What Is Fragrance?

If you’ve ever flipped over a shampoo, lotion, or body wash, you’ve likely encountered the terms “fragrance,” “parfum,” or “eau de toilette.” What might surprise you is that these words are umbrella terms for up to 100 different chemical ingredients that make up that scent.

Companies are legally allowed to keep fragrance ingredients secret because they’re deemed trade secrets by the US Food and Drug Administration, which exempts them from listing on product packaging.

Fragrance ingredients are in most conventional products: shampoo, body wash, perfume, cologne, scented candles, air fresheners, feminine care products, sexual health products, clothing, packaging, and more. Because of loose language in federal policy, fragrance ingredients can even show up in products that claim to be unscented and fragrance-free.

Women use an average of 9-15 personal care products per day. Given that fragrance ingredients are in virtually every single conventional product on the market, that can add up to significant chemical exposure. In fact, phthalates, a common fragrance ingredient in personal care products, have been found in significantly higher levels in women than in men.

The Health Concern

The primary health concern with fragrance ingredients is that their identity is often unknown. Without information about what ingredients actually make up a fragrance, it is difficult to understand the true extent to which our health is compromised by fragrance ingredients. However, what we do know about fragrance ingredients is troubling.

Because of the vast number of fragrance ingredients, the potential health outcomes are varied. Fragrance ingredients are known carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, developmental toxins, neurotoxins, and more.

The International Fragrance Association, or IFRA, is a self-regulating industry body that sets standards for the fragrance manufacturers and houses. The IFRA has published a list of more than 2,000 ingredients currently used in fragrance. The list includes problematic ingredients, including carcinogens like styrene, naphthalene, and endocrine disruptors like di-isononyl phthalate and oxybenzone. To date, the IFRA has only banned 150 ingredients.

Phthalates are a common fragrance ingredient, appearing on IFRA’s ingredients list numerous times. Phthalates are endocrine-disrupting chemicals that especially impact males by affecting fertility through a number of different ways. In females, phthalate exposure can cause early onset puberty, which is associated with breast cancer later in life. In both sexes, phthalate exposure can increase the risk of asthma.

Synthetic musks like galaxolide, tonalide, ethylene brassylate, and others are common fragrance ingredients and are linked to hormone disruption. Synthetic musks can build up in our bodies, and have been detected in blood and breast milk. One study found that the exposure to musks was 10,000 times greater in people who are frequent users of fragranced products, as compared to those who use fewer fragranced products.

A number of allergens are also within fragrance formulations. In the European Union, cosmetics companies are required to list 26 common fragrance allergens on product labels. However, the United States does not hold the same standard.

How to Avoid Them

While fragrance ingredients seem to be everywhere, you as a consumer can take steps to reduce your exposure to potentially harmful chemicals and take action to change labeling requirements in the U.S.:

  • Avoid products with “fragrance,” “eau de toilette,” and “parfum” on labels. These are catch-all terms for potentially hundreds of chemical ingredients.
  • Choose a product that discloses all of the ingredients. By buying products that list all of their ingredients, we can create a demand for labeling transparency, shifting the entire marketplace in that direction.
  • When selecting scented products, choose products that use natural fragrances like essential oils.
  • Look for the MADE SAFE seal. Fragrance transparency is a requirement of MADE SAFE certification. All MADE SAFE ingredients have been vetted by our team using the best available science.