Mystery Fragrances

Bottles of perfume and cologne are shown in New York. Several organizations, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, are questioning the safety of chemicals used in fragrances.  This CAP guest post was first published here.

Perfume fragrances are considered trade secrets, so companies don’t have to reveal what’s in them””which could be any number of synthetic chemical compounds. Even “unscented” products may contain masking fragrances, which are chemicals used to cover up the odor of other chemicals. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration isn’t required to review cosmetics for safety before they’re sold in stores, but organizations such as Consumer Reports and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics are trying to uncover what’s behind these mystery fragrances.

One of the trade secrets in perfumes and colognes is phthalates. Phthalates are used to help fragrances linger in perfumes, lotions, and other products, and they take the stiffness out of hairspray. But these chemicals could pose dangerous side effects. A recent Center for American Progress report shows that phthalates are linked to reproductive problems in men and women, including premature births, genital abnormalities in boys, and reduced sperm count.

Product tests conducted by Consumer Reports ShopSmart magazine in January 2007 found the phthalates DEP and DEHP in each of eight popular perfumes tested. And a 2002 report from the Environmental Working Group identified phthalates in more than 72 percent of personal care products tested, including fragrance-containing shampoos, deodorants, and hair gels. None of the products listed phthalates on the label.

The FDA says it doesn’t have compelling evidence that phthalates as used in cosmetics pose a safety risk. But the Breast Cancer Fund considers them endocrine disruptors because of their complex effects on several hormonal systems including estrogen and androgen. The Fund cites phthalate exposure studies in rats that show that the chemical interferes with the production of testosterone and estradiol, and disrupts the development and functioning of male and female reproductive systems.

Perfumes may have other harmful elements, too. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences identified fragrance ingredients as one of six categories of neurotoxins that should be thoroughly investigated for human health impacts. According to the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products and Nonfood Products, 1 in every 50 people may suffer immune system damage from fragrances and become more susceptible to allergic reactions from their ingredients. Once a person is sensitized they can remain so for a lifetime and experience allergic reactions with every subsequent exposure. And fragrances are considered among the top five known allergens and both cause and trigger asthma attacks.

The health risks of perfumes are still debatable, but consumers who don’t want to take chances have some options. A list of chemicals to avoid in cosmetics can be found at Some ingredients, including phthalates, may not be listed on the label, but consumers can look for products without the word “fragrance” on the label or choose products that use natural fragrances or essential oils. The Environmental Working Group has also created a database, Skin Deep, which lists products with no added fragrance.

Another option is to find out which companies have signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, whose signatories have pledged to manufacture cosmetics that comply with rules in the European Union where more than 1,000 chemicals have been banned.

Consider skipping perfume every other day or drop it altogether if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. And tell cosmetic manufacturers that you don’t want ingredients that could pose avoidable health risks in their products. You can send a message to the cosmetics industry at or submit a complaint to the FDA.

There are many unknowns when it comes to what’s in consumer products. But as consumers we can start asking tougher questions about what we buy and look for ways to avoid potential risks to our health.

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8 Responses to Mystery Fragrances

  1. Leif says:

    Another common product with apperant adverse health effects is bug repellent with DEET.

  2. Ron Broberg says:

    Climate Science, politics, or solution?
    Why is this posted here?

    [JR: Since you are apparently not a regular reader, I’ll be happy to point out the two main reasons this is posted here. First, while probably 99% of the posts have been on climate science, climate politics, climate solutions and closely related subjects like the media coverage, messaging, and peak oil, I do on rare occasion venture into the broader area of the global Ponzi scheme and general unsustainability of our lifestyles. Second, I have been reprinting most of the Center for American Progress’s “It’s Easy Being Green” series. It’s true that 90% of those are a tad more germane to climate and energy. But this one seemed worthwhile, too, so I reposted it. Hopefully those who are on interested in it will skip it, much as I am quite aware that a great many readers are not interested in every single subject I cover.]

  3. Jeff Huggins says:

    A Larger Connection and Pattern

    Of course, there is a pattern here, and it’s a troubling one that we should examine.

    Long ago — for reasons that would be interesting to hear from the historians and anthropologists and psychologists — many societies essentially rejected an approach to advancement based on the “precautionary principle” and adopted one pretty-much based on the notion of caveat emptor — “let the buyer beware.”

    Even in the case of very new sorts of things, rather than testing them first to ensure safety, companies can just begin selling them (with only a few exceptions) until, at some point, they are proved to be unsafe.

    Bottom line: We “consumers” are experimental Guinea Pigs.

    There is an across-the-board connection here. The issue applies to fragrances and cosmetics. It applies to “nanotechnologies”. (See the recent post on Dot Earth.) It also applies to the climate and energy issues. And to many other areas.

    Regarding climate and energy, we embarked on the practice of burning hydrocarbon-based fuels for transportation (in autos, for example) without any care whatsoever about their potential impact on CO2 concentrations and the greenhouse issue. SOME things were known about the relevant aspects of CO2 and the greenhouse effect even before we did so, but I guess we didn’t connect the dots or know enough? Or, nobody cared. So, we embarked on a big experiment. And now we understand the problem. The “buyer” needs to become aware, wake up, and stop buying. Yet, we can also see a related problem with human psychologies: Once we’ve embarked upon a path without knowing it to be safe, we have a heck-of-a time, as society, dropping that approach and adopting a healthier one, even when we get the “bad news” about our first choice.

    In short, we give the “go ahead” to growth, almost no matter what, as a high priority over basic safety and sanity. We use each other as experiments. We demand that the “other guy” — the “buyer” — be aware. Then we hope for the best. And when the best doesn’t come about, as it sometimes doesn’t, we resist change. What did Upton Sinclair say? “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

    We should ask — and answer — these questions at the root level. In what areas of life does a “caveat emptor” philosophy make sense, and to what degree? In what areas does the “precautionary principle” approach make much more sense? What are the ethics of the matter? Exactly why does someone think that the “caveat emptor” approach is the only way to have a healthy and sustainable society? Who said?

    I’m not trying to upset the apple cart, or at least not any healthy and responsible apple carts. We know that some powerful technologies are coming down the pike — bioengineering, nanotechnologies, new chemicals, fragrances, new wireless stuff, and on and on. If we continue to reject the precautionary principle, I think it’s very safe to say that, statistically speaking, the chances become greater and greater — and indeed become very high — that we WILL bring about some major problems. In other words, as we stack risk upon risk upon risk upon risk, and play with fire, all in the name of “profit growth” or whatever, we are bound to generate problems, and for the many many many people who suffer from them (which might well include all of us, or our children), it’ll just be “too bad”.

    How do you like it when other people, and many companies, consider YOUR life to be THEIR experiment? That’s what is taking place. In fragrances, I guess. With nanotechnologies. Potentially with some of the new bioengineering approaches (not all). And in the energy/climate areas.



  4. Colin Crawford says:

    Another great post, Joe! From my experience, I don’t think it is “off topic,” i.e. climate change/environment, at all. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve walked into a room and could smell someone’s perfume or cologne more than 30 minutes after the person wearing that “fragrance” had left that space! If that’s not exemplary of “chemical warfare” then I don’t know what is. I’ve been raising this point to anyone who would “listen” for more than a couple decades now. We, the consumers, DON’T know what chemicals go into most cosmetics nor what their effects on our physiology will be, short- or long-term. Do you think this might have any relation to the rising rates of certain cancers? Moreover, from what little information is available regarding testing in the cosmetics industry it seems that “most” tests are focused on the efficacy or “safety” of 1 specific ingredient or another, rather than the entire compound. This also seems to be the case in the pharmaceutical industry as testing typically ONLY focuses on the “new drug” in question. There is little, if any, consideration of what effect (toxicity) that single chemical, or drug, will have when in the presence of other “unrelated” chemicals or compounds. To me, this seems very much like what we, as a species, have been doing with our climate and environment for many centuries. Furthermore, given that many fragrances “linger” in any given area, doesn’t this indicate that they may have some potential to affect at least the “local” ecosystem? For example, there are many of these products that nearly instantaneously give me a raging “sinus headache” after just the first inhalation of them. I guess I’m not supposed to breathe so someone else can “stink” as they see fit. Even with the advent of “transdermal patches,” most people still do not “understand” that their bodies are, in fact, absorbing 1 or more chemicals from the fragrances, deodorants, lotions, hair sprays/gels, etc. which they use on a daily basis.
    Mr. Huggins has a great point regarding “we the people” being “reduced” to some other person’s, or group’s, “experiment.” However, it is not “limited” to only the cosmetics or pharmaceutical industries. Indeed, even the “organization” of labor and the “demands” made by one’s employer are clearly indicative of the employees’ lives being reduced to the “experimental whim” of the employers. Again, it is very depressing that most people don’t seem to grasp this concept, either. So, “good luck” to us all but I’m certain that won’t “save” us from ourselves.

  5. Erik Schimek says:

    The toxins we subject ourselves to on an everyday basis are like the leeches and bloodletting of the middle ages.

    I became very sick due to exposure to toxins, and to this day I retain a very low tolerance for chemical exposures. This led me to question many parts of our society and culture, including our suicidal rush towards a planet inhospitable to complex mammalian life.

    These issues are deeply inter-related. They both involve our society’s inability to evaluate the long-term consequences of our collective actions.

    They are also deeply interconnected. Species that are subjected to toxins are less robust, and therefore less likely to adapt to quickly changing climates.

    [JR: I hope you are doing better. I am quite certain that many of the diseases that are prevalent today — including the autoimmune ones like various allergies — are related to the vast array of toxins we are exposed to from before we are born, many of which do not exist in nature and thus our immune systems have no clue what to do with them. Indeed, for all of the studies done on individual toxins, exceedingly little research has been done on the impacts of multiple toxins over time. So just because we keep a number of toxins below a supposedly dangerous dose, doesn’t mean that when you combine them all together, we are still at safe levels. It is also quite clear that different individuals have different levels of sensitivity, and we often do studies around a norm that exposes, say, 10% of the most susceptible people in society to dangerous levels — which still represents tens of millions of people.]

  6. All climate politics is local, and perfume is about as local as you can get.

  7. paulm says:

    Add to this radiation exposue, cell phones etc …heres the latest report.

    Cellphones Cause Brain Tumors, Says New Report By International EMF Collaborative

    Science has shown increased risk of brain tumors from use of cellphones, as well as increased risk of eye cancer, salivary gland tumors, testicular cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and leukemia. The public must be informed.

    BTW, apparently Ted Kennedy was left handed.