Last Updated on May 17, 2022 by The Filtery Staff
If you start looking at the ingredient labels on your personal care and cleaning products, you’ll probably notice that there is one common ingredient in almost ALL of them: “fragrance.”
If you care about actually knowing what’s in the products you buy and use, this word “fragrance” (also sometimes listed as “parfum,” “perfume,” “eau de toilette,” or aroma”) presents a huge problem for you because it’s not actually an ingredient! Rather, it’s an umbrella term that allows manufacturers to legally hide nearly 4,000 different chemicals in their products!
As you may have already experienced, navigating natural and synthetic fragrances can be quite difficult for consumers due to this weird fragrance loophole. So, we’ve put together this article to help you understand:
- How the “fragrance” loophole works in consumer products
- What the word “fragrance” on ingredient labels actually means
- The difference between natural and artificial scents
- Whether or not natural and synthetic scents are bad
- The various types of toxins that can hide under the word word “fragrance”
- How to identify and avoid these toxins
What Does the “Fragrance” Label Actually Mean?
Because of the Federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1973, companies are required to list a product’s ingredients on the label… EXCEPT when it comes to fragrance. In the United States, fragrance secrecy is legal due to what is sometimes called the “fragrance loophole.” Because fragrance formulations have been determined to be “trade secrets,” companies can put a number of almost 4,000 different chemicals in their product under the umbrella term, “fragrance.”
The International Fragrance Association (IFRA) is the self-regulating organization that sets the standards for the industry, decides what chemicals are allowed under the fragrance loophole, and which ones are not. (IFRA has banned less than 200 chemicals.)
The list of chemicals that are allowed under the “fragrance” label is constantly growing; as of late 2021, the list was nearly 4,000 ingredients long. Some of those chemicals are completely harmless (for example, “Lavender” is on that list), while others pose established threats to human and environmental health (we’ll get to that in a minute). The fact that consumers have absolutely no way of knowing whether or not the “fragrance” in their products is dangerous or not is one of the main reasons why synthetic fragrance is so bad.
Because of the widespread use of synthetic fragrance, this ends up applying to everything from skincare and cosmetics to personal care, candles, cleaning products, and more. IFRA’s list includes not only the “scent” chemicals, but also ingredients that serve other purposes, such as solvents, stabilizers, masking agents, UV-absorbers, propellants, viscosity controllers, preservatives, and dyes.
We’re going to go into more detail about the most dangerous chemicals that are allowed in products in a moment, but first let’s address another question you might have about fragrances: are natural fragrances better?
What Is “Natural Fragrance”?
First things first, let’s be clear: “natural” does not automatically mean “better” or “safer,” and “synthetic” does not automatically mean “bad” or dangerous.” In general, ingredients and materials that come directly from nature tend to be safer than many synthetic chemicals, but it ultimately just comes down to the specific ingredient we’re talking about. Lead, for example, is a naturally-occurring substance that is extremely toxic to humans, especially little ones. On the other hand, dl-alpha-tocopherol, or synthetic vitamin E, is a safe synthetic ingredient that’s commonly used in cosmetics.
When a brand says they use only “natural fragrances,” they usually mean they only use essential oils and botanical extracts to scent their products, as opposed to lab-created synthetic scents.
Pros and Cons of Natural Fragrances
Now, essential oils aren’t always perfect. There are a few things to be aware of when it comes to natural scents:
- They are highly concentrated, which is very different from how the plants and herbs are actually found in nature. Even though a certain plant may be completely safe, ingesting the incredibly concentrated essential oils could be dangerous. Eucalyptus, for example, is used in personal care products as a fragrance and skin conditioning agent, but actually drinking a bottle of eucalyptus essential oil can potentially cause seizures.
- Anyone can be allergic to anything, so some individuals can have allergic reactions to certain essential oils. For example, those who are allergic to ragweed should avoid using chamomile.
- Unfortunately, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate the essential oil industry, which makes careful sourcing on the part of brands and consumers very important. Companies who use essential oils to scent their products should make sure they’re buying from a trusted supplier whose oils don’t contain additives, fillers, or synthetics.
- Essential oils can also be sourced in an unsustainable way, so it’s important that companies are conscious about how they obtain their natural scents from an environmental standpoint as well.
Most of the concern with essential oils comes from improper use (for example, ingesting them when they should be diffused or only used topically, or not diluting them when they should). This usually isn’t an issue when we’re talking about natural fragrances, since (most!) manufacturers work with formulators who know the safe, proper amounts of of oils to put in their products. Katie Wells from Wellness Mama has a great guide to safe essential oil use here.
When sourced responsibly and used correctly, botanicals and essential oils are a great, safe way to add pleasant aromas to perfumes, cosmetics, personal care and cleaning products, and more. It also allows for a lot more transparency for consumers.
The Toxic Chemicals Hidden in “Fragrance”
Now let’s talk about synthetic fragrance, a.k.a. chemicals that were made in a lab. Synthetic ingredients can include an artificial version of a real, naturally-occurring chemical (for example, you can make synthetic lavender oil, vitamin E, or beeswax), and synthetic ingredients can also include man-made chemicals invented by scientists and not found in nature.
As explained above, not all of the synthetic scents on IFRA’s list are bad, but many of them are. Extremely concerning is the fact that A LOT of them haven’t even been tested for safety, with new ones being developed all the time. IFRA states that “Manufacturers are responsible for the safety of the ingredients they use in their products,” however, no one is even holding them accountable for doing so. The FDA cannot require manufacturers to test cosmetic products and their ingredients for safety.
Even though there are a lot of missing information about the safety of this long list of chemicals, we do know that many of them pose a threat to human health. So we’re going to go through some of the dangerous synthetic fragrance chemicals that are commonly used in the products that consumers use every day so that you can be more aware of what is actually in your fragrance products.
Why phthalates are bad: You’ve probably heard of phthalates before, as their dangers have been making more headlines over the past decade.
It seems like the more research that’s done on phthalates, the worse they get. Phthalates are known endocrine disruptors, which means they can mess with your body’s natural hormone function. Phthalates have been linked to a whole host of problems, such as:
- early onset of puberty
- reproductive and genital defects
- lower testosterone and lower sperm count in males (decreased fertility)
- chronic inflammation
- cardiovascular disease
Ummm… Okay, that’s a lot of things! It’s no wonder that a 2021 study found that “people with the highest levels of phthalates had a greater risk of death from any cause.“
But the problem with this group of chemicals isn’t JUST that they have the potential to cause or exacerbate all of these different health concerns, it’s also that THEY. ARE. EVERYWHERE. They’re not just in your fragrances and personal care products; they’re also in food packaging, toys, flooring, and all kinds of plastic and PVC products. MAYBE these chemicals wouldn’t pose such a big risk to our health if we were exposed to them less, but the truth is that we’re constantly being inundated with them all day, every day.
Examples of phthalates allowed under the fragrance loophole: Bis(2-ethylhexyl) terephthalate, Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, Dibutyl phthalate, Diethyl phthalate, Dimethyl phthalate, Dioctyl phthalate
Why phthalates are used in fragrance: Phthalates are VERY commonly used (and hidden) in fragrances, and most of the time it’s to make the scents last longer.
Other Endocrine Disruptors
Why endocrine disruptors are bad: There are also other endocrine disruptors that aren’t phthalates. These chemicals can disrupt healthy hormone function and cause a snowball of negative health effects in the same way phthalates can.
Examples of other endocrine disruptors allowed under the fragrance loophole: ethylene brassylate, benzophenone, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), musk ketone,resorcinol
Why these endocrine disruptors are used in fragrance: These chemicals are often used as “masking agents” to neutralize the smells of other ingredients. Masking agents are especially sneaky because they can even show up in products marketed as “fragrance free.”
Why carcinogens are bad: Well, they can cause cancer!
Examples of carcinogens allowed under the fragrance loophole: naphthalene, styrene, formaldehyde and other aldehydes, benzene, acetaldehyde, butylated hydroxyanisole
Why carcinogens are used in fragrance: These chemicals are added for a number of different reasons, including as preservatives, masking agents, and general “perfuming.”
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
Why VOCs are bad: Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are chemicals that can evaporate under normal atmospheric conditions (like in your home) and contribute to indoor air pollution. When people talk about their furniture and other goods “off-gassing,” they’re talking about VOCs leaking out of their products and into the air in their house. VOCs are linked to various acute and chronic health concerns, such as:
- Eye, nose & throat irritation
- Worsening of asthma symptoms
- Liver & kidney damage
- Central nervous system damage
Examples of VOCs allowed under the fragrance loophole:acetone, butane derivatives, disulfides, ethanols, isopropyl alcohol, propane derivatives
Why VOCs are used in fragrance: In fragrance products, VOCs are used as solvents, drying agents, propellants, viscosity controllers, and more.
Allergens & Irritants
Why allergens and irritants are bad: This is more of a grey area because technically anything can be an allergen or irritant for someone. Most people have no problem with pineapples, for example, but there is a small percentage of people who are allergic and will have a negative reaction to them.
So while anything can technically be an allergen, there are some things that irritate a larger number of people, and these are the ingredients we look out for in our personal care and cleaning products. These chemicals are more likely to cause things like:
- difficulty breathing
- contact dermatitis
Some of these ingredients can exacerbate or trigger pre-existing allergies, respiratory problems, or skin conditions, while other ingredients can actually cause those things. Ultimately, it just depends on various factors such as the vulnerability of the individual, the ingredient dosage, and more.
Examples of allergens and irritants allowed under the fragrance loophole:benzyl salicylate, benzyl benzoate, resorcinol
Why allergens and irritants are used in fragrance: These chemicals are used as denaturants, masking agents, and more.
Sooo… Should I Go For “Fragrance-Free” and “Unscented” Products?
You might think that buying products labeled “fragrance-free” or “unscented” is a better option, and many times, it is! However, products don’t actually have to lack these fragrance chemicals in order to be labeled as “fragrance free” or “unscented.”
In fact, many products will actually contain “masking agents” (many of which are on IFRA’s fragrance list and mentioned above) in order to prevent your brain from perceiving odors from the various other chemicals.
So if you’re reaching for the fragrance free or unscented products, just make sure you check the label carefully before buying!
Can People Tell Artificial Smells From Real Ones?
Some people, especially those who are extra sensitive to chemicals, can usually tell when there are a lot of strong, synthetic chemicals and fragrances in a product. Naturally-scented products tend to be softer and less harsh on the senses. But sometimes synthetic fragrances can also be soft as well, or even not noticeable at all (like we just discussed with “unscented” products). So in general, you shouldn’t rely on your nose to tell you whether or not your products contain natural or artificial smells.
It’s Not Just Perfume! Here Are Common Places Where You’ll Find the “Fragrance” Label
When people think “fragrance,” perfume or cologne is often the first thing that comes to mind. But there are TONS of products that contain these chemicals. Here are the common ones:
- Shampoo, conditioner, and other haircare products. (You can find safer alternatives here and here.)
- Body wash, hand soap, face soap, and other cleansers (find better brands here)
- Baby lotions, shampoos, and other baby products
- Lotions and moisturizers (find safe brands here)
- Makeup & cosmetics (safer alternatives here, here, and here)
- Deodorant (click here for the good brands)
- Shaving cream
- Nail polish and nail polish remover
- Pads, tampons, and other feminine care products
- Air fresheners (here are our recommended brands)
- Laundry and dish detergent
- Fabric softener, scent beads, and other laundry products
- Cleaning products (all-purpose cleaner, wipes, toilet bowl cleaner, sanitizer, etc.)
- Paper products like tissues, paper towels, and toilet paper
- Even things like clothing and packaging can contain “fragrance”
How To Identify Safer Fragrance Products
- Look for brands that actually list the specific chemicals used in their fragrance, either right on the product label or at the very least, on their website.
- Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask brands for more information. The more transparency, the better. If they’re unwilling to tell you because it’s “proprietary information” or they’re trying to avoid actually answering your questions, move on.
- Look for products that have been verifiedto be free of toxic chemicals by a third-party organization like MADE SAFE or EWG.
- Look for certified organic products.
More Tips for Avoiding Dangerous Synthetic Scents
- Instead of just covering up scents with sprays and detergents, keep things fresh and clean by opening up the windows, getting an air purifier, and cleaning with vinegar.
- Use fresh flowers and houseplants to keep your home environment smelling fresh.
- Learn how to live with less fragrances. Some people really love that strong scent they get after cleaning the house or taking a load of laundry out of the wash… But you may want to consider taking a couple of months off from those strong synthetic scents and just see what it’s like! Try slowly making the switch to D.I.Y. or non-toxic products.
- Talk to your manager or HR professional about removing things like plug-in air fresheners from the workplace and ask if they will consider implementing a fragrance-free workplace policy (it’s becoming very common!).
- Support legislation such as the Safer Fragrance bill (SB 312) and the California Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act (AB 495) which push for more transparency for products that contain fragrances along with the banning of some of the worst offenders.
- And of course, use The Filtery’s guides to shop from brands that have already been vetted to be free of toxic chemicals!
Conclusion: What’s the Deal with Natural and Synthetic Fragrance?
In short, there are three main problems when it comes to synthetic fragrance:
Problem #1: There are lots of hidden ingredients and a huge lack of transparency for consumers due to the “fragrance loophole,” which allows companies to legally NOT disclose the ingredients they use in their scented products.
Problem #2: Many of the those hidden ingredients are known to be toxic and can cause and/or exacerbate everything from infertility to cancer and more.
Problem #3: Synthetic fragrances are ubiquitous; they’re everywhere! In fact, according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, “more than 95 percent of shampoos, conditioners, and styling products contain fragrance.”! This means most of us are being exposed to these toxic chemicals all day, every day.
Natural fragrances are much safer for the most part, but sourcing and proper use is important.