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The Fragrance that you Wear May Have Hidden Toxins

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The Fragrance Report

Houlihan, a  senior vice president for research for EWG, and colleagues selected various popular fragrances, including colognes and body sprays marketed to both men and women, to see what fragrance chemicals the colognes and body sprays included. "We started with these 17 products," Houlihan says, "sent them off to the lab to see what other chemicals are in these products."

The list of products sent to an independent laboratory to be analyzed included:

  • Abercrombie & Fitch Fierce
  • American Eagle Seventy Seven
  • AXE Body Spray For Men-Shock
  • Bath & Body Works Japanese Cherry Blossom
  • Britney Spears Curious
  • Calvin Klein Eternity (for women)
  • Chanel Coco Mademoiselle
  • Calvin Klein Eternity for Men
  • Clinique Happy Perfume Spray
  • Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue
  • Giorgio Armani Acqua Di Gio
  • Halle by Halle Berry
  • Hannah Montana Secret Celebrity
  • Jennifer Lopez J. Lo Glow
  • Old Spice After Hours Body Spray
  • Quicksilver
  • Victoria's Secret Dream Angels Heavenly

The tests revealed that 38 "secret" chemicals were in the 17 name-brand colognes and body sprays products, with an average of 14 chemicals per product. American Eagle Seventy Seven had the most unlisted chemical ingredients, with 24; Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue had the least, with seven.

When they looked closer, Houlihan and colleagues found an average of 10 chemicals linked with allergic reactions such as headaches, wheezing, or asthma. The researchers found 12 different chemicals they describe as potentially hormone-disrupting, such as benzyl benzoate, diethyl phthalate, and tonalide.

Other chemicals that can be found in colognes, perfumes and body sprays include  most concern are phthalates, musk ambrette, octoxynols and nonoxynols.

Phthalates are a class of chemicals that has been linked to hormone disruption, which can affect development and fertility. Although some phthalates are being phased out of cosmetics under consumer pressure, diethyl phthalate (DEP) is still used in many products, including fragrance. DEP is a ubiquitous pollutant of the human body, found in 97 percent of Americans tested by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recent epidemiological studies have associated DEP with a range of health problems, including sperm damage in men. Most fragrances don't list phthalates on the label, but hide them under the term, "fragrance."

According to EWG, musk ambrette is toxic to the brain, testes, and skin, is banned in the European Union, and has been fingered by the International Fragrance Association and the Research Institute (IFRA) as a chemical that shouldn’t be used in products applied to the skin — though it is still used in some fragrances, by IFRA’s own admission. A 2009 study of Austrian college students found that those who used the most perfume and scented lotion also had the highest levels of synthetic musks, including Galaxolide and Tonalide, in their blood. Research by the Environmental Working Group has even found synthetic musks in the umbilical cord blood of newborn U.S. infants. Preliminary research suggests that musks may disrupt hormones. Both Galaxolide and Tonalide can bind to and stimulate human estrogen receptors and have been shown to affect androgen and progesterone receptors. Tonalide has also been reported to increase the proliferation of estrogen-responsive human breast cancer cells.

Of the 91 chemical ingredients found, the researchers report, only 19 chemicals have been reviewed by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, which is industry-funded, and only 27 chemical ingredients have been assessed by the IFRA for Fragrance Materials, which have developed voluntary standards for chemicals used in fragrance products.

According to the report, the fragrance industry has 3,100 stock chemical ingredients to choose from.

The FDA and Fragrances

Fragrances in products are covered under the federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1973.

The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act does require companies to list the ingredients of cosmetics, but allows them to simply lump fragrance chemicals as "fragrances."

Fragrance “Mask”

The perfume and beauty product industry has long hidden chemicals like phthalates — linked to birth defects, asthma, early puberty and decreased sperm counts — under the “fragrance” label, claiming industry secrets.

Fragrance Industry Says Report Smells

Not surprisingly, fragrance industry officials took strong exception to the new report. The findings, according to John Bailey, PhD, chief scientist for the Personal Care Products Council, is "another example of a group releasing information without providing all of the information that's relevant. There may be a bit of selective science going on here."

The researchers are "cherry picking their science," Bailey says. For instance, , "diethyl phthalate [which the researchers found in 12 of the 17 products and consider a hormone disrupter] has been extensively studied by a number of authoritative bodies and found not to be a problem."

Fragrance Labels: What Should Be Done?

"The chemicals that are in fragrances should be listed," says Houlihan.

One in every 50 people may suffer immune system damage from fragrance and become sensitized, according to the EU's Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products and Non-food Products. Once sensitized to an ingredient, a person can remain so for a lifetime, enduring allergic reactions with every subsequent exposure. Fragrances are considered to be among the top five known allergens and are known to both cause and trigger asthma attacks. Product tests conducted by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in 2010 revealed an average of 10 sensitizers in each fragrance tested.

"People should be able to know what they are being exposed to," she says. "Having a simple ingredient list on the label would help people avoid what they are allergic to."

As for the suggestion to list all chemicals used for fragrance on the label, "It's virtually impossible" because of the complexity and the number of chemicals involved, according to John Bailey, PhD, chief scientist for the Personal Care Products Council.

Bailey contends that the industry does a good job of policing itself when it comes to fragrance. For instance, he says, the International Fragrance Association has set recommendations regarding the use of some chemicals in fragrances.

Allergic reactions are bound to happen with some of the products for some people, says Bailey. If a product is found to cause widespread allergic problems, Bailey says, the FDA can step in and notify the manufacturer.

What You Can Do

Here’s what you can do to protect yourself from unnecessary exposure to toxic chemicals in personal care products.

  1. Choose products with no added fragrance: Use the Skin Deep advanced search to find products that do not include fragrance. Read ingredient labels, because even products advertised as “fragrance-free” may contain a masking fragrance.
  2. Consider eliminating other fragranced products from your routine, and using fragrance less often.
  3. Support companies that fully disclose ingredients in their products.


"Not So Sexy: The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrance," The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, May 12, 2010.

Jane Houlihan, senior vice president for research, Environmental Working Group, Washington, D.C.

John Bailey, chief scientist, Personal Care Products Council, Washington, D.C.

Last modified on Thursday, 12 January 2012 12:25
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