Fragrance in many personal care products has been clinically-proven to cause a number of health problems ranging from skin irritation to more serious health issues including allergic reactions and respiratory difficulties. These hidden ingredients can be especially harmful to more vulnerable consumers like pregnant women.
And because the FDA doesn’t regulate ingredients that fall under the term, it can make it more difficult to determine which ingredient could be the cause of an allergic reaction.
WHAT IS FRAGRANCE?
The FDA defines fragrance as a combination of chemicals that give products a distinct smell. Fragrance, not an actual ingredient but commonly listed as one, is considered to be a trade secret which means that companies are not required to disclose what’s in it. There can be hundreds of potentially toxic chemicals that cause fragrance to stick to your skin.
Brands are required to use the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) when listing the components of a product. This means that they legally cannot alter the names of certain substances how they please. For example, the INCI prescribed term for water is Aqua, and for Shea Butter it’s Butyrospermum Parkii. Companies cannot change these words, no matter how luxurious or unique their water or shea butter is.
Fragrance is the only ingredient that isn’t regulated by the INCI or FDA.
WHY FDA REGULATIONS ARE LIMITED
Fragrances are unique blends of a number of chemicals. Companies create these unique blends in order to appeal to their customers and stand out. These formulas are considered to be proprietary ideas and hence form trade secrets.
The FDA created the loophole of not requiring the breakdown of fragrance ingredients as an attempt to protect these trade secrets. According to the Fair Packaging and Labelling Act of 1996, this was an essential loophole as it protected many signature scents like Chanel No.5. But, in some cases, this loophole is to create unique signature scents, even at the cost of the customer’s health.
HARMFUL EFFECTS OF FRAGRANCE
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, fragrances were found to be one of the top 5 causes of skin allergies, the first one being Nickel in jewelry.
In an Australian study, almost one third of the participants reported at least one or more health issues after using products with fragrance. 14% experienced mild symptoms including watery eyes while 10% experienced migraines. 9.5% reported skin issues including rashes and hives but the most concerning number? 17% of those tested experienced respiratory difficulties after using products with fragrance.
Fragrance, in short, can be dangerous. But, is it enough to look for labels that say 'Fragrance-Free?'
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
THE TRUTH ABOUT FRAGRANCE-FREE PRODUCTS
“Fragrance-Free” is also a term that can be used at each brand's discretion.
Products can be labeled as ‘Fragrance-Free’ and still use what’s called “scent masking chemicals” to neutralize the smell of unpleasant ingredients. Some of these ingredients when used in high concentrations can cause reactions similar to those seen with fragrance.
Ingredients can include but are not limited to the following.
- Almond Oil / Sweet Almond Oil
- Bergamot Oil / Citrus Bergamia
- Lavender Oil/ Lavandula Angustifolia
- Lemon/ Citrus Limon
- Neroli Oil
- Orange Extracts / Citrus Sinensis
- Ylang-Ylang Oil / Canaga Odorata
- Vanilla / Vanilla Planifolia
If you’re prone to allergies or have sensitive skin, it may be best to avoid fragrances altogether and research levels of essential oils used in products before purchase. And, ultimately, use brands that have a proven record in consumer product safety.