The Hazards of Hidden Chemicals in Perfume

A new report on fragrances leaves a bad odor: 17 brands of popular perfumes, colognes, and body sprays were found to contain chemicals known or suspected to cause harm to human health. Yet the chemicals were not listed on the product labels, according to the study conducted by an independent laboratory for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

“The perfume industry is using chemicals that have known human health effects,” said EWG’s Sean Gray, one of the study authors. “These chemicals can trigger headaches, wheezing, asthma, chest tightening, and contact dermatitis.” In fact, the 17 brands contained an average of ten chemicals known to trigger allergic reactions. And the study also found suspected hormone disrupting chemicals, which may have effects on development and reproduction. “One of the chemicals, diethyl phthalate, has been linked to low sperm count in men, feminization of baby boy genitalia, and attention deficit symptoms in children,” Gray said. Furthermore, the study detected a synthetic musk chemical, musk ketone, which has been isolated in human fat and breast milk and is a potential hormone disrupting chemical.

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Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which commissioned the laboratory tests, notes that on average women use 12 personal care products a day and men use six, so their exposure to chemicals is frequent. And all in all, the 17 products contained on average 14 unlisted chemicals. “No one should have to spend hundreds of dollars in a lab to found out what we’re putting on our bodies,” says Malkan. However, a 1973 federal law exempts cosmetic companies from the requirement to list fragrance ingredients. Intended to protect a perfume’s secret formula, the law exposes consumers to numerous chemicals, many of which have not been fully tested for toxicity, according to the report.

Indeed, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lacks the authority and resources to test the chemicals used in fragrances. “We’re looking at a bill that would reform cosmetics regulations under FDA,” says Malkan, adding that “the FDA used to be the gold standard for regulatory agencies around the world and we need to make it that way again.” EWG and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics aregue that FDA needs the authority to regulate chemicals and the funding, staffing and will to carry out regulations. “For 70 years the [cosmetics] industry has been able to regulate itself and the industry is quite comfortable with that arrangement,” says Malkan, adding, “FDA has not taken action where it could be and should be in some cases, but overall the FDA is overwhelmed.”

What you can do

Chose products with no added fragrance. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics provides listings and provides a mailing list to keep you updated on legislative actions.

If you cannot completely forgo fragrance, try to reduce your use of perfumes, colognes, and body sprays especially when around those at greatest risk: children, women of childbearing age, and other sensitive populations.

Contact fragrance companies to let them know that consumers want to know what is in the products they buy. You usually can locate contact information on the package.

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