Take a quick look around your home and chances are you’ll find at least one product with an ingredient simply described as “fragrance.” But what exactly does that mean and is there anything harmful in the ubiquitous chemical cocktails we refer to as fragrance? Maybe. But the real answer is that it’s hard to know for sure — and that, say advocates, is bad for public health.
“The problem with fragrance is a systemic one,” Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research at Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE), told me. “It’s a black box of an industry.”
Scranton is the author of a new report from WVE titled “Unpacking the Fragrance Industry: Policy Failures, the Trade Secret Myth and Public Health,” which details the failings of the industry’s self-regulated safety program and calls for new regulations that would force the industry to meet certain safety standards and disclose fragrance ingredients. The report is the result of more than six years of research and watchdogging. But before delving into the industry’s research practices, it’s important to note why fragrance ingredient disclosure is important in the first place.
Scranton said a number of years ago in response to heightened scrutiny, the fragrance industry put out a masterlist of ingredients, which included a number of troubling chemicals. Included on the list were items such as styrene and BHA, both of which have been classified as “reasonably anticipated” to be human carcinogens; endocrine disrupters such as parabens and synthetic musks; and two types of phthalates, which are also suspected to be endocrine disrupters and are being studied for other potential health effects. Of course, the health effects of such chemicals are typically and likely associated with a person’s level of exposure, and the scientific literature on the topic is still emerging. But without any disclosure or labeling requirements, consumers who want to avoid questionable fragrance chemicals are left with little to no information to go on. In all, according to the new report, there are about 3,000 different fragrance chemicals commonly in use. Scranton writes:
Without fragrance ingredient disclosure, consumers of fragranced products cannot know what they are actually being exposed to and cannot avoid chemicals of concern. Those who are sensitive or allergic are unable to diagnose what specific fragrance chemicals are causing their reactions. Instead they are told that they are reacting to “fragrance,” which is akin to being told one is allergic to “food,” without identifying specific food allergens. The only advice for those allergic or sensitive to “fragrance,” or who wish to avoid fragrance chemicals of concern is to avoid all “fragrance.” Given that fragrance use is so ubiquitous in modern culture, the avoidance of “fragrance” is nearly an impossible task.
Currently, according to the report, the fragrance safety system is run entirely by the International Fragrance Association and its research arm, the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials. That means the very people who manufacture fragrance and are poised to profit from fragrance sales conduct much of the science on fragrance ingredients. While the industry says it generates, evaluates and distributes scientific data on fragrance ingredients, the report found that much of the time, the scientific studies on fragrance materials are never published or peer-reviewed.
While the International Fragrance Association currently has a list of 186 banned or restricted substances, such standards are voluntary, Scranton writes. In fact, the report notes that when the European Commission Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety attempted to use the industry’s research to help determine the safety of particular fragrance ingredients, they often found the research could not be reliably used to inform safety conclusions.
Scranton also reports that historically, the fragrance industry has argued that its products should benefit from trade secret protections. However, the WVE report notes that reverse engineering technology now exists to ascertain fragrance ingredients with “incredible precision.” Scranton writes in the report:
Trade secret protection in the fragrance industry has its place, to protect these valuable secrets of the industry. A simple list of ingredients however, without any additional nuanced insider information, is clearly ascertainable by independent means and thus simply doesn’t meet the definition of a trade secret. Regulators should recognize that industry’s call for trade secret protection is an outdated tradition, rather than a legitimate request; granting this exemption simply perpetuates the trade secret myth and compromises public health.
To better protect the public’s health, the WVE report calls for federal and state legislation that requires product-specific disclosure of fragrance ingredients, as well as legislation that would require fragrances to meet an unbiased standard of safety. (Currently, the proposed federal Personal Care Products Safety Act, S. 1014, excludes fragrance from disclosure requirements.) The report also urges manufacturers to voluntarily disclose fragrance ingredients and develop a comprehensive toxic chemical screening process.
Scranton said she hopes the new report will encourage more independent research on fragrance chemical safety, assist advocates working for safer chemical exposure policies, and raise awareness of the significant gaps in the fragrance industry’s safety regimen. For the everyday consumer concerned about chemical exposures, she recommended going for fragrance-free products whenever possible. She even recommended calling product manufacturers and inquiring about fragrance ingredients — “create that demand for disclosure,” Scranton said.
“People should be able to enjoy having these scents in their lives without the danger,” she told me. “There needs to be more oversight into the industry, particularly when it comes to the safety of these chemicals.”
To download a full copy of “Unpacking the Fragrance Industry: Policy Failures, the Trade Secret Myth and Public Health,” visit Women’s Voices for the Earth.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.