Did you know there are secret, unlabeled, and often toxic fragrance and flavor chemical ingredients in many common personal care products?
Dozens, sometimes even hundreds, of chemicals can hide under one little word – “fragrance” – on the product labels of the beauty and personal care products you use every day. Fragrance suppliers have long enjoyed federal trade secret protections that allow them to hide the ingredients that make your beauty and personal care products smell good.
As a result of trade secret protections, consumers get incomplete information regarding the fragrance and flavor ingredients in their beauty and personal care products. Meanwhile, manufacturers are unable to provide consumers with the full ingredient disclosure they are asking for, and regulators are unable to determine—and ensure—the safety of the full scope of ingredients on the market being used to formulate cosmetics. Fragrance houses and their trade associations are desperately trying to hold on to this special privilege, even as hundreds of cosmetic companies are voluntarily disclosing the fragrance ingredients in their products in response to consumer right to know demands. (See the “Trade Secrets” section below for more)
Breast Cancer Prevention Partners’ 2018 report Right to Know: Exposing Toxic Fragrance Chemicals in Beauty, Personal Care and Cleaning Products found that fragrance chemicals made up the vast majority of the chemicals linked to harmful chronic health effects in the beauty and personal care products tested. The study investigated to what extent major companies that make beauty and personal care hide unlabeled toxic chemicals in their products. BCPP took on this research project because the scientific literature and previous product testing indicated that fragranced products contained chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, hormone disruption and other adverse health effects.
Unfortunately, consumers looking for fragrance free products have limited options. Even products labeled as unscented may have fragrance added to mask the smell of other ingredients.
Hair products are especially problematic: more than 95 percent of shampoos, conditioners, and styling products contain fragrance. Without legally mandated fragrance ingredient disclosure, it is impossible for consumers to avoid potentially harmful ingredients or for researchers and regulators to understand the full universe of ingredients being used to formulate cosmetic products.
In 2021, U.S. Representatives Jan Schakowsky and Doris Matsui introduced the Cosmetic Fragrance and Flavor Ingredient Right to Know Act, which would require companies to disclose fragrance and flavor ingredients that are harmful to human health or the environment on their product labels and websites. Fragrance ingredient disclosure will allow consumers to make safer and more informed decisions, benefit manufacturers who want to practice a higher level of transparency and provide regulators with the information they need to more effectively regulate the safety of cosmetic products. This bill is one of four bills that make up the Safer Beauty Bill Package, which aims to make personal care products safer for everyone.
In October 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the California Cosmetic Fragrance and Flavor Ingredient Right to Know Act of 2020 (SB 312) into law. This first of its kind law requires companies that sell beauty or personal care products in California to report fragrance or flavor ingredients linked to harm to human health or the environment to the California Department of Public Health by January 1, 2022, which then makes that information publicly available through its Safe Cosmetics Program online database. Learn more >
 Scheman, A., Jacob, S., Katta, R., Nedorost, S., Warshaw, E., Zirwas, M. and Bhinder, M. (2011) Hair products: Trends and Alternatives: Data from the American Contact Alternatives Group. Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, 4(7), pp. 42- 46.
Fragrance allergies affect two to 11 percent of the general population., This translates to tens of millions of people globally affected by fragrance. Fragrance chemicals can become major sensitizers through air oxidation, photo-activation, or skin enzyme catalysis or cross-sensitizing – a process by which a person becomes sensitized to substances different from the substance to which the person is already sensitized. Once sensitized, the only way to prevent the development of a severe, irreversible allergy is to avoid further exposure.
Since fragrance ingredients are volatile, they easily enter the air as gases and expose the eyes and naso-respiratory tract. For asthmatics, the effect of exposure may be more severe. Like second hand smoke, even low concentrations of fragrance ingredients can provoke asthmatic episodes. Inhalation exposure to common sanitizing agents called quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs) has been linked to occupational asthma. Other common fragrance ingredients such as benzyl salicylate, benzyl benzoate, butoxyethanol are known skin, eye, nose and throat irritants which can cause severe symptoms such as a burning sensation, nausea, vomiting and damage to the liver and kidneys.,, European Union’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety has identified the fragrance ingredients cinnamal and citral as “established contact allergens in humans.”
In 2011, the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) published a list of 2,339 possible fragrance materials used by IFRA affiliated members, including fragrance suppliers, who use chemicals from this list or “palette” of ingredients to formulate fine fragrances and fragranced cosmetics and personal care products. The IFRA list of possible fragrance ingredients includes chemicals listed as carcinogens by California’s Prop 65 Program and the National Toxicology Program (NTP) such as pyridine, benzophenone, methyleugenol and styrene.
In a 2010 study, 17 tested fragrances contained an average of four hormone-disrupting ingredients each, including synthetic musks and diethyl phthalate. Synthetic musks mimic and displace natural hormones, which can potentially disrupt important endocrine and biological processes.,,,,, High levels of musk ketone and musk xylene in women’s blood may also be associated with gynecological abnormalities such as ovarian failure and infertility. These findings provide human evidence for findings that suggest endocrine disruption in other species. In another example of endocrine disruption, diethyl phthalate has been linked to unusual reproductive development in baby boys and sperm damage in adult men.,,
In 1986, the National Academy of Sciences targeted fragrance as one of the six categories of chemicals that should be given priority for neurotoxicity testing. Since then, animal studies have linked fragrance ingredient p-cymene to headache, weakness, and irritability, along with the reduction in number and density of brain synapses. In addition, research has shown that the synthetic musks tonalide and galaxolide induce brain cell degeneration, which can lead to degenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.
Fragrance represents a serious threat to the environment. Synthetic musks end up in wastewater, drinking water, soil, and indoor air. Musk also bio-accumulates in the fatty tissue of aquatic wildlife, and travels through the food chain into salmon and shrimp. In a 2010 study of fragranced products, each product emitted volatile organic compounds that have been identified as toxic or hazardous under federal law. Despite releasing compounds like chloromethane and methylene into the air, fragrance remains unregulated. The continual contamination of our air, soil and water resources has even identified some fragrance chemicals as persistent organic pollutants (POPs).
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The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics works to reduce exposure to harmful ingredients in personal care products, including those hidden in fragrance. We do this through consumer education, corporate accountability campaigns and legislative advocacy, and work with hundreds of partner organizations, businesses, and other allies.