By Nataliya Karashchuk
In a world of clean linen and lavender scents, we are surrounded by a bubble of fragrances every single day. Smells shape our world in ways we realize and ways we don’t. It is well-known that our olfactory system is closely connected to emotion and memory, playing an important role in our lives. And because of this, we feel pressure to ensure that ourselves and our surroundings smell good. Yet everything comes at a cost. The cost is the harm to our health due to undisclosed and unregulated chemicals in fragrances.
Often enough, we find ourselves analyzing the constituent parts that make up our food, carefully reading the list of nutritional facts and ingredients, yet we rarely apply the same diligence to our household products, cosmetics, and fragrances. We don’t think twice about terms like “fragrance” in a list of ingredients; we assume this constitutes a single or a couple of natural chemicals. The truth is that the term “fragrance” encapsulates a huge amount of undisclosed components. According to the Environmental Working Group, there were approximately 14 chemicals not listed on the label in the average fragrance product.1
What is troubling about these chemicals is not the sheer quantity of them, but the fact that they are unregulated and can be detrimental to our health.
These products often include sensitizing chemicals that can trigger allergic reactions and other components known as hormone disruptors. They also contain chemicals not assessed for safety by the government or industry, which means we have little knowledge as to the potential effects of these products.2
Not only can exposure induce severe allergic reactions, such as anaphylactic shock, in small populations, but it can also affect everyone adversely due to its hormone disrupting qualities. According to the National Institutes of Health, hormone disruptors are chemicals that interfere with the body’s endocrine system and may result in lowered fertility, cancers, and other diseases.3 Due to the fact that these are commonly seen in fragrances and scented products, women are especially at risk because they are most likely to come in contact with these chemicals in perfumes, make-ups, and other care products.
A question that may arise is: if these fragrances are so dangerous, then how come we hear so little about them? This is due to the population grossly overestimating the regulatory power of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1973 requires cosmetics companies to list ingredients on labels but exempts fragrance.4 Under this act, the combination of ingredients in a product that lists “fragrance” is regarded as a trade secret, very much like a “secret recipe”, to prevent other companies from stealing the formula. This lack of regulation breeds the inclusion of dangerous unregulated chemicals in scents.
What can we do about these products that encompass such a huge part of our lives? A chemical transparency policy enforced by the FDA can provide a good first step, but we also need to establish a large database of fragrance ingredients in order to keep the customer informed on the products they are purchasing. This will allow more informed decisions on the customer part, but also establish pressure on companies using harmful and unregulated chemicals to change their “recipe” to a less harmful alternative.
Nataliya Karashchuk is an undergraduate student majoring in Integrative Biology and Physiology and Film and Television at UCLA. She was part of the Chemical Entanglements Undergraduate Group in Spring, 2017.
- “Not So Sexy.” EWG. May 12, 2010. Accessed May 10, 2017. http://www.ewg.org/research/not-so-sexy.
- “Endocrine Disruptors.” National Institutes of Health. Accessed May 15, 2017. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/endocrine/.
- Mercola. “Does Your Perfume Include Toxic Chemicals?” Mercola.com. November 27, 2013. Accessed May 16, 2017. http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2013/11/27/toxic-perfume-chemicals.asp