Fragrance is a gift of God, as long as it comes from nature, e.g. a rose, a broken egg, the seashore, a fart, a lemon, a thunderstorm, a mint leaf, a freshly plowed field, or freshly mown hay, and those fragrances never do us harm. But then synthetically manufactured “fragrances” also pervade our home and personal care products, e.g. SC Johnson’s Pledge Lemon Clean Furniture Spray, which ingredients include “fragrance”: butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT); citral; citronellal; citronellol; dipropylene glycol; geraniol; nerol; p-mentha-1,4-diene; terpenes and terpenoids, lemon-oil; terpenes and terpenoids, sweet orange-oil. And Avon’s Senses Vanilla Body Lotion contains “Parfum/Fragrance” in its list of 24 ingredients plus water. (But what is in that Parfum/Fragrance? Not a word.)
Many if not most home and personal care products contain “fragrance,” including sunscreen, shampoo, soap, body wash, deodorant, dryer sheets, air fresheners, fabric softeners, cleaning products, scented candles, body lotion, makeup, facial cream, skin toner, serums, exfoliating scrubs and perfume.1 Fragrance is defined by the FDA as a combination of chemicals that gives each perfume or cologne (including those used in other products) its distinct scent.
Dozens of children’s bath products have been found to contain chemicals that cause cancer in lab animals and are classified as probable human carcinogens. The companies argue that each product contains just low levels of these toxins—but there shouldn’t be any carcinogens in baby shampoo at all. Period.
When manufacturers list ingredients of a product, they may use the term “fragrance,” a term entirely free of government oversight and safety regulations, which means that when you see “fragrance” on a product label, it does not refer to a single ingredient, but likely dozens of chemicals in combination. Those chemicals may be natural, but not usually, or more predominantly petrochemically derived, e.g. benzene derivatives, aldehydes and phthalates.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency classifies benzene as a Class A carcinogen.2 One of the aldehydes, formaldehyde is classified by OSHA as a human carcinogen. Short-term exposure to formaldehyde can be fatal. Long-term exposure to low levels of formaldehyde may cause respiratory difficulty, eczema, and sensitization. As CBS reported, “Phthalates are so ubiquitous, we all have traces in our bodies. … The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, put phthalates on a list of chemicals that ‘may present a risk’ to the environment or human health. That’s because they disrupt hormone activity and some preliminary studies show that they may be causing a slow and steady demasculinizing of men.”
If we purchase a product that lists fragrance as one of the ingredients, we have no way of knowing how many chemicals reside within, or how those chemicals might interact with each other. Many of the chemicals are increasingly linked to chronic health conditions.
The International Fragrance Association (IFRA) lists 3,059 materials that are reported as being used in fragrance compounds. Of these 3,059 ingredients, some have evidence linking them to health effects including cancer, reproductive toxicity, allergies and sensitivities. Of these, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics lists 23 by common name that are of health concerns. (Under Health Concerns, click on More) That site is also informative on the problem of fragrance in home and health care products.
You may be surprised to know that legislation put in place in the U.S. in 1976 — a measure called the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) — has perhaps done more harm than good in terms of regulating the chemicals used in products that you use daily. Notably,
- TSCA grandfathered in some 80,000 chemicals that are ready available and can be easily incorporated into all kinds of consumer products manufactured and sold in the U.S.
- Certain substances are generally excluded from TSCA, including, among others, food, drugs, cosmetics and pesticides.
So, what can we do to protect ourselves from Big Fragrance Brothers and our government who are failing to regulate them?
- Read the label! If the ingredients include fragrance, perfume, or parfum, leave it on the shelf or discard it if it is already in our home.
- Opt for Fragrance Free on the label. Unscented or Scent Free may well include fragrance to cover up odors.
- Evaluate a proposed product against the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic database, by product, ingredient or company
- Find safer alternatives.
- Read the myths on cosmetics safety.
- Take time to read what I’ve written here.
- Watch Annie Leonard’s The Story of Cosmetics or read the annotated script.
- Download the Think Dirty® app to your phone. Scan the product barcode in your bathroom or store, and Think Dirty will give you easy-to-understand info on the product, its ingredients, and shop cleaner options!
- Question yourself, “Do I really need this product?” “Might my health be better without it?”
- Forward this blog to those you love.