What is "Fragrance" and Why You Should Avoid It

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We see this ingredient on almost every label from shampoos, conditioners, other hair care products, sunscreens, cosmetics, body care products, candles, soaps, perfumes, etc, etc, etc! What many do not realize is that companies are able to hide harmful chemicals under the term “Fragrance”. Want to hear something shocking? The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) stated that, “Fragrance is the biggest cause of cosmetic contact dermatitis”. What does this mean? Rashes, rosacea, dryness, flakiness, redness, etc can all be caused or further irritated by products containing “Fragrance” as an ingredient (check out our article 17 Ingredients to Avoid for a full list of harmful/irritating chemicals).

How Can “Fragrance” Contain Harmful Ingredients?

In 1966, the Fair Package and Labelling Act made it legal for brands to not list all the ingredients in their products in order to protect their “trade secrets”. The act was meant to protect brands against product replication, but it has also allowed them a veil with which they can hide toxic ingredients behind.

Although it is just one word on the ingredients label, “Fragrance” can actually be a blend of any number of chemicals. The AAD has found that roughly 5,000 fragrance molecules are regularly used in some blend under the term “Fragrance”. Cosmetic companies may use as many fragrance-forming ingredients as they like—and still “fragrance” takes up just one spot on the label.

How Can “Fragrance” be Harmful?

On average, the ingredient “Fragrance” contains at least 14 chemicals that are not explicitly listed. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that most, if not all, of these chemicals are known hormone disruptors, allergens and even carcinogens! What’s worse, 80% of chemicals listed under “Fragrance” have not even been tested for human safety.

In another study done by the EWG, they found that phthalates (the incredibly harmful hormone disrupting AND carcinogenic chemical) are in 75% of products with “Fragrance”. Octoxynols and Nonoxynols are also commonly found as chemicals hidden under the term “Fragrance” and are harmful hormone disruptors.

What does this mean? That even products listed as “All- Natural”, “Organic”, “Phthalate-Free”, etc can still have harmful, irritating chemicals if you see the term “Fragrance” on their ingredients label.

Why Fragrance-Free Products aren’t Necessarily the Answer

After understanding the potential hazards of products with “Fragrance”, it may be tempting to reach for any products that simply lists “fragrance-free”. Some clean products who use natural scents like plant and flower extracts or essential oils have every right to use this term. However, “fragrance-free” is also used by companies who include scent-masking chemicals (Neutrogena for example).

How to Choose the Cleanest Products

First, always, ALWAYS read ingredients labels. Even if the product is decorated with encouraging terms like “All-Natural”, Plant-Based”, “Toxic-Free”. In general, it is best to avoid any product that has “Fragrance” in the ingredient list. The only exception to this rule is if the brand actually lists what is included in the “Fragrance”. For example, a company may list “Fragrance” and then next to it in parentheses show the list of chemicals that make up the fragrance.

In general, products naturally scented with essential oils and/or plant extracts are safe. For those who have sensitivities to essential oils or certain herbs/flowers it is best to choose products that are truly unscented or simply do not use the specific herb/flower/oil that you are sensitive to.

A few other amazing resources for checking the purity and safety of products are:

  • The EWG’s Skin Deep Database: You can go to their site, input the name of a specific product and see the EWG’s full product analysis!

  • The ThinkDirty App: An app you can download on your phone and easily use while you are out and about. Simply scan a product while shopping and see the purity and safety analysis.

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References:

Bouchez, C. (n.d.). Fragrance Allergies: A Sensory Assault. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/allergies/features/fragrance-allergies-a-sensory-assault#1

Ewg. (n.d.). 3,163 ingredients hide behind the word "fragrance". Retrieved from https://www.ewg.org/enviroblog/2010/02/3163-ingredients-hide-behind-word-fragrance

Fair Packaging and Labeling Act. (2018, February 16). Retrieved from https://www.ftc.gov/enforcement/rules/rulemaking-regulatory-reform-proceedings/fair-packaging-labeling-act

FRAGRANCE. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredient/702512/FRAGRANCE/
Fragrance. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chemicals-of-concern/fragrance/