Our noses tell
us a great deal about our world--the toast is burning...the baby
needs a diapers change...the milkís gone bad. Aroma doesn't simply
warn, though. We derive pleasure from scents, such as those from
fresh flowers, hot coffee, baking bread.
strong feelings that smells can evoke, it's no surprise that
fragrance has become an "essential" ingredient in many consumer
products, including air fresheners, cosmetics and beauty aids,
cleaning products, paper goods, pesticides, food, candy and many
other products you wouldn't necessarily associate with perfume. In
fact, according to a source at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
(FDA), the government agency that regulates cosmetic products, "The
fragrance market is experiencing the biggest increase in almost any
industry, with new scents and scent identification added to new
smells sell, fragrances are also used to cover up offensive odors
that products made from chemicals can have. Barbara Wilkie,
president of the board for the
Environmental Health Network (EHN) in California, notes that
fragrances are added to poisonous pesticides "to make them smell
like perfume!" That may be stretching it, but floral scents may make
pesticides less unpleasant and, therefore, more likely to be used.
scents can also enhance
artificial flavors--powerful combinations of fragrance and taste
can make you think that pink bubble gum is strawberry rather than
raspberry, when in fact it is neither.
fragrances are synthesized, primarily from petroleum products. About
3,000 chemicals are used in the fragrance industry, but very few of
these have been tested for their cancer-causing potential or other
health effects. The use of fragrances in an increasing number of
products also increases the chances that someone will develop skin
irritation or an allergic reaction. Allergic reactions to fragrances
are on the rise, increasing from 9 percent to about 12 to 13 percent
of dermatitis patients over the last decade, according to Dr. Donald
Belsito, a dermatologist at the University of Kansas Medical Center
(as quoted in a February 2002 MSNBC article"Scents and
We don't have
much scientific information on whether fragrances harm children--the
research just hasn't been done. Health effects from fragrance
chemicals could be more pronounced in children, because they inhale
more air, along with the chemicals in it, than adults do. A childís
skin is also thinner and therefore more permeable than an adultís
is. Also, since their detoxification systems are not yet fully
developed, children arenít able to process out harmful substances as
well as adults can.
Some of these
health problems associated with chemicals found in fragrances can
show up right away, like allergic reactions. Others, like cancer,
may not develop for many years.
Ingredients that Smell of Danger
fragrance usually contains multiple chemicals--as few as 10
chemicals or as many as several hundred. One study conducted at the
University of California, San Diego, showed that mixing multiple
chemicals together in a fragrance brew can actually make each
individual chemical more potent, so that less was needed to cause a
sensory reaction. The researchers also discovered that fragrances
don't just stimulate our olfactory nerve, which identifies scent.
The chemicals can also stimulate other nerves that perceive
irritation. And they've found that as exposure time to a fragrance
increases, irritation grows, even though the scent itself may seem
chemicals used in the fragrance industry are known irritants. For
example, the commonly used citrus scent,
cause skin and eye irritation, difficulty breathing and bronchial
irritation. It can also react with ozone in indoor air to form tiny
particles that aggravate lung and heart disease. Ethanol, a common
solvent base used in many consumer products, may also induce
headache and nausea. Camphor is another irritant capable of causing
headaches, shortness of breath, weakness and central nervous system
of chemicals called
(pronounced "tha-lates") are often used in fragrance products. Two
in particular, diethyl phthalate (DEP) and dimethyl phthalate (DMP),
are used in fragrance formulas because they help the scent evaporate
more slowly and last longer. But certain phthalates are suspected
endocrine disruptors and some phthalates are possible carcinogens.
A September 2000 study of eight-year-old Puerto Rican girls
linked exposure to
DEP, DMP and
other phthalates with premature breast development. Phthalate can be
absorbed through the skin and exposure is higher than previously
believed. In fact, a metabolite of
DBP was found
in the urine of all 286 people tested in a recent
study conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention. Women of child-bearing age had the highest levels of the
metabolite, which is a reproductive and developmental toxicant in
industry is, by and large, self-regulated. That is, the
International Fragrance Association (IFRA), an organization that
receives funding from the fragrance industry and represents its
interests worldwide, provides guidelines for it members on the use
and safety of fragrances. IFRA guidelines are based on research
conducted by the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM),
another industry-funded organization that tests raw materials used
in the fragrance industry. The guidelines are not examined or
overseen by any government agency. Choosing to adhere to IFRAís
guidelines is purely voluntary, and the FDA or an independent third
party rarely conducts tests on fragrance ingredients.
currently recommends against the use of more than 30 substances and
advises limiting the use of many more, consider the following:
- RIFM has
data on approximately 1800 of roughly 2500-3000 chemicals used
in the fragrance industry.
- RIFM tests
only raw materials. Very little is known about how these
ingredients interact when combined in fragrance formulas.
Sometimes, a finished fragrance mixture is tested by the company
that produced it, but the company isnít required to share that
information with any government agency or organization.
ingredients are most commonly tested for allergenicity,
phototoxicity, and general toxicity by oral and dermal routes.
However, tests are focused on the effects that fragrance
ingredients have on the skin.
rarely test the effects of these chemicals when inhaled. It is
"in the middle of a multi-year program of developing a testing
protocol" to study this, according to RIFM spokesperson Glen
specific consideration is given to childrenís special
- An unknown
number of chemicals are tested for long-term effects and
carcinogenicity. These tests are conducted only if current data
indicate that the substance may cause cancer or other long-term
While the FDA
doesnít test or regulate fragrance ingredients in many products, the
agency does have jurisdiction over perfumes and other cosmetics.
However, regulation is quite soft. No pre-market testing of products
or ingredients is required, despite the fact that nearly 25 percent
of respondents questioned in a 1994 FDA study responded "yes" to
having suffered an allergic reaction to personal care products. If
the FDA decides to ban a product for health or safety reasons, the
burden of proof lies with the FDA to show that the product is
harmful. Only nine ingredients are prohibited for use in cosmetics
by the FDA. Any other substance (except color additives, which are
strictly regulated) may be used.
"Scents" in Labeling
Just to make
things more confusing, it turns out that scent formulas are often
protected as private information by law. That means, youíll often
see the generic term "fragrance" or "perfume" on a label without
information about the actual chemicals used and the amounts. Of
course, this makes it difficult for consumers to avoid products
containing ingredients that may cause allergic reactions. It also
makes it difficult for researchers to study the potential health
effects of fragrances.
labeled "fragrance-free" may, in fact, contain fragrance! According
FDA Consumer, the term "fragrance-free" implies that a
cosmetic product has no detectable odor, but it may contain
fragrance used to mask a bad-smelling raw material. If chemicals are
used to mask odors, however, the manufacturer is required to
indicate "fragrance" in the listing of ingredients on the label.
It All Go?
chemicals in fragrance products don't just disappear into thin air.
Both consumers and manufacturers are guilty of rinsing them down the
drain. Wastewater treatment facilities do not screen out these
chemicals, and they subsequently end up in our environment. A March
2002 U.S. Geological Survey
report on wastewater contaminants in Americaís streams found
fragrances in 27 percent of 139 streams studied. Synthetic musk
compounds, used in cosmetics and incense, have been detected in
human fat tissue and breast milk, as well as in aquatic life.
Without sufficient toxicity data we can only guess what the effect
of these chemicals will be on our health and the health of our
information on fragrance, see the following articles:
Fragrance in Perfumes and Cosmetics
Fragrances in Cleaning Products, Fabric Softeners and Laundry
Fragrances in Air Fresheners and Deodorizers
Fragrances in Candles, Incense and Potpourri
How to Avoid Overexposure to Fragrances
Safe Products without Harmful Chemicals