Health Hazards of Fragrance in Cleaning Products: What You Don’t Know Might Hurt You
By Alexandra Scranton
This essay is in response to: What are the health hazards of exposure to fragrances in consumer products and cosmetics? How can our regulatory system effectively address such hazards?
Take a walk down the cleaning aisle in your grocery store,
and there’s no doubt that fragrance is a major player in the cleaning products
industry. The combination of all those products next to one another can be
overwhelming – and for those who are especially sensitive, it can even be debilitating.
But what about for most of us? The strong smell of cleaning products may
encourage us to make our shopping trip down the aisle quicker, but could it
actually be harming our health?
Unfortunately the research on impacts of fragranced products
is extremely limited. One reason for this is that research into fragrance
impacts is hampered by the fragrance industry’s long standing tradition of
holding fragrance ingredients as trade secrets. While you can measure a person’s
exposure to a fragranced product by calculating the frequency and duration of
use, you can never really be sure what chemicals they are actually being
exposed to. Those individual fragrance chemicals are kept secret from
researchers, consumers, and even regulators. And individual fragrances can differ
tremendously – as they can be made up of potentially hundreds of different
What do we know about fragrance chemicals?
In 2008, in an effort to improve transparency, the
International Fragrance Association (IFRA) released a master list of over 3,100
chemicals that are used by the fragrance industry.[i]
Among the chemicals on the list are carcinogens like p-dichlorobenzene and
styrene oxide; endocrine disruptors like galaxolide and tonalide (both
synthetic musks); the phthalates diethyl phthalate (DEP) and di-isononyl
phthalate (DINP); and problematic disinfectants like triclosan and ammonium
quaternary compounds. Not surprisingly, numerous allergens are also included in
the list. Unfortunately, there is no data provided on how commonly these
chemicals are used, by amount or even by type of fragranced product.
Yet we do know that exposure to fragranced chemicals is
ubiquitous. The cleaning products sector alone reaches almost all of us. Women
especially are exposed to fragranced cleaning products. Women, on average, still
do much more housework then men, and are significantly more likely to do
cleaning for a living. Perhaps not surprisingly, it appears that women’s health
is much more impacted by fragrance than men as well. Women are much more likely
than men to suffer from fragrance contact allergy.[ii]
Women also more frequently report adverse effects like headaches or breathing
problems from exposure to fragranced products.[iii]
Fragrance is a key component to cleaning products – as it is
often what distinguishes one product from another, and what creates brand
loyalty. Companies take great measures to ensure that the fragrance is
experienced fully by the user. Laundry detergent is a great example. If you
think about it, washing machines and laundry detergent are designed to remove
odors from clothes. Yet fragranced laundry detergent is designed to withstand
the washing cycle and penetrate your clothes, so that they are still scented even
when they come out of the dryer. This means exposure to the fragrance chemicals
continues even after the washing is done. Those fragrance chemicals can then
enter our bodies and, potentially, cause harm. One study demonstrated this by
showing that women who use fragranced laundry detergent during pregnancy had
higher levels of tonalide, a synthetic musk, in their breast milk.[iv]
The constant exposure to fragrance chemicals poses potential
health problems. However, due to trade secrets provisions, these potential
health problems remain largely unexamined. More information about fragrance
composition is clearly needed to better understand the potential health impacts
faced by so many as a result of fragrance exposure. Self-regulation by the
fragrance industry, given the inherent conflict of interest, is simply not
sufficient to protect public health.
Therefore, governmental regulation is needed to protect
public health from the impact of fragrance chemicals.
First, we need to mandate fragrance ingredient disclosure
across the board, both in cleaning products and other fragranced products. Ingredient
disclosure will give consumers the ability to avoid chemicals of concern, and will
help them and their health care providers better diagnose allergies and other
Secondly, disclosure will help researchers better examine
the chemicals most frequently used in fragrances, so that they can conduct appropriate
health hazard research on the most important chemicals.
Confidential business information mechanisms may be
appropriate on a limited basis to protect certain proprietary ingredients. But with
public health at stake, blanket trade secret protection for all ingredients in
fragrance is simply no longer acceptable.
Buckley, D. et.al. (2002) Fragrance as an occupational allergen. Occupational
Medicine, Vol. 52, No. 1, pp. 13-16. 2002.
Caress, S.M. et. al. (2009) Prevalence of Fragrance Sensitivity in the American
Population. Journal of Environmental Health, Vol. 71. No. 7. P. 46-50. March
Lignell, S. et.al. (2008) Temporal trends of synthetic musk compounds in
mother’s milk and associations with personal use of perfumed products. Environmental
Science and Technology. Vol. 42, No. 17. Pp 6743-6748. 2008.
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