fragrance personal care product scent toxic

Fragrances: The toxic truth hidden behind your favorite scent

Fragrances in personal care products can harm consumer health by masking the presence of toxic ingredients. More than 3,000 ingredients hide behind the term fragrance, so when looking at an ingredient list, you can't be sure what's in your product.

By Mira Aboutaam, CALPIRG Intern

Humans have five basic senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Through our senses, we perceive the world around us. The sense of smell is one of my favorites. Our ability to register sent is closely linked to our emotions and feelings. A certain perfume may remind you of your grandma, or the scent of pumpkin spice may fill you with a warm holiday feeling. Ask your friends or family, and you'll find everyone has unique preferences to the scents we surround ourselves with -- in perfumes, shampoos, lotions and more. Popular scents range from fruity to vanilla, floral to fresh, and we all assume that these fragrances are harmless. Never do we think that within our personal care products hides hundreds of toxic chemicals. The ingredients list looks harmless enough. However, one key term hides the truth of toxins from consumers: fragrance. 

These scents added to personal care products, commonly referred to as fragrances, can harm consumer health by masking the presence of toxic ingredients. More than 3,000 ingredients hide behind the term fragrance, so when looking at an ingredient list, you can't be sure what's in your product. Chemicals often used to make fragrances are known to be allergens, hormone disruptors, asthma triggers, neurotoxins and carcinogens. Phthalates, a group of chemicals commonly found in nail polishes, lotions and hair care products, are known endocrine disruptors that can damage the reproductive system. The average American woman uses 12-16 personal care products a day, and this repeated, long-term exposure to fragrance chemicals can cause significant health effects.  Products we believe make us cleaner, healthier, and happier are triggering opposite results. As consumers demand transparency, companies should not be able to sneak toxins into our products. 

One would hope that regulators like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would protect consumers from toxins in personal care products, but in fact cosmetics and fragrances do not have to be FDA-approved before being sold to consumers. The 1966 Federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA) requires manufacturers to list all of the ingredients on a cosmetic product label, however fragrance and flavoring are specifically exempt from the FPLA’s labeling requirements. 

But there’s a growing movement for change. Major companies including L’Oréal and Unilever, have responded to consumer calls for transparency, and committed to disclosing fragrance ingredients in their products. 

Now the rest of the industry must follow suit. The California Legislature recently passed the California Fragrance & Flavor Ingredient Right to Know Act of 2020, SB 312 by Senator Connie Leyva, which would require disclosure of any fragrance or flavor ingredient that appears on one or more of the 27 authoritative hazard lists referenced in the bill. As a supporter of the bill, CALPIRG applauded the Legislature’s action and is now calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign the act into law.

Consumers have the right to know whether the smell of their shampoo has a toxic ingredient hidden behind it. If Gov. Newsom signs the California Fragrance & Flavor Ingredient Right to Know Act of 2020 into law, Californians will finally have that right.