Go to your bathroom and look at the labels on your lotion, perfume, body wash, shampoo and bathroom spray. Does it say fragrance on the label? Have you ever wondered WTF that means? What ingredients are in this mysterious fragrance? Well, it turns out that there may be a good reason that companies don’t want to list exactly what’s in “fragrance.”
What’s in a fragrance?
According to the Environmental Working Group, the average fragrant contains about 14 secret chemicals that aren’t listed on the label, many of which are linked to hormone disruption and allergic reactions, as well as about 80 percent of them not being tested for human safety in personal care products.
You may be wondering how this could even be allowed in the first place. Fragrance acts as a loophole on the FDA’s regulation of personal care products. They are considered a trade secret under the Fair Package and Labeling act of 1966, allowing companies to not list ingredients so their formula cannot be replicated easily. Unfortunately, this gives brands an opportunity to add in cost effective, but toxic, chemicals to their products to make a scent that is “better” than natural. But chemically unrecognizable to a naturally occurring scent. They use these chemicals to make sure the spray disperses well and so it lingers for longer, giving the desired effect of perfume and body spray. But at what cost?
What are the health effects of fragrance?
When a product is sprayed into the air, it doesn’t just affect the person that sprayed it, but can cause many problems for other people around. It can throw their bodies into a frenzy of reactive behavior and trigger migraines, allergy symptoms, asthma, chronic lung disease and other health conditions. And even if people do not have immediate symptoms from these chemicals, due to the lack of testing these chemicals, we don’t actually know the long-term effects of spraying or rubbing them on our highly sensitive skin every single day. Perfumes are not the only culprit; these effects can come from furniture, adhesives, cleaning supplies, paints, and even paper.
EWG found that about 75 percent of products that list fragrance contain the hormone disrupting chemical, phthalates. Phthalates, used to make fragrances last longer, have been linked to many hazardous health conditions, such as reduced sperm count, liver and breast cancers, reproductive malformation and diabetes. This carcinogen has been banned in many countries (EU, Japan, South Korea, Canada, even China), but our government sets such an intense level of proven harm for these chemicals that some say it’s almost impossible to reach. Companies voluntarily comply with many safety standards, but the current law does not require that cosmetic ingredients be free of certain harmful health effects before they are put on the shelves. Even is a chemical is finally put on the chopping block, it can take years for the government to be able to phase out the chemical with the help of the Environmental Protection Agency.
How can we protect ourselves?
Like with many other personal product worries, it’s up to us to protect ourselves. The main, and easiest, strategy is to check the labels on the products you buy. To be safe, you want to avoid any product that simply labels “Fragrance” with no other explanation. Some companies list the exact ingredients in parentheses next to the word fragrance, to see how toxic they are, you can enter them into the EWG’s Skin Deep database and see the hazard level. Some products may say “Fragrance-free”, “unscented” or “free and clear”, but be careful here as well. Many times these phrases mean that they just contain a chemical that masks the scent of other chemical ingredients. The very best option is to only use products that use essential oils and herbs, and maybe natural fragrance, to create their scented products. You can also make them yourself, like these awesome product recipes from Coconut Mama. You can even avoid scents all together and rely on your own awesome natural scent, often found more attractive anyway.
Non-profits like Breast Cancer Prevention Partners and Women’s Voices For The Earth are at the forefront of the TSCA debate and continue to urge the house and the senate towards chemicals policy reform so we can make breast cancer, and other cancers, a public health priority. Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is another organization that is bringing the demand for safer cosmetics to Congress by forming petitions, hosting events, and leading grassroots efforts for change. There is hope for a safer cosmetic future, but we have to make it a priority in our cities, counties and states that lawmakers can no longer ignore.
Until we can get the government to regulate these chemicals and stop allowing companies to be able to omit them from labels (and we’ll keep trying), one thing we can do is spread the word to our friends and family and always take the initiative to look out for our own well-being.