Widely used even in some products marketed as “unscented” (often the last ingredient). Mixture of chemicals that can trigger allergies and asthma. Some linked to cancer and neurotoxicity. Some harmful to fish and other wildlife.
Used to produce a pleasant scent. The term “fragrance” or “parfum” on a cosmetic ingredients list usually hides a complex mixture of dozens of chemicals. Some 3,000 chemicals are used as fragrances. Fragrance is an obvious ingredient in perfumes, colognes, and deodorants, but it’s used in nearly every type of personal care product. Even products marketed as “fragrance-free” or “unscented” may in fact contain fragrance along with a masking agent that prevents the brain from perceiving odour. In addition to their use in cosmetics, fragrances are found in numerous other consumer products, notably laundry detergents and softeners and cleaning products.
Health and Environmental Hazards
Of the thousands of chemicals used in fragrances, most have not been tested for toxicity, alone or in combination. Many of these unlisted ingredients are irritants and can trigger allergies, migraines, and asthma symptoms. A survey of asthmatics found that perfume and/or colognes triggered attacks in nearly three out of four individuals. There is also evidence suggesting that exposure to perfume can exacerbate asthma, and perhaps even contribute to its development in children.
People with multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) or environmentally linked illnesses are particularly vulnerable, with fragrances implicated both in development of the condition and triggering symptoms. However, anyone might experience skin irritation or runny eyes and nose. U.K. researchers have reported that “perfume” is the second most common cause of allergy in patients at dermatology clinics. In addition, in laboratory experiments, individual fragrance ingredients have been associated with cancer and neurotoxicity among other adverse health effects.
Synthetic musks used in fragrances are of particular concern from an ecological perspective. Several of musk compounds are persistent in the environment and build up (bioaccumulate) in the fatty tissue of aquatic organisms. Measureable levels of synthetic musks are found in fish in the Great Lakes and the levels in sediment are increasing. Environment Canada has categorized several synthetic musks as persistent, bioaccumulative, and/or toxic, and others as human health priorities.
Some fragrance ingredients are not perfuming agents themselves but enhance the performance of perfuming agents. For example, diethyl phthalate (prounced tha-late), or DEP, is widely used in cosmetic fragrances to make the scent linger. Phthalates are choice ingredients in cosmetics because they are cheap and versatile. However, they are reproductive toxins and may interfere with hormone function.
Laboratory analysis of top-selling colognes and perfumes identified an average of 14 chemicals per product not listed on the label, including multiple chemicals that can trigger allergic reactions or interfere with hormone function. To learn more, read a recent report by Environmental Defence.
Fragrance recipes are considered trade secrets so manufacturers are not required to disclose fragrance chemicals in the list of ingredients. Environment Canada is currently assessing one synthetic musk (moskene) under the government’s Chemicals Management Plan and has flagged several others for future assessment. Health Canada recently announced regulations banning six phthalates in children’s toys (including DEP), but the use of DEP in cosmetics is unrestricted.
International regulations are stronger. The European Union restricts the use of many fragrance ingredients, including two common musks (nitromusks) and requires warning labels on products if they contain any of 26 allergens commonly used as cosmetic fragrances.