For more information, see "Not So Sexy: The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrance" (2010).
What are the direct health effects of fragrance use?
Do the low doses of toxic chemicals found in these fragrances matter?
What are the worst chemicals found in this study?
Why do colognes and male body sprays contain chemicals linked to sperm damage?
What should consumers do?
How were the fragrances analyzed for the “Not So Sexy” report?
Did the lab identify all the chemicals in these products?
Can this report be used to determine which of these fragrances is most dangerous?
Are “natural fragrances” any safer?
Q: What are the direct health effects of fragrance use?
A: The most visible short term effects are allergic reactions and sensitization, which are reported by many people exposed to fragrances. Fragrances analyzed for this study contained an average of 10 sensitizing chemicals each – chemicals that can trigger allergic reactions including asthma, headaches, chest tightening, wheezing and contact dermatitis such as swelling and rashes.
Many of the chemicals found in this analysis are also associated with long-term health effects including infertility, obesity, thyroid malfunction and cancer. On May 6, 2010, the President’s Cancer Panel report, Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now, sounded the alarm over the cancer risk posed by the largely unregulated toxic chemicals used by millions of Americans in their daily lives. The President's Cancer Panel recommends that pregnant women and couples planning to become pregnant avoid exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals due to cancer concerns. Hormone disruptors that may play a role in cancer were found in many of the fragrances analyzed for this study.
For example, Halle by Halle Berry, Quicksilver and Glow by JLO contained seven different hormone-disrupting chemicals. In each product, six of these chemicals mimic the hormone estrogen, and the seventh is associated with thyroid effects. Synthetic estrogens are a concern because higher estrogen exposures throughout a woman's life increase her risk of breast cancer.
Q: Do the low doses of toxic chemicals found in these fragrances matter?
A: “Small levels” or “low doses” do not mean “no harm.” Recent science shows that low levels of chemicals, especially endocrine disruptors, can have a serious effect. One example of how this works is demonstrated by birth control pills – tiny levels of these chemicals impact the body in a big way to prevent pregnancy. Birth control pills are effective in the body at levels similar to the levels some cosmetic chemicals are found in people’s bodies.
Also, fragrances are but one source of exposure to hazardous chemicals. We are exposed to these chemicals from shampoos, lotions, toothpaste, canned foods, water bottles, etc. These toxicants are getting inside our bodies and are even found in newborn babies. Illnesses associated with chemicals have been rising, including learning disabilities, behavioral disorders, asthma, allergies and infertility. It is important to remember that toxic fragrance chemicals are preventable exposures.
Q: What are the worst chemicals found in this study?
A: The big finding of the “Not So Sexy” study is that the fragrances we tested contained a mixture of chemicals of concern, including multiple hormone disruptors, allergens and many chemicals that have not been assessed for safety. Some of the particular chemicals of concern include:
- Diethyl phthalate (DEP): a chemical detected in the bodies of 97% of Americans and found in 12 of 17 fragrances in this study. DEP is linked in recent human studies to sperm damage in adult men, feminized genitals in baby boys and Attention Deficit Disorder in children. See Appendix B of "Not So Sexy" for a science review of DEP.
- Galaxolide and Tonalide: musk chemicals that were recently detected in the umbilical cord blood of newborn infants, and found in all but one fragrance in this study. Musk chemicals have been poorly studied, but existing evidence suggests they are potential hormone disruptors, as well as toxic to fish and aquatic life. See Appendix C of "Not So Sexy" for a science review of synthetic musks.
- Multiple allergens: all the fragrances in this study contained many chemicals that are associated with allergic reactions such as headaches, wheezing, asthma and contact dermatitis. See page 9 of "Not So Sexy" for a list of allergens.
Q: Why do colognes and male body sprays contain chemicals linked to sperm damage?
A: Good question. It is ironic that many fragrances marketed to males (often with ads that promise the products will make them virile and attractive) contain DEP, a chemical that is linked to feminized genitals in baby boys, sperm damage in adult men and Attention Deficit Disorder in children, according to recent human studies. Twelve of the 17 products analyzed in our study contained DEP, including Calvin Klein Eternity for Men, Quicksilver, Old Spice After Hours Body Spray and Abercrombie & Fitch Fierce.
Our study demonstrates that it is not necessary for fragrances to contain diethyl phthalate. Fragrances that did not contain the chemical include Bath & Body Works Japanese Cherry Blossom, Giorgio Armani Acqua Di Gio, Clinique Happy and AXE Bodyspray For Men.
Q: What should consumers do?
A: Until we change the laws to require full disclosure of fragrance ingredients, it will be difficult to find the safest fragranced products. The best advice we can offer is:
- Choose products with no added fragrance: By choosing products without fragrance, you can reduce toxic chemical exposures for yourself and your family. It is important to read ingredient labels, because even products advertised as “fragrance-free” may contain a masking fragrance. Learn more about fragrances in your products, and use the Skin Deep advanced search for find products without fragrance.
- Less is better: If you are very attached to your fragrance, consider eliminating other fragranced products from your routine to lessen your overall exposure, and consider using fragrance less often.
- Help pass smarter, health-protective laws: Buying safer products is a great start, but we can’t just shop our way out of this problem. In order for safer products to be widely available and affordable for all people, we must pass laws that shift the entire industry to non-toxic ingredients and safer production. Ask Congress to give the FDA the authority and resources it needs to ensure the safety of cosmetics and ensure full disclosure of ingredients so consumers can make informed choices.
- Demand that cosmetics companies fully disclose ingredients and support those that do: Tell cosmetics companies that you want safe cosmetics, and you want them to fully disclose the ingredients in the products they make – including the chemicals that are hiding under the term “fragrance.” You can find companies’ toll-free customer hotlines on product packages and online, and calling them only takes only a moment. Companies need to hear from you, the potential customer – you have the power to vote with your dollars! In the meantime, support companies that fully disclose ingredients. See Appendix F of "Not So Sexy" for a list of companies that have made this commitment.
Q: How were the fragrances analyzed for the “Not So Sexy” report?
A: The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a national coalition of health and environmental groups, commissioned tests of 17 fragranced products at an independent laboratory. Campaign partner Environmental Working Group assessed data from the tests and the product labels.
Products were tested by Analytical Sciences, an independent laboratory in Petaluma, California. The lab found, in all, 40 chemicals in the tested fragrance products. Thirty-eight of these were secret, or unlabelled, for at least one of the products containing them, while the other two were listed on all relevant product labels. Ingredient labels disclosed the presence of another 51 chemical ingredients, giving a total of 91 chemical ingredients altogether in the tested products, including hidden and disclosed ingredients combined. Of the 17 products tested, 13 were purchased in the U.S. and four in Canada.
Q: Did the lab identify all the chemicals in these products?
A: Probably not. This study focused on several categories of chemicals – specifically volatile compounds, semi-volatile compounds and synthetic musks. The laboratory analyses, while thorough, were not exhaustive, which means that additional chemicals of concern may also be present in the tested products.
Q: Can this report be used to determine which of these fragrances is most dangerous?
A: No. The number of secret chemicals, hormone disruptors or allergens in these products cannot be equated with relative risk. Even one hazardous chemical found in these products can be a problem for some people. Health risks from chemicals in cosmetics depend on the mixture in each product, a chemical’s hazards, the amount that absorbs into the body and individual vulnerability to health problems.
Q: Are “natural fragrances” any safer?
A: We don’t know. It’s possible that the "natural fragrances" companies order from suppliers may also contain added synthetic chemicals and unlisted ingredients with toxicity concerns.