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The Hidden Dangers of Fragrance

A major loophole in FDA's federal law lets manufacturers of personal care products include nearly any ingredient in their products under the name "fragrance" without actually listing the chemical. One single scent can contain as many as 300 undisclosed chemicals which are not tested for safety prior to use.

In 2017 Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (BCPP) set out to investigate to what extent major companies that make beauty, personal care and cleaning products were hiding unlabeled toxic chemicals in their products. (2)

BCPP and their partners focused their research on products marketed to children and women of color, as well as products endorsed by celebrities, promoting pink ribbon campaign and those with “good for the environment/green" claims.

What we found was shocking and surprising: The most hazardous product of all was a children’s shampoo marketed to kids of color. Several of the products that had the most hazardous chemicals were fine fragrances endorsed by popular celebrities. And our most counterintuitive report finding of all: Many of the personal care products we tested contained more hazardous chemicals than the cleaning products we tested!

We identified chemicals linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, developmental or reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity, asthma, skin irritation and allergenicity, and chronic aquatic toxicity. In addition, we identified ingredients listed as persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBTs); chemicals restricted for use by a wide range of agencies, countries and programs; and chemicals on the California Department of Substances Control Candidate Chemical List.

More than 1 in 4 (99 of the 338) fragrance chemicals detected during the study, in personal care products, were linked to chronic health concerns. And 3/4 of the total chemicals detected during the study, with chronic health effects, are used in fragrance.

But don't panic. There are ways to protect your and your family's health.

Start reading labels and avoid all products with the word "fragrance" or "perfume" listed in the ingredients list. Don't allow the label "natural fragrance" to fool you as there is no standard criteria for what these words mean. These can be just as un-safe.

Also, double check the ingredients list on any products labeled "fragrance-free" or "unscented" as manufacturers can still use masking fragrances to cover the chemical smell of their products, due to lack or regulations.

One study examined 174 of the best-selling moisturizers from Amazon, Target, and Walmart and found that a full 45 percent of the moisturizers labeled “fragrance-free” contained fragrance chemicals. (3)

Learning about toxic and safe ingredients in personal care and cleaning products can get overwhelming so for quick reference, the three resources below are great tools you can use to find safe alternatives:

  1. EWG Skin Deep Database- non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment through research and education. You can find multiple consumer guides you can use to identify the safest products on the market.

  2. Made Safe Certification- provides consumers with a list of cosmetic and personal care products that have been certified as safe and nontoxic

  3. Think Dirty- an app focused on delivering ingredient information on beauty and personal care products

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