Have you ever wondered what the labels “fragrance” or “parfum” really mean? Think about all those times you have chosen one product over another because of labels that say: “paraben-free”, “alcohol-free”, or “sodium lauryl sulfate-free”, assuming these were the healthier options. Yet they probably still had fragrance ingredients in them. So what chemicals make up this vague ingredient category we see on so many labels?
First, let’s look at a little bit of background information. In Canada, the Food and Drugs Act allows the manufacturer to choose whether or not to list each ingredient in a cosmetic individually, or to lump all fragrance ingredients under the general term “parfum”. Parfum can be either listed at the very end of the ingredient list, or inserted into the appropriate part of the list, in descending order of volume. These rules are in place in order to protect the manufacturer from being required to disclose trade secrets to the public.
So how do we know what kinds of chemicals we are being exposed to in our cosmetics? Well, we don’t really, or at least not by looking on the label. Luckily, some independent research groups have conducted studies to discern the different chemicals that are commonly hidden under the “parfum” label.
In 2010, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the Environmental Working Group came out with a report called Not So Sexy: The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrance that revealed chemicals that were used in 17 fragranced products. They found that the average number of ingredients per product was 29 chemicals, with 14 of them hidden behind the fragrance label. Each product also averaged ten allergens and four hormone disruptors per product. Finally, 66 percent of these secret ingredients did not have any safety assessments published on them.
Some of the chemicals that we commonly find in fragranced products include: terpenes, synthetic musks, and diethyl phthalates. Terpenes include some of the most commonly used fragrance chemicals, such as limonene, which has a lemony, citrus smell. One study found that 92% of the tested products had limonene in them. Though regularly used, limonene can actually break down to form oxidation products that are contact allergens. Furthermore, terpenes can react with ozone to form secondary pollutants, such as formaldehyde, which is carcinogenic and toxic. However, information on oxidation products is quite scarce, as there is a lack of toxicological testing on these chemicals.
Another group of chemicals, synthetic musk fragrances, are commonly used to enhance the scent of many cosmetics. They might not be any safer than terpenes, however. Synthetic musks can be found in areas near wastewater discharge because they do not get treated out, and are considered micropollutants. In addition to bioaccumulating within the environment, they also accumulate in organisms, and have been found in human adipose tissue, blood, and breast milk.
Diethyl phthalates (DEPs), used as plasticizers in many products, are also used as solvents in fragrances. They can be found in urine samples of the majority of Americans, and are possible endocrine disruptors. DEPs have even been linked to subtle developmental effects in infant boys prenatally exposed to them.
Knowing what kinds of chemicals are being used in cosmetics is important for every consumer, but what would this look like? There are over 2,600 chemicals that are recognized as fragrance substances, and some products may have several hundred chemicals labeled as “parfum.” Could manufacturers be obligated to disclose all of this information with the public? Would the public benefit from being aware of what chemicals are being used in their products, or would they be needlessly alarmed?
For now, as consumers, we can choose to purchase products from companies that disclose all ingredients. We can also let cosmetic companies know that we have the right to know about all substances that are used in our products. Some companies, such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, have online lists available of companies that disclose all ingredients. Full disclosure of ingredients can be important for consumers’ health and for the environment, even though listing hundreds of chemicals on a label can cause logistical problems and force companies to reveal trade secrets. Don’t let cosmetics companies put you and the environment at risk.