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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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What’s that smell? The not so sexy truth about fragrance

By Stacy Malkan

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?

From Halle Berry’s signature scent to JLo’s Glow, the sleek perfume bottles promise love, joy, and celebrity appeal. But what they won’t tell you is what’s on the inside: complex mixtures of undisclosed chemicals linked to asthma, allergies, hormone disruption, and other health effects.

“Fragrance” is considered a trade secret by law, so companies are not required to disclose the chemical components that add scent to a wide range of personal care products. According to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database, an estimated 80% of products – everything from colognes and body sprays, to shampoos, deodorants, and even make-up – contain fragrance. 

To shed some light on these unknown chemical exposures, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a national coalition of health and environmental groups, commissioned tests of 17 brand-name fragranced products at an independent laboratory in spring 2010. The resulting study, “Not So Sexy: The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrance”, revealed that the 17 products contained, on average:

  • Fourteen chemicals not listed on labels due to the loophole in federal law that allows companies to claim fragrances as trade secrets. American Eagle Seventy Seven contained 24 hidden chemicals, the highest number of any product in the study.
  • Ten sensitizing chemicals associated with allergic reactions such as asthma, wheezing, headaches and contact dermatitis. Giorgio Armani Acqua Di Gio contained 19 different sensitizing chemicals, more than any other product in the study.
  • Four hormone-disrupting chemicals linked to a range of health effects including sperm damage, thyroid disruption and cancer. Halle by Halle Berry, Quicksilver, and Glow by JLo each contained seven different chemicals with the potential to disrupt the hormone system.

The study further revealed the widespread use of chemicals that have not been assessed for safety by any publicly accountable agency, or by the cosmetics industry's self-policing review panels. Of the 91 ingredients identified in the fragrances, only 19 have been reviewed by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), and 27 have been assessed by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) and the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM), which develop voluntary standards for chemicals used in fragrance.

The existing data and lack of comprehensive studies are cause for concern, because one thing we do know is that fragrance chemicals are inhaled or absorbed through the skin and many of them are ending up inside people’s bodies, including pregnant women and newborn infants.

A recent EWG study found synthetic musk chemicals Galaxolide and Tonalide in the umbilical cord blood of newborn infants. These musk chemicals were found in nearly every fragrance analyzed for the “Not So Sexy” study.

Twelve of the 17 products in the study also contained diethyl phthalate (DEP), a chemical linked to sperm damage and behavioral problems that has been found in the bodies of nearly all Americans tested.   

Targeting Abercrombie & Fitch

If you’ve been into the clothing store Abercrombie & Fitch, you’ve seen the wall-sized photos of shirtless men with six-pack abs and you’ve undoubtedly smelled the strong stench of Fierce cologne – since, as part of the corporation’s branding, the stores are sprayed down with the cologne at regular intervals via air vents.

At the request of the non-profit group Teens Turning Green, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics included Fierce cologne in the cohort of products analyzed for the Not So Sexy Fragrance study.

According to the analysis, Fierce contains eight sensitizing chemicals that can trigger allergic reactions such as headaches, wheezing, asthma, and contact dermatitis – the types of effects commonly reported by people exposed to fragrances. According to a peer-reviewed paper published in the March 2009 Journal of Environmental Health, more than 30% of the general population and up to 37% of people with asthma report these types of negative reactions from fragrance products.

The lab tests also revealed that Fierce cologne contained diethyl phthalate, which is linked in recent human studies to sperm damage in adult men, abnormal reproductive development in baby boys, and neurological disorders in children. (Studies are referenced here.)

It is ironic that Abercrombie & Fitch’s marketing efforts promote images of virile young men, while the store’s policy is to spray chemicals all over the place that may have a detrimental impact on male reproductive health. In September 2010, Physicians for Social Responsibility joined Teens Turning Green and many other groups – including Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, MomsRising, American Fertility Association, AllergyKids, and several state nursing associations, together representing 1.5 million members – in sending a letter to A&F CEO Mike Jeffries raising concerns about the health effects of the company’s fragrance-spraying practice. The company has yet to respond.

Meanwhile, Congress is poised to take action. In summer 2011, the Safe Cosmetics Act was introduced into the US House of Representatives by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.). The bill would require companies to disclose the chemicals in fragrance, phase out the most hazardous chemicals from cosmetics, and ensure cosmetic ingredients are assessed for safety.

For more information about the Safe Cosmetics Act and how you can get involved in helping to pass this legislation, please click here.


christech said ..

Ok I can't take it anymore ! The stench in the neighborhood has reached deathcon 10. Red alert all humans, we are being targeted with perfume weaponry. What a perfect way to deploy their chemical weapons of mass stench upon the masses. Pump it into the air, it will cover and coat every blade of grass and living organism and every human dog etc. It will permeate into every household and coat the sinuses of any who dare to venture near or breathe. Would it be ok if I made every one in the neighborhood breathe a offensive odor weather they wanted to or not. Why is this different? I could do that but I think the police would stop me? WTF, The smell is in my nose and the taste is in my mouth, how long must I breath this.

February 11, 2015
christech said ..

My last rant. I could go on for a hour about this topic and how it's making my life miserable. I went outside today, it was foggy, the toxic stench coming from the apartments next door was horrendous. It just hung in the air like a poisonous gas I could not get away from. I took a shower and had window cracked open, was wondering why I felt sick. The whole neighborhood stunk, I had to get in my car and leave the area. Went to thrift store, never again? People on buses cabs etc. Poor poor people, poorer than me, and people without their own washing machines have to use laundrymats. What about all the animals and children forced to breathe this %$@&. When I mentioned poor dogs to my brother I think they were offended. They stopped for a bit but now they are back at it. They use this to cover up the dog smell? Is this animal cruelty? They have super noses. All the poor babies and kids being slowly poisoned by this stuff and not being able to say, knock it off already!

January 7, 2015
christech said ..

Ban this stinky laundry perfume already! It gives me headache! Had to go to laundry mat and the stench left by others ruined my clothes, cant get the smell out after many washings. Can't go to restaurant and sit where others sat, can't go to brothers house. This toxic smell is offensive. I'm going to start wearing wolf urine all over my clothes and sit everywhere and offend everyone unless this stops. I don't care about terrorists as much as I do this chemical stench that is being forced upon me for profit. Knock it off already!

December 30, 2014
Annelie said ..

It should be world wide ban on fragrance use in the areas where People work and where the Public have Access. Getting astma attacks due to others vanity and fragranced cleaning, scent marketing, airfresheners, incense, fragrance candles, essential Oils and so on is no fun and no joke.

February 15, 2014
Laura said ..

Another problem caused by the over-use of perfumes is contact dermatitis. About ten years ago I suddenly found the skin around my eyes all red and itchy. Nothing seemed to make the condition go away, and the first allergist to whom I went for help only made things worse. Finally I went to a dermatologist who tested me for contact allergies. It turned out my skin now reacts in this negative way to fragrances in soaps, laundry detergents, etc. I switched to a fragrance-free laundry detergent, but when the company started making that super-concentrated, I started reacting to that too.

November 29, 2012
Janet said ..

The 2012 FeBreeze Ad is quite insulting to people, too. as if we live in those environments. Is that what they think of people? didn't perfumes used to made from natural flower oils? are there any left or is it all chemicals?

November 27, 2012
Annabelle said ..

That's what's wrong with my stepdad!!!

August 8, 2012
Karen said ..

Heavily fragranced Las Vegas Casinos left me subjected to Migraines, Endometriosis & Asthma. (neurotoxicity, endocrine disrupting and respiratory effects)

April 13, 2012
noname said ..

I've been operating a kiosk outside of an Ambercrombie and Fitch for 4 months and I have had terrible reactions to the perfume from watery eyes, puffy and swollen face and eyes and itchy skin. Also I'm starting to find it hard to take a deep breath not from the smell but because my lungs hurt.

November 30, 2011
Richard Weiskopf MD said ..

Very informative. Thank you

November 7, 2011
Kriscerz said ..

It shouldn't even come to disclosure. I should be allowed to decide whether or not I want to breathe a scent or not. Elevators with heavily-perfumed people are enough to trigger an asthma attack in me. I have to literally run past fragrance counters in department stores. I love the clothes that Abercrombie & Fitch (and others) put out, but can't go into the stores because I react to the fog when I get within 15 feet of the storefronts. And these same people have the nerve to complain about secondhand smoke...

November 6, 2011
Catherine Thomasson, MD said ..

Thanks for the action item!

November 6, 2011
Jacques Padawer Ph.D. said ..

In the last century, margarine made from various oils was white. To make it look like butter it included a packet of yelow die, else it was sold pre-mixed. That die was called "butter yellow." It eventually was found to cause liver cancer and was then removed from the market. It's not just fragrances we should worry about, but all the dyes that are present in foods and drinks.

November 5, 2011
gale said ..

I hope Florida representatives like Ander Crenshaw (my representative) will act to protect consumers from these toxic substances in cosmetics!!

November 5, 2011
Claire B. said ..

These "Fragrances," have an Oily Base, from Coumarin, a plant family from Central America. It is Cummulative. Damages the Liver, and maybe the Kidneys too. I believe I am Permanenly Ill from having used a Very Heavily Fragranced Deodorant Soap for 32 Years!!! Will need to have portion of Liver Biopsied where enzymes for Blood Coagultion is produced. Suffering Very Poor Health.

November 4, 2011
aspen said ..

I love wearing perfume for my own pleasure but have found that fewer and fewer perfumes are gentle enough to tolerate. I remember when most were floral or woodsy but along about 1965-1970 all that changed with the introduction of artificial musks and ambers. Perfume became stinky and harsh and the beautiful old scents were "improved" and degraded for the modern world. New scents were offered under the old names--what a cheat! Now I always wonder when I wear perfume if I am giving someone an asthma attack or a headache. For this reason I rarely use a perfume made after 1960-1970. A few can still be found on Ebay, and sometimes they even smell fresh.

November 4, 2011
Kwanza said ..

How do we deal with this? Seems these fragrances are ubiquitous and short of not purchasing shampoos, cleaning products, and everything else we need, how can we eliminate exposure???

November 4, 2011
Lin Kaatz Chary said ..

I particularly appreciate the spotlight on men's fragrances, because too often the issue is seen only as a "women's" issue. Strong aftershave and "fragrances" are as much of a menace as any other contaminated cosmetics and baby products!

November 4, 2011

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