Fragrance – the Mysterious Ingredient.
Does It Smell Like Safe?

Fragrance - the mysterious ingredient

The romantic ‘fragrance’ ingredient…Take a look at any cosmetic product or any other item you keep in your bathroom or under the kitchen sink. You’ll find ‘fragrance’ elegantly written on the label. It might also appear as ‘perfume’ or the seducing ‘aroma’. It smells like lemon, but is it truly? No one knows. Except for the manufacturer. The blend of chemicals creating that pleasant scent is usually strictly kept hidden from the consumer and protected by law as a trade secret! Fragrance ingredients may be produced by chemical synthesis or derived from petroleum. And it’s not as innocent as it might sound like.

The Regulation

It’s not that all scented products necessarily contain components that harm your health. But some of them may and do. I sourced at least 20 chemicals suspected or known to have a negative health impact. But there’s no point mentioning them since there’s no way for you to tell if they are in your personal care products or not. Unless you have a special device in your possession or use the services of a lab.

US legislation, as well as Canada’s, follow a policy of fragrance secrecy. Companies can choose not to label ingredients in fragrances and the law does not require any special approval before scented products go on the market. Instead, the industry appears to be self-regulating. Two institutions, the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) and the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM) set standards for chemicals in the “fragrance” component, as well as concentration limits. Ironically, the US, Canada, and Europe generally rely on those voluntary prescriptions and standards, and on IFRA and RIFM to identify ingredients for use in fragrance.

Does It Smell Like Safe?

EWG analysis has found that the fragrance industry has declared safety assessments for only 34% of the unlabeled ingredients. The rest 66% range from food additives whose safety in perfumes has not been verified to chemicals with limited to no public safety data such as synthetic musk fragrances. The latter can accumulate in the human body and may cause hormone disruption. Among the IFRA listed ‘fragrance’ ingredients there are potential carcinogens and substances causing organ system or reproductive toxicity.(1)  

In 2007, ‘fragrance’ was denounced by the American Contact Dermatitis Society as “Allergen of the Year.” Fragrance is also among the top five allergens in North America and European countries (de Groot 1997; Jansson 2001). Scientists consider it a possible cause for a wide range of skin, eye, and respiratory reactions.

Some fragrance ingredients form hazardous compounds when a reaction with air occurs. One of the most common components of fragrance in cosmetics, limonene, is a chemical that is also used as a solvent in cleaning products, sometimes showing up as “citrus oil.” While stored, on the shelf or in the warehouse, limonene breaks down to form potent sensitizers. A sad news for all fans of scented candles – candles often contain limonene in their ingredient list. Once in the air, it can react with ozone, both indoors and outdoors, to create hazardous pollutants such as formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and ultrafine particles. Some of them are carcinogens or can potentially cause asthma. Lavender oil component linalool and its derivatives form contact allergens when exposed to air. Storage and oxidation might cause geraniol, a rose oil component, to become more allergenic.(2)

Many companies choose to disclose fragrance ingredients. But even among the unveiled ones, there are hormone disruptors or chemical sensitizers that can trigger allergic reactions.

A number of personal care products are labeled as having “natural” or “organic” scent. However, the origin of a fragrance component doesn’t make it safer. Scents derived from natural substances, such as essential oils, can cause allergy or sensitivities that are no different from those inflicted by synthetic chemicals.

Another misconception is the word “Unscented”. Watch out! A product boosting such a label can contain fragrance, too, but it might be in a concentration to only mask the smell of other ingredients.

The Alternatives

The conclusion is, there is no way for you to be completely sure that your nice smelling cosmetic product doesn’t contain any toxic or harmful ingredients. Not with the current state of affairs. But at least try to do what is up to you. Vote with your dollars. Buy fragrance-free products. If a product doesn’t list the whole bunch of ingredients but conceals an unknown number of them in the “fragrance” secret, just don’t buy it. Look for products prominently labeled as “fragrance-free”. Here I list some of the brands I choose to trust:

If you are addicted to your perfume or body spray and want to keep it, then remove from your beautifying collection as many other scented products as possible.

There are companies (more than 200) fully disclosing all the ingredients as part of their commitment to the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, a pledge of safety and transparency. Support them in their good deed.

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