I recently stayed in a vacation rental and the second I walked into the bedroom, I was hit with a wave of laundry detergent smell emanating from the bedding. I’m guessing the fragrance was called something like “fresh ocean breeze” or “springtime linen,” but to me it smelled like a headache. I feel sick when exposed to synthetic fragrances for more than a few minutes. There was no way I could sleep in this!
I pulled off all the bedding and used my own sleeping bag and pillows that I happened to have in my car. After re-outfitting the bed, I thoroughly washed my hands, as the detergent smell easily transfers to skin, hair, and clothes. “Fresh ocean breeze” isn’t just a scent, it’s a cocktail of chemicals under an ingredient called “fragrance,” and there’s no guarantee these chemicals are all safe.
What Does Fragrance Mean in Ingredients?
People have been using perfumes for thousands of years. But today, the ingredients in scented products are a far cry from what was used in the past.
“Fragrance” or “parfum” is a vague term commonly seen on product labels. It refers to scented ingredients added to many home and personal care products such as laundry detergent, fabric softener, body wash, shampoo, makeup, cleaning products, air fresheners, candles, and so on.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration defines fragrance as “any natural or synthetic substance or substances used solely to impart an odor to a cosmetic product.” Most fragrances are made of a mixture of dozens or even hundreds of primarily synthetic chemicals derived from petroleum. According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, the term “fragrance” can refer to the scented chemicals plus “solvents, stabilizers, UV-absorbers, preservatives, and dyes” that are considered part of the fragrance, and thus may not be listed separately on product labels.
It’s not a small selection of mystery ingredients that may be in fragranced products; every five years, the International Fragrance Association releases a list of all reported ingredients that companies use in fragrance compounds globally. In 2022, the IFRA Transparency List included 3,224 fragrance ingredients and 395 functional ingredients. The actual number may be much higher, as these are only the ingredients disclosed voluntarily.
Some brands use essential oils to scent their products. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics notes that while these ingredients are naturally derived, some can be allergens or irritants. Each essential oil has different properties, and not all of them are well-studied. Here’s a helpful essential oil safety guide from Popular Science.
Why Aren’t Fragrance Ingredients Disclosed?
It’s hard for consumers to know what exactly is in fragrance because of the lack of transparency on product labels. According to the U.S. FDA, it’s legal for companies to protect their exact fragrance ingredients as a trade secret, so they are only required to list that there is fragrance on product labels. Laws in Canada and the European Union are similar.
This naming convention was developed by the International Nomenclature for Cosmetic Ingredients. “Under this naming convention, components of a fragrance can be listed as individual ingredients or can be listed under the term ‘parfum’ (in the E.U. and Canada) or ‘fragrance’ (in the U.S.),” according to Health Canada.
The European Union follows this convention but is a little stricter. Common fragrance ingredients in cosmetics that are known allergens must be specifically named on labels. There are currently 26 ingredients on this list but it may soon expand to include 82.
Note that this fragrance labeling applies to cosmetics, a category applied to a wide range of products. Here is the U.S. legal definition for cosmetics, which is similar to that of Canada and the E.U.: “Articles intended to be applied to the human body for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance without affecting the body’s structure or functions.”
Labeling requirements for other commonly fragranced products, such as cleaning products and candles, are even less strict in many countries because these products are not meant to be applied to your body. In the U.S. and Canada, for instance, companies are not required to list any ingredients unless they are known to pose an immediate hazard (and, as you’ll read below, there is a lot that’s unknown about chemicals for home and personal use).
Are Fragrances Safe to Use?
Well, that depends. Studies show that some fragrance ingredients are allergens, immune toxicants, endocrine disruptors, or carcinogens (substances capable of causing cancer). Some fragrances are responsible for dermatitis, migraines, asthma, gastric distress, or other conditions… the list goes on.
In the U.S., fragrances in personal care products are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration as cosmetics, but are not actually tested or approved due to their external rather than internal use. These ingredients are legally supposed to be safe when used as intended, but the responsibility for safety is left up to the manufacturer. Here is what the FDA says about cosmetics:
“Neither the law nor FDA regulations require specific tests to demonstrate the safety of individual products or ingredients. The law also does not require cosmetic companies to share their safety information with FDA.”
Canadian fragrance laws are similar to those in the U.S. and the industry is mostly self-regulating, according to the Canadian government.
When it comes to cleaning products, U.S.-based consumer advocate Sloan Barnett thinks that “manufacturers don’t want to scare off consumers by disclosing how many potentially harmful chemicals are flying under the EPA’s radar in their products,” according to Scientific American. “The fact is that the government has no idea whether most of the chemicals used in everyday cleaning products are safe because it doesn’t test them, and it doesn’t require manufacturers to test them either,” Barnett said.
Fragrance industry proponents say that even hazardous chemicals can be safe to use in small doses. But there are so many unknowns about how even small exposures may add up over time, or how different chemicals may combine to create a larger effect on the human body.
A good film to watch on this subject is the documentary Stink!, which is now available for free on YouTube. The film’s director, Jon Whelan, often talks about the “fragrance loophole.” “If you see the word ‘fragrance’ in the ingredient list then don’t buy it; [companies are] trying to fool you,” he wrote on the Stink! blog.
Are Fragrances Safe for the Environment?
The environmental impacts of fragrances haven’t been studied nearly enough, but existing research does show that these chemicals pollute air and water.
Fragrances are persistent air pollutants because they’re designed to vaporize (so people can smell them!). A 2018 study by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that scented products contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that cause a concerning amount of air pollution. Specifically regarding laundry products, another study noted that “emissions from dryer vents, during the use of fragranced laundry products, contain numerous VOCs that affect outdoor air quality, such as acetaldehyde, a hazardous air pollutant.” Acetaldehyde is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a carcinogen.
Fragrances also pollute waterways, particularly when wastewater is discharged into the environment. Italian researchers, for instance, found that many long-lasting fragrance ingredients were present in the Venice lagoon. In a U.S. drinking water plant, scientists found that synthetic fragrance ingredients were present in drinking water even after treatment. These compounds were also present in the surface waters of the nearby Iowa River, one of countless waterways that receives treated wastewater.
We don’t truly know all of the health and environmental impacts of fragrances, even though many of us use fragranced products every day.
How to Avoid Fragrances
When it comes to fragrances, it’s better to be on the safe side and minimize exposure. Here are a few tips:
1. Read the ingredients
Be aware that if a product is marketed as “unscented” or “fragrance free,” this isn’t a guarantee that the product doesn’t contain undisclosed scented ingredients. (Confusing, right?) Some manufacturers add scent to neutralize or mask potentially unpleasant odors from other ingredients. It’s necessary to actually read the ingredients list, and if “fragrance” or another ambiguous term such as “perfume,” “parfum,” or “aroma,” is listed, try another product. Or, consider doing some research — sometimes on the brand’s website they’ll disclose more information about their exact fragrance ingredients.
2. Find safer products on the Environmental Working Group’s site
The EWG is a nonprofit that builds “consumer guides to help you learn about the hidden health dangers in your food, water and everyday products to make better decisions.” You can search for safer household and personal care products on their website.
3. Skip the product
There are some heavily fragranced products you can skip altogether: check out My Green Closet’s article, “Why You Should Stop Using Fabric Softeners & Dryer Sheets.” By streamlining the products you use regularly, you will not only save money but will also expose yourself to fewer chemicals.
4. Wear protective gear
When working with fragranced cleaning products, consider wearing a mask and gloves to limit exposure.
5. Get some house plants
Did you know many common houseplants help filter indoor air? A NASA study on three common pollutants — benzene, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene, which are often found in fragrances — found that certain house plants such as Pothos and Peace Lily are excellent air purifiers. Another great excuse to fill your house with plants!
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