FairWarining Reports

Doubts Raised About Chemical Stew in Fragrances Used in Consumer Products

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For Joyce Miller, one sniff of scented laundry detergent can trigger an asthma attack.

“What happens is I feel like someone is standing on my chest,” says the 57-year-old professor of library science in upstate New York. “It’s almost like a choking feeling – pressure and choking. And then the coughing starts,” she said.

Miller is among the many Americans sensitive to “fragrance,” the cryptic ingredient added to thousands of products, from cleaning supplies to toiletries. The term encompasses thousands of combinations of chemicals that give consumer goods their pleasant odors. But specific chemicals in any given product rarely are disclosed to consumers.

For decades, fragrance makers have insisted on treating their recipes as trade secrets, even as complaints about negative health effects have become more common. A 2009 study, for example, found that more than a quarter of Americans were irritated by the smell of scented products on other people while 19 percent experienced headaches or breathing difficulties from air fresheners.

The industry, with estimated global sales of $40 billion per year, says that it ensures the safety of fragrances through a rigorous system of self-regulation administered by its trade group, the International Fragrance Association. But a tiny women’s advocacy organization in Missoula, Mont., recently outlined what it says are troubling flaws in the industry’s science as well as scores of toxic chemicals used in its mixtures.

The industry association’s North American branch declined to speak to FairWarning about the findings. Chemical giant BASF, an association member, also declined comment. Calls to four other membersPhoenix Aromas & Essential Oils, Premier Specialties, Flavor & Fragrance Specialties Inc., and Bedoukian Research – were not returned.

“There’s a real kind of state of ignorance on the part of scientists, on the part of researchers, on the part of consumers, on what is in fragrance and how safe fragrances are for your health,” said Alexandra Scranton, the director of science and research at Women’s Voices for the Earth, a nonprofit seeking to eliminate toxic chemicals that predominately affect women. “We were trying to pick apart the claim that the industry is making that they are ensuring the safety of fragrance.”

Questions about the safety of fragrances are not new. A 2005 California law, the California Safe Cosmetics Act, requires cosmetics manufacturers to report any products that contain ingredients known or suspected to cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm. The data is posted on a website at safecosmetics.cdph.ca.gov. However,  the public database does not list ingredients identified as trade secrets, including fragrances. The program also has met with complaints from experts that some cosmetics firms failed to report their ingredients.

At the federal level, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Products Safety Commission have limited oversight of fragrances. The FDA, which has authority over cosmetics and cosmetic ingredients, doesn’t require cosmetics makers to prove their products or ingredients are safe before putting them on the market. It’s up to the agency to prove harm before a product can be pulled from the shelves. The FDA also requires cosmetics to list their ingredients, but allows a trade secret exemption for chemicals deemed to be fragrance or flavor.

Meanwhile, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has authority over other scented products, such as laundry detergents and air fresheners. The commission, however, does not have an active program to screen fragrances.

“Government has failed to provide a real regulator,” which is a problem, said Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, based in Washington, D.C. “There are plenty of examples of where counting on the good graces of industry has wound up being a mistake,” he said.

In 2008, Women’s Voices began pressing the industry to reveal the specific ingredients. Two years later, the International Fragrance Association posted on its website a list of some 3,000 chemicals used by its members.

Late last year, Women’s Voices published a review of those chemicals, finding that a large number of them appear on official lists of hazardous chemicals, or are banned or restricted in consumer products. For example, a comprehensive classification of chemical hazards adopted by the United Nations tags 1,175 chemicals on the fragrance list with the word “warning” and labels another 190 fragrance chemicals as a “danger,” according to Women’s Voices.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, classifies seven fragrance chemicals as possible carcinogens in humans, the organization said. Fifteen chemicals on the fragrance association’s list are barred from use in cosmetics in the European Union, Women’s Voices said.

Joyce Miller, who is among those highly sensitive to fragrance chemicals. One sniff of a scented laundry detergent and “I feel like someone is standing on my chest.”

Joyce Miller, who is among those highly sensitive to fragrance chemicals. One sniff of a scented laundry detergent and “I feel like someone is standing on my chest.”

Scranton, who authored the Women’s Voices study, is careful to note that the industry’s list gives no indication of how much these chemicals are used, making it difficult to know if consumers are in actual danger. “When I see styrene (a possible carcinogen) on the list of chemicals in fragrance, that’s a red flag,” she said. “Is it only used very, very rarely, in very small amounts? Possibly, and maybe it’s not as much of a problem. Is it used in every fragrance that you come across? Then it’s going to be a problem.”

In a brief paper available on its website, the fragrance association touts the industry’s ability, through self regulation, to ensure “the highest levels of safety of fragranced products.” It says the industry can adapt to new scientific findings “more quickly and efficiently through self-regulation as opposed to diverse legislation in different countries on different continents.”

The industry association works with its research arm, the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials, to produce standards that it says are based on science. Women’s Voices, however, says there are several shortcomings in the system.

For one, the group maintains that the vast majority of scientific studies exploring fragrance safety are produced by fragrance houses themselves, or the industry’s research institute. Rarely are these studies published or even peer reviewed, the organization says. No one is independently reviewing laboratory practices or levels of significance, or ensuring “that the results of these studies have not been manipulated,” Women’s Voices says.

Over the last year, the European Commission Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety reviewed studies by the research institute and repeatedly noted failings in the institute’s methods, including incomplete data and invalid protocols.

Women’s Voices also says that an independent expert panel that reviews the industry’s research bases its safety opinions on information curated by the fragrance industry itself. The expert panel meets in secret and no transcripts or meeting minutes are publicly available, Women’s Voices said.

“The Research Institute for Fragrance Materials is like a black box,” said Janet Nudelman, the director of program and policy for the Breast Cancer Fund and the director of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. “They attempt to assure the public that they have the safety of fragrance chemicals under control, that they’re looking at all of the safety data regarding fragrance chemicals. But none of their safety studies are publicly available.”

The industry has either banned or restricted the use of 186 substances in fragrance products. But Women’s Voices says the industry does little to ensure that its standards are actually being followed.

The fragrance industry has not commented directly on Women’s Voices’ research, but a few days after the organization released its report in November, the research institute put out a statement saying “the industry is committed to addressing consumers’ interests through a continuous health and environmental safety review.”

The industry, however, remains opposed to greater transparency of its ingredients. In California, the industry association has opposed Assembly Bill 708, by Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Los Angeles Democrat, which would require cleaning products to disclose their ingredients on their product labels. In a letter, the industry said it was worried about counterfeiters.

“It would be very helpful if companies could list on labels the chemicals that they use for their fragrances,” said Miller, the professor from the Glens Falls area of New York who suffers from fragrance sensitivity. “Fragrance is not just some pretty concept. It actually can be a fairly nasty combination of chemicals,” she said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story erroneously identified Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer as Reggie Sawyer-Jones.

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9 comments to “Doubts Raised About Chemical Stew in Fragrances Used in Consumer Products”

  1. Jean | DelightfulRepast.com

    I offended a friend yesterday by having an allergic reaction to her fragrance and having the nerve to say so. She swears she uses no fragranced products. I think she must have absorbed the fragrance from her car, which I know is heavily fragranced with her car air fresheners.

  2. Elain Mendez

    I suffer severe reactions due to fragrance chemical exposure including the inability to breathe. I’ve had several “near death” experiences. Still, fragrance users openly disregard my medical needs and seem angry that I have to wear a chemical respirator due to their fragrance use. I recently came upon 2 blog sites for fragrance users who claim to be addicted and who are trying to stop using. Judging from the denials I have heard from fragrance users, I believe there is an addiction. I was surprised to have accidently found those sites and then to read their words. There was years worth and many contributors. There were also many indications of severe body image issues and self doubt concerning body odor. A real eye opener for me. I realize that fragrance users likely have a personality disorder or a self image issues. I think the smell of clean natural skin is very sexy. I love the way my husbands skin naturally smells. The fact that he is a confident man who has never felt the need to use fragrance shows his intelligence. Confidence is very sexy.

  3. Chalat Ithwang

    When I was a high school student in secondary level; I always sneeze when I get class from our teacher, I did not understand why it happens, mother of a friend of mine , knowing I realized that i had fragrance allergy just like her, then i went to a allergy Dr.to make sure to confirm, to knowing this i I requested him not to use the perfume. Thus I came to know about the fragrance allergy.

  4. Ruth Shannon

    I have bronchiectasis that is exacerbated by the same triggers as asthma, i.e., air pollution including scented products. It has become impossible for me to cope with the perfumed air in ALL public buildings – libraries, cinemas, fitness gyms, doctor’s offices, banks, airplanes, food stores, etc. Today, I had to remove the wrappings from food bought at the supermarket. (Inside the plastic wrapping, the rice cakes were also perfumed.) Kleenex boxes and cans of juice are airing outside along with the clothing my husband wore while shopping. I stay at home as much as possible. Health and family relationships are being ruined, because profit is more important than people. People have been brainwashed to believe that everything on and around them must be strongly scented.

  5. Joseph Davis

    I mix and distribute Fragrance Sprays and Burner/Diffuser Oils. With each fragrance, I always request a MSDS (Materiel Safety Data Sheet) from my vendors and provide it to customers. In addition, I have printed on my labels “Not for use on skin or clothing” as a disclaimer. I will not use any fragrances in my products that knowingly lead to any adverse effect to my customers. To date, I’ve had no complaints. Nonetheless, I consider it my responsibility to research, to the best of my ability, any possible health issues associated with my fragrances or blends. As previously stated, information from the major agencies mainly the I.F.A. has been hard to come by.

  6. Claire M

    I used to wear a small amount of perfume daily. Then at the start of a new semester, one of my college students — an asthma sufferer — would have sneezing fits whenever he sat near me in class — but not when he sat toward the back of the room. I teased him that he was allergic to me! Then, having learned about fragrance allergies, it occurred to me that he might be allergic to my perfume, so I stopped wearing it. Sure enough, when the student sat in the front the next time, he had no allergic reaction! I then informed him about his probable fragrance allergy, which was probably affected by many other chemicals in the course of his day. One wonders how many cases like that go unnoticed and how many suffer needlessly as a result! We need to spread the word!

  7. Lisa W

    I developed severe sensitivity to fragrance after sitting near an heavy user of “very expensive” fragrance. For years I thought I was developing hypoglycemia or diabetes or an auto-immune disease. It NEVER occurred to me that I could be suffering due to fragrance. Every day about an hour after I arrived at work, I would start to feel irritable, nauseated, anxious, sweaty, and confused. My heart raced, I’d frequently need to clear my throat and I’d get a very bad headaches. I’d also get diarrhea as well. It was a very long time before I connected the symptoms with the arrival of my heavily scented co-worker.

    Over the course of a few years (my late 20’s-early 30’s), I had several doctors check my blood for irregularities found in a CBC blood test, for lupus (had butterfly rash which turned out to be rosacea), for heart issues, had MRI for headaches, had endoscopy and colonoscopy. An allergist ruled out the standard food and environmental allergies. Every test had normal results. Doctors concluded that I just had too much stress. I tried doing Candida albicans cleanse diet (very restrictive diet that cuts out all sugars/sweeteners, processed foods) and while I felt more energy, I still had same issues at work.

    It wasn’t until my mid-thirties when I was exposed for several months to heavy cigarette use followed by industrial room freshener (tenants in apartment below mine) and the intensity & frequency all my symptoms increased dramatically, that I realized fragrance was the original culprit. After that, it was fragrance, cleaning products, scented laundry products, adhesives, paint/varnish, car exhaust, diesel fumes. I also added more symptoms: foggy thinking, memory issues, blurred vision, sensitivity to light and sound, fatigue, inability to lose weight.

    I finally found a new allergist who diagnosed me with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity and then a neurologist who confirmed the diagnosis.

    Nowhere on any product containing fragrance did I ever see anything stating any of the ingredients could contain toxic chemicals, allergens, sensitizers, or hormone disrupters or could cause Multiple Chemical Sensitivity.

    If I had known, I would have demanded seating far away from my smelly co-worker or found a new job. I could have moved to a safe place immediately instead of waiting two months.

    I recall a movie called the Incredible Shrinking Woman starring Lily Tomlin and see how right it was. Only it’s not my height that is shrinking, it’s my quality of life. This is thanks to fragrance & chemicals companies’ substandard testing and morals, to government officials who look the other way. An extra special mention to selfish heavy use fragrance wearers who chose vanity over humanity.

  8. Joanie Hedrick

    I too have strong reactions to fragrances in perfumes, lotions, hand sanitizers, the very strong bathroom deodorizers at work and carpet cleaning stuff at work. I can sympathize with anyone that has to deal with this. My symptoms range from; usually serious brain fog, nausea, headaches, lungs feeling full/achy, coughing, eyes feel dry and irritated to name a few depending on the fragrance/chemical also with hands and feet going numb and sometimes chest pain. I have had an uphill battle with my job they are just now starting to do somethings to help but it is really minimal.

  9. julie mellum

    Most all fragranced products, including essential oil plant-based products, contain many toxic chemicals that are not only cancer-causing, but hormone disrupting. They are implicated in asthma episodes, and even in causing asthma. They’re also implicated in reproductive birth defects in babies, which are at an all time high and skyrocketing. Many fragrance free products are now on the market. Fragrance free laundry products are especially important to use, and they’re safer for yourself and for others.

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