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Chemical Fragrances: Potentially Harmful to Human Health
Kathy Attar, MPH
December 11, 2014
Chemical fragrances are added to a wide range of products including shampoos, soaps, makeup, candles and toys. An estimated 80% of personal care products contain fragrance. Fragranced products are associated with numerous adverse health effects, such as migraines, asthma attacks, respiratory irritation and contact dermatitis.
More than 30% of Americans report adverse effects when exposed to fragrance products. Asthmatics suffer worse health outcomes when exposed to fragrance in everyday products. Pregnant women, babies and children are also more susceptible to these chemicals.
One type of hazardous chemicals found in fragrance is phthalates, a class of plasticizing chemicals used in artificial fragrances or colorings. Phthalates are a respiratory irritant and an endocrine disruptor. They have been linked to reproductive damage, thyroid disruption and cancer. Phthalates cause reproductive birth defects in laboratory animals, particularly males. Unfortunately, since fragrance information is protected as confidential business information or “trade secrets,” phthalates are not listed on the label of products.
Read PSR’s handout A Whiff of Toxicity to learn more about fragrances impact on our health.
- Read the label. Choose products with a short list of ingredients. Also opt for products that list ALL their ingredients, not just active ones.
- Look for products without “fragrance” in the ingredients list. That one word could mean a hundred additional chemicals, including phthalates.
- Keep an eye out for these chemicals, and avoid them: Bisphenol A, Triclosan, and Parabens.
- The words “natural” or “safe” won’t guarantee that the product you buy is safe. There is no regulation of these claims, so products may still contain hazardous chemicals.
- Avoid chemically scented products when possible, especially for babies, children and pregnant women.
- To find safety information on specific products, check out Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep, the online database of personal care products. You can search the database for specific brands or ingredients, or for product types, like shampoo, to see how brands compare.