carcinogenic in humans or animals, 217 being toxic to the brain and nervous system, and 208 causing birth defects or abnormal development in animal tests.
What can we do?
According to a survey conducted by EWG, “the average adult uses 9 personal care products each day, with 126 unique chemical ingredients. More than a quarter of all women and one of every 100 men use at least 15 products daily.”
While it’s impossible to avoid exposure to all carcinogenic chemicals and substances, it is important to focus on limiting your exposure to the things that are in your control.
A Few Suggestions:
Avoid or limit exposure to products containing the ingredient “fragrance” or “parfum”
Avoid products containing petrolatum, unless the company clearly indicates the petrolatum is fully refined as white petrolatum (on the label or their company website).
Avoid any product containing phthalate, DEP, DBP, or DEHP as an ingredient.
Download the Think Dirty® app to learn the ingredients in your beauty, personal care and household products. You can simply search for a product or scan the product barcode to receive easy-to-understand info on the product, its ingredients, and cleaner options.
Consider using essential oils, diffuser sticks, or DIY room sprays when looking for a scent.
Use wool dryer balls instead of dryer sheets. Yes, avoid even those that are listed as “fragrance-free”.
Look for a natural laundry detergent scented with essential oils, avoiding synthetic ingredients.
Avoid burning candles. Tough, I know! Beeswax candles are considered less toxic by many, but any type of combustion still causes some level of particulate pollution in the home over time, and especially when burning a synthetic fragrance.
Heavy fragrance users seem to become more tolerant of synthetic fragrances over time. However, when you begin weeding out these synthetic chemicals you become increasingly more sensitive to the “chemical” smell. I know this has become very true for me, as I have begun detoxing many of the chemical-ridden products I was using on a daily basis. Perfection is not the goal, but rather progress!
Live well, by design.