Fruity, floral, musky from candles and cleaning products to lotions, soaps, lipstick and cologne, we live in a scented world. What is lurking in the air?
About 4,000 chemicals are currently used to scent products, but you wont find any of them listed on a label. Fragrance formulations are considered a trade secret and therefore protected from disclosure even to regulators or manufacturers. Instead, one word, fragrance, appears on ingredients lists for countless cosmetics, personal care and cleaning products. A single scent may contain anywhere from 50 to 300 distinct chemicals.
No state, federal or global authority is regulating the safety of fragrance chemicals, says Janet Nudelman, policy director for Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (BCPP) and co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. No state, federal or global authority even knows which fragrance chemicals appear in which products.
Three-quarters of the toxic chemicals detected in a test of 140 products came from fragrance, reported a 2018 BCPP study of personal care and cleaning brands. The chemicals identified were linked to chronic health issues, including cancer.
When we took a harder look at beauty and personal care products we found that many chemicals of concern were hiding under the word fragrance, said Nudelman.
While virtually all Americans are exposed to fragrance chemicals on a daily basis, women have a greater body burden, largely from beauty and cosmetics products absorbed through the skin. The average American woman uses 12-16 products a day, many containing fragrance.
Besides common reactions to fragrance about 35% of people report migraines or respiratory problems because of fragrance health advocates have more serious concerns. Could fragrance chemicals, combined with the other chemical cocktails found in daily life, be shaping serious disease trends?
There are chemicals in fragrances that do cause [cancer and reproductive effects], we know this from animal studies, says Alexandra Scranton, director of Science and Research for Womens Voices for the Earth (WVE), a womens health not-for-profit. Do people who use a lot of fragrance get more cancer than those who dont? No one really knows because no one has looked at that.
It smells good, but is it good for you?
More than 1,200 fragrance chemicals currently in use have been flagged as potential or known chemicals of concern, according to a 2018 report from WVE. These include seven carcinogens, 15 chemicals prohibited from use in cosmetics in the EU and others cited in various international warning lists. Endocrine disrupters, which mimic human hormones, are of particular concern to many researchers and advocates, as they can have effects in the tiniest doses.
Proponents of the fragrance industry which is projected to reach $92bn globally by 2024 say that even if many of their ingredients appear on hazardous chemical lists, safety boils down to a question of exposure. The exposure to any individual fragrance ingredient in a product is extremely low well below 1%, a spokesperson for the Fragrance Creators Association, the industrys main trade organization in North America, said in an emailed statement. Fragrance ingredients are not hazardous based on usage.
But Scranton cites gaps in standard safety testing, such as assessing chemicals in isolation and individual exposure differences, as reason for a more precautionary approach.
There are a lot of unknowns so much of the toxicological research is one chemical at a time. And were never exposed to one chemical at a time, she said, adding: Because there are so many chemicals combined, and youre exposed over your lifetime, it adds up to something big.
The fragrance industry, much like the broader cosmetics industry, is largely self-regulated. Since 1966, the research arm of the International Fragrance Association (IFRA), the leading global trade group has set voluntary safe use standards for chemicals. The Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM) has reviewed more than 1,500 ingredients since 2014, under a new, more comprehensive assessment system, with a goal to assess all 4,000 ingredients in use by 2021. (About 2,000 chemicals have been reviewed since the 1960s under less stringent standards.)
While RIFM says it uses conservative estimates based on the top 5% of users in consumer surveys, studies have shown wide variations in exposure for so-called fragrance super users. Certain synthetic musk compounds are present in concentrations as much as 10,000 times greater in super-users, compared with low-use cases, according to a 2007 study by university researchers in Belgium. Synthetic musks, some of which are prohibited by the IFRA, have been found in human tissue and breast milk.
There are also exposure differences across racial lines. Black women and children have been found to have higher levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which could be tied to exposure from toxic chemicals in hair products. A 2018 study by the Silent Spring Institute assessing six types of African American hair products found 45 endocrine-disrupting or asthma-causing chemicals, with a fragrance marker called diethyl phthalate among the highest concentrations. Higher chemical exposures, especially at a young age, could be linked to certain health disparities between black and white women, some researchers theorize.
Personal care products altogether arent seen as an environmental justice or a racial justice issue, but things are impacting our communities on a daily basis in large ways, says Marissa Chan, environmental research and policy manager for Black Women for Wellness (BWW), a Los Angeles-based public health and environmental justice organization. She adds that social pressure and sometimes discriminatory policies at school or work are a factor pushing black women to use more beauty products on average.
A mother is having to be like a chemist, Chan said. Its unfortunately our job and it shouldnt be.
Whats a worried consumer to do?
Trying to avoid fragrance chemicals is perhaps one of the trickiest modern consumer challenges. Even products labeled as unscented could have some fragrance to mask the smell of other chemicals. Watchdogs also caution that even products claiming to be natural or organic could still be harboring harmful fragrances.
The California Toxic Fragrance Chemicals Right to Know Act is backed by consumer health advocacy groups such as BCPP, BWW and WVE. If passed, the bill would be the first in the country to require manufacturers to report any hazardous chemical used to flavor or scent any personal care and cosmetic products sold in the state.
At the federal level, the Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act of 2018 is also seeking full chemical disclosure and a ban on carcinogens.
But there are resources for shoppers striving for a fragrance-free lifestyle, and the selection of unscented products continues to increase. The Environmental Working Group keeps databases on safe cleaning products and personal care products, including fragrances. BWW offers a pocket guide for black consumers and salon workers on top chemicals to avoid. BCPP encourages consumers to buy unscented products from companies committed to chemical disclosure, avoid products with fragrance or parfum on the label, and wear protective gear when working with fragranced cleaning products.
Nourbese Flint, policy director and program manager at BWW, has one last tip for concerned consumers: If you are looking at labels and find yourself frustrated, find an organization to tap into, she said. Get involved in the conversation about policy Thats the only way we will see real change.