The Dangers of Fragrance In Cosmetics, Skin Care, and Other Products

Jul 31 , 2020

When we think of big-name products, we understand that many of them contain harmful chemicals. In the United States, ingredients are largely untested. Most are generally recognized as safe (“GRAS”) rather than having been through rigorous testing. Companies cut corners and use cheap fillers to preserve, color, and create the right look and feel for a product.

However, those may not be the most harmful contents in that you find in traditional brands. There’s one item that is likely the worst additive in a product, whether it’s cosmetics, bath care, cleaning products or anything else.

What is it?

Fragrance.

The Politics of Scent

Why are fragrances so dangerous? It’s because they are are often made of proprietary blends of different ingredients. That means that companies are not willing to disclose what goes into their “signature” scents – or any of their scented products. Some companies will list the ingredients, keeping the proportion of ingredients a secret, but the majority do not.

While all other elements are required by law to be disclosed in the U.S., a brand can add any of thousands of substances unregulated by the FDA to these products without disclosure. In 2018, Women’s Voices for the Earth published a study on the fragrance industry. They discovered that in over 3000 chemicals reportedly used for fragrances, 1,242 were chemicals of concern – and that included at least 7 possible carcinogenic, or cancer-causing, agents.

According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, this is allowed because of the 1966 Federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA), which protects companies from divulging trade secrets to the FDA – including ingredients. Instead, you will see one of the following terms on the label:

  • Fragrance
  • Parfum
  • Aroma

Rather than following nationwide regulatory standards, industries that use fragrances are trusted to “self-regulate.” In practical terms, that can be as safe as   the fox guarding the henhouse. Right To Know is a 2018 report about toxic fragrances in various products by Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (BCPP). It reveals that the trade associations that serve the fragrance industry have spent millions of dollars over the years to protect themselves from ingredient disclosure legislation.

This includes organizations like the International Fragrance Association (IFRA), whose website promotes the benefits of sustainable fragrance but does little to protect the public from toxins. According to BCPP, companies do not have to abide by federal or state guidelines for chemical safety when they take cover under “trade secret” laws. Manufacturers conduct their own research, which can be biased towards positive outcome in their testing.

BCPP did their own testing and found that the top items containing toxic chemicals included body spray, cleaning products, and, surprisingly, shampoo.

Let’s look at some of the chemicals that might be in these products, the impact they cause, and what better options are available.

Chemical Fragrance Dangers: Does Fragrance Cause Cancer?

The compounds in those scents can be harmful in and of themselves, OR their mixture may be harmful. The dangers of fragrances include:

  • Carcinogens. As mentioned, these are agents that cause cancer and they are highly debatable. Sometimes one country or agency declares a chemical a possible human carcinogen but other groups and organizations will push back against that. Quite often, this is done by brands here in America.
  • Endocrine Disruptors. These are chemicals that can disrupt or harm the how hormones function in the body. The EPA states that endocrine disruptors can cause birth defects and negatively impact the reproductive system, the immune system, and the nervous system. They are also linked to cancer.
  • Phthalates. According to Made Safe, phthalates are used to “increase the longevity of the fragrance.” These chemicals are also endocrine disruptors and have other harmful effects as well.
  • Neurotoxins. Does perfume kill brain cells? The science is not vast on this issue, but Safe Cosmetics reports that animal research does link one ingredient, p-cymene, to “headache, weakness, and irritability, along with the reduction in number and density of brain synapses.” Fragrances have also been linked several serious neurological conditions.
  • Allergens and irritants. Fragrances often test out as a “top 5” allergen trigger affecting millions of people. Additionally, it may induce asthma or other respiratory problems.
  • Synthetic musk. This chemical stands out because carries many of the dangers listed above including Parkinson’s disease, and can accumulate in the body as well as in the environment. Water runoff that contains synthetic musk is difficult to break down. Learn more about this toxin at Safe Cosmetics.

These are the most documented health concerns for fragrances but they are not the only ones. Chemicals in fragrances have also been accused of causing rashes, migraines, ADHD, and possibly contributing to autism.

“Natural” and Fragrance-Free Products Are Better, Right?

Not necessarily. The problem with the term “natural fragrance” is that there is no true definition or standard that exists. “Natural” is simply a marketing term.

And while fragrance may be created with substances that come from nature (i.e., essential oils, herbs, etc.), it does not mean that there that those scents are free from synthetic substances or have not been “adjusted” in a lab. They still can put you at risk. For example, do not assume that “contains essential oils” means that are no other chemicals – natural or synthetic – in the fragrance.

The same is true of the terms “fragrance-free” or “unscented” products. Prevention Magazine reports that unscented products may use fragrance to mask odors. Both terms can mean that additional fragrance was added. In the same article, cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson states, “I’ve seen companies who said their products were fragrance-free, and then listed fragrance components like linalool, citronellol, and citral on the label separately.”

In other words, it’s important to read the label to truly determine if your product contains irritating fragrances.

Clearing Your Home of Toxic Fragrances

The good news is that many companies are making important changes to disclose more ingredients. Additionally, several states are taking action to reduce the toxins in products. However, you can make choices today that help clear these mysterious and dangerous fragrances from your home. Here’s how:

Clear Your Air

A good house cleaning with DIY products, cracking the windows throughout the year, and cleaning out your vents will keep the air in your home fresh. Be sure to vacuum, sweep and dust on a regular schedule, including the parts you forget, like molding or hard-to-reach places. You can use lemon juice, white vinegar, and essential oils to create homemade cleaners.

If you have pets, groom them regularly so that dander doesn’t build up and clog the air. And be sure to use nontoxic products for their grooming as well!

Use Natural Scents

We recommend using natural items to scent your home. Fresh organic flowers and potted plants are a lovely way to make your home smell wonderful. Even starting a useful window sill herb garden can help clear the air!

Diffuse essentials oils but be sure that you are not allergic to those you choose. Remember to diffuse for no longer than one hour. If you have pets, leave a door open so they can escape the room.

If you’d like to use candles, avoid those made with paraffin or petroleum-derived waxes. Soy candles are another option unless if you do not have an allergy. Beeswax is your cleanest choice but again, many candles do fragrance, so choose wisely.

Take Stock of All Your Products

Even if you think you are using a clean brand, it may be green-washed. Green washing is when companies tout their products as being nontoxic and/or environmentally friendly, but they still contain harmful chemicals. This is especially true of laundry products! Start reading ingredient lists, looking for keywords that tip you off that this detergent contains dangerous fragrance elements.

Buy Clean Products For Your Body

The best products are the ones that are closest to nature! Try our Bath and Body, Skincare, Suncare, Beauty, and Hair Care lines. We choose products that are organic and eco-friendly, cruelty-free and effective. We are committed to sharing the best our vendors have to offer so you can live a nontoxic life, safe from harmful chemicals while doing the job you bought them for.

While undisclosed fragrances can pose many problems, especially for people with sensitivities, allergies, and other health concerns, you have the power to clear the air with nontoxic products and clean habits. Your body will thank you!


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