Secret Scents: The Hidden
Chemicals in Fragrance


by guest blogger Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research for Women’s Voices for the Earth

Have you ever used a scented product that resulted in itchy, red, or blotchy skin? Or have you had a rash that’s hard to predict or control that you suspect might be caused by products in your home? If so, you are not alone. Millions of people in the U.S. have been sensitized to ingredients in fragrance, making them predisposed to allergic reactions like contact dermatitis. In fact, “fragrance allergy” is one of the most common diagnoses among dermatology patients.

The problem:

  • Up to 11 percent of the population is sensitized to fragrance
  • Women are two to three times more likely than men to be allergic to fragrance
  • Rates of skin allergies in children have risen dramatically over the past few decades
  • Billions of healthcare dollars are spent each year in the U.S. for treatment of these skin conditions
  • Chemicals used in fragranced products—such as phthalates—have been associated with reduced sperm count and reproductive problems.

If you are diagnosed with a skin allergy to fragrance, or want to avoid fragrances for precautionary health reasons, how can you avoid them? It’s a lot tougher than you might think.

What Is “Fragrance”?

A fragrance can be made up of dozens or even hundreds of different chemicals. One fragrance can be made up of completely different chemicals from another. Among these chemicals are numerous known allergens such as geraniol, eugenol, citronellol. Additionally, several hazardous chemicals can be found in fragrance: phthalates, which have been linked to reproductive harm; synthetic musks, which may alter hormone levels; and cancer-causing chemicals like styrene and methyl eugenol. But you won’t find these ingredients listed on product labels—you’ll just see the word “fragrance.”

What’s the Big Secret?

Because the fragrance industry is extremely competitive, the actual ingredients in a fragrance are usually kept secret. Again, you’ll only ever see them listed on a product label as “fragrance” or “parfum.” So you can almost never tell whether a particular fragrance might contain an allergen or toxic chemical that affects you. Some fragrance-allergy patients are able to find scented products they can tolerate, but it can be a difficult and painful trial-and-error process.

So, how can you avoid fragrance allergens or other hidden harmful fragrance chemicals?

Going Fragrance Free

One option is to choose fragrance-free products. This includes all kinds of household products—from cosmetics you apply to your skin, to cleaning products, dryer sheets, and air fresheners. Going fragrance free isn’t all that simple, however. Even “unscented” products may contain fragrance ingredients as “masking agents” to neutralize the inherent smell of other ingredients in the product. And for some product categories, finding a fragrance-free option is really difficult. For example:

  • 96 percent of shampoos contain fragrance
  • 98 percent of conditioners contain fragrance
  • 95 percent of shaving products contain fragrance
  • 91 percent of antiperspirants contain fragrance.

And although lotion use is commonly recommended to prevent dry skin conditions, 83 percent of lotions contain fragrance, which can predispose you to allergic skin reactions!

Unfortunately, going fragrance free can be time-consuming and expensive, and can leave you and your family with few options for products you might like to use.

Another Solution to the Problem

The biggest problem with fragrance is the secrecy that surrounds them. Due to the proprietary nature of fragrance ingredients, healthcare providers are limited in their ability to assess and diagnose which specific allergens are of greatest significance. If consumers knew what their problem allergens were, and could tell from a label if a product contained them, they would have a much easier time finding products they could tolerate without symptoms. Similarly, consumers looking to avoid specific toxic chemicals of concern can only do so if those ingredients are disclosed.

Which is why I believe fragrance ingredients, including allergens, should be disclosed to consumers to allow them to protect their health and avoid the specific substances they wish to avoid. And safer alternatives should be found for toxic chemicals that put our health at risk.

So, let’s send a letter to the fragrance industry asking them to disclose fragrance ingredients to their customers. Visit Women’s Voices for the Earth, to download the full report Secret Scents: How Hidden Fragrance Allergens Harm Public Health, view the Secret Scents infographic, and find out how we can make our voices heard.

 

Alexandra Scranton is the Director of Science and Research at Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE). Alex authors WVE’s scientific reports and provides scientific review for the organization’s programs. Prior to working at WVE, she worked in the epidemiology and statistics unit at the American Lung Association headquarters in New York. She has a Masters degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana and a BA from Amherst College. Alexandra lives and works from Pullman, WA, with her husband and two beautiful daughters.

 

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