What’s that smell? The not so sexy truth about fragrance
November 3, 2011
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?
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.
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.
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:
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
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.
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
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
A recent EWG study found synthetic
musk chemicals Galaxolide and Tonalide in the umbilical cord blood of newborn
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
Targeting Abercrombie & Fitch
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.
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
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.