Fruity, floral, musky – from candles and cleaning products to lotions, soaps, lipstick and cologne, we live in a scented world. What is lurking in the air?
bout 4,000 chemicals are currently used to scent products, but you won’t find any of them listed on a label. Fragrance formulations are considered a “trade secret” and therefore protected from disclosure – even to regulators or manufacturers. Instead, one word, fragrance, appears on ingredients lists for countless cosmetics, personal care and cleaning products. A single scent may contain anywhere from 50 to 300 distinct chemicals.
“No state, federal or global authority is regulating the safety of fragrance chemicals,” says Janet Nudelman, policy director for Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (BCPP) and co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. “No state, federal or global authority even knows which fragrance chemicals appear in which products.”
Three-quarters of the toxic chemicals detected in a test of 140 products came from fragrance, reported a 2018 BCPP study of personal care and cleaning brands. The chemicals identified were linked to chronic health issues, including cancer.
Also, about 35% of people report migraines or respiratory problems because of fragrance – health advocates have more serious concerns. Could fragrance chemicals, combined with the other chemical cocktails found in daily life, be shaping serious disease trends?
“There are chemicals in fragrances that do cause [cancer and reproductive effects], we know this from animal studies,” says Alexandra Scranton, Director of Science and Research for Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE), a women’s health not-for-profit. “Do people who use a lot of fragrance get more cancer than those who don’t? No one really knows because no one has looked at that.”
What’s a worried consumer to do?
Trying to avoid fragrance chemicals is perhaps one of the trickiest modern consumer challenges. Even products labelled as unscented could have some fragrance to mask the smell of other chemicals. Watchdogs also caution that even products claiming to be “natural” or “organic” could still be harbouring harmful fragrances.
The California Toxic Fragrance Chemicals Right to Know Act is backed by consumer health advocacy groups such as BCPP, BWW and WVE. If passed, the bill would be the first in the country to require manufacturers to report any hazardous chemical used to flavour or scent any personal care and cosmetic products sold in the state.
At the federal level, the Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act of 2018 is also seeking full chemical disclosure and a ban on carcinogens.
But there are resources for shoppers striving for a fragrance-free lifestyle, and the selection of unscented products continues to increase. The Environmental Working Group keeps databases on safe cleaning products and personal care products, including fragrances. BWW offers a pocket guide for black consumers and salon workers on top chemicals to avoid. BCPP encourages consumers to buy unscented products from companies committed to chemical disclosure, avoid products with fragrance or parfum on the label, and wear protective gear when working with fragranced cleaning products.
Nourbese Flint, policy director and program manager at BWW, has one last tip for concerned consumers: “If you are looking at labels and find yourself frustrated, find an organization to tap into,” she said. “Get involved in the conversation about policy … That’s the only way we will see real change.”
Source: The Guardian