This stinks: What perfume makers won’t tell you

curiousBritney Spears lends her name to a perfume called Britney Spears Curious Eau de Parfum. But if you are curious about what goes into Britney’s eau, don’t ask Elizabeth Arden, the cosmetics giant that makes the fragrance.

Sure, some ingredients are identified on the label. They include Alpha Iso Methyl Ionone, Benzyl Benzoate, Benzyl Salicylate, Cital, Citronellol, Diethyl Phthalate, Eugenol, Farnesol, Galazolide, Hydroxycitonelle, Limonene and Linalool.

But another 17 chemicals are not listed, and they could be bad for your health, according to two advocacy groups, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the Environmental Working Group.

It’s no wonder the marketing for the perfume asks: Do you dare?

This week, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics published a report called Not So Sexy: The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrances. The report included the results of laboratory tests performed on 17 name-brand fragrance products revealing that, as a group, they contained 38 so-called secret chemicals. The average product contained 14 chemicals not listed on the label.

Products tested include Hannah Montana Secret Celebrity Cologne Spray (yes, it’s really called that), Jennifer Lopez J. Lo Glow Eau de Toilette Natural Spray, Halle by Halle Berry Eau de Parfum Spray, Coco Mademoiselle Chanel, Calvin Klein Eternity, Abercrombie & Fitch Fierce, American Eagle Seventy Seven, Clinique Happy Perfume Spray, Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue and Old Spice After Hours Body Spray.

The report says of the chemicals:

Among them are chemicals associated with hormone disruption and allergic reactions, and many substances that have not been assessed for safety in personal care products.

Also in the ranks of undisclosed ingredients are chemicals with troubling hazardous properties or with a propensity to accumulate in human tissues.

reportcoverConsumers  can’t count on the government to protect them from potential hazards, according to the report:

A review of government records shows that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not assessed the vast majority of these secret fragrance chemicals for safety when used in spray-on personal care products such as fragrances. Nor have most been evaluated by the safety review panel of the International Fragrance Association or any other publicly accountable institution.

Now, as the headline on this blogpost not-so-subtly indicates, the fact that perfume companies won’t disclose their ingredients is an unfortunate thing. But is it a reason for alarm? I’m not qualified to judge. Keep in mind that advocacy groups, like the industries they target, have an agenda, which is about getting attention and raising money. And while the 44-page report is laced with references to scientific studies, the science of measuring the effect of tiny amounts of chemicals on human health is both uncertain and controversial. See, as an example, the recent report by the President’s Cancel Panel which warned of the threats from chemicals in the air, water and food, and the reaction it provoked from, among others, the American Cancer Society. Teasing out cause and effect is just incredibly hard to do.

Having said that, why anyone would choose to smear these chemicals on their face or body is a mystery to me.

Why, as a consumer, would you take any risk, when the allergic effects associated with fragrance products, according to the report, include “headaches, chest tightness and wheezing, infant diarrhea and vomiting, mucosal irritation, reduced pulmonary function, asthma and asthmatic exacerbation, rhinitis and airway irritation, sense organ irritation and contact dermatitis”?

And why as a company would you subject your customers to risk? Here’s how crazy the confusion over chemicals has become: Several perfumes tested including a chemical called diethyl phthalate (DEP), which S.C. Johnson, the forward-thinking maker of Windex, Shout and Glade, agreed last year to phase out because of consumer concerns, while saying the chemical is safe.

What’s a consumer to do? ” I advise people to reduce exposure to fragrance wherever they can,” says Stacy Malkan, who is a co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of a book called Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds. While people can stop buying perfume, fragrances are everywhere–in soaps, shampoos, home cleaning products.  “Even looking for a shampoo without added fragrances is really challenging,” Malkan says.

Nor is it simple to seek out safer alternatives.  Terms like “natural fragrance” and “pure fragrance” found on some personal care products don’t have an enforceable legal definition. And, as the report notes, “just because a fragrance ingredient is derived from a plant or an animal source does not mean it is safe for everyone, since many all-natural and herbal products contain fragrance allergens.” Try smearing poison ivy on your face if you doubt that.

Still, companies like The Body Shop and Aveda have built their brands around being safe and green. They have a vested interest in retaining the trust of consumers. What’s more, about 200 companies, mostly  small ones, have promised to fully disclose all ingredients, including fragrances,  on their labels, as part of their commitment to the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, a pledge of safety and transparency.

Not surprisingly, the EWG report calls for government action, both to require full disclosure of ingredients and to test them for safety. In a press release announcing the report, three Democrats in Congress–Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin–say legislative action is needed.

“Comprehensive federal safe cosmetics legislation” is needed, the report says, “to protect the safety and health of the American people from toxic, untested and unregulated chemicals in the cosmetics and personal care products we buy every day.”

perfumeAgain, I’m not persuaded.  Do we really want the FDA spending its time and our money trying to prove than the more than 3,000 chemicals used in fragrances are safe?

Markets could solve this problem, provided enough consumers care. Here’s how:

First, no one is forcing anyone to buy perfume. If you splash some eau de Britney on your neck and the result is “reduced pulmonary function,” well, you’d have to be a moron to keep using it.

Second, people can buy from the more than 200 companies that have decided it’s in their best interests to disclose their ingredient. If consumers favor them, others will follow.

Third, since there are concerns about the second-hand effects of fragrances, workplaces could take action to get rid of them. This is already happening. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has apparently established a fragrance-free policy in its offices to protect health and prevent indoor air pollution.

Perfume. The new tobacco.


  1. says

    Thank you Marc Gunther for covering this important issue.

    The failure of our regulatory system leaves manufacturers at a disadvantage when they find out the chemicals they are using are dangerous to our health, and I am betting the celebrities promoting these toxic fragrances don’t know these products make their fans sick, either.

    Too bad the companies making the chemicals don’t have inherent integrity to make sure the chemicals they make do not present health hazards to begin with – and that they spend so much time denying and obscuring the science that they could be using those resources to develop safer products.

    Bravo to Stacy Malkan for such important work!

  2. says

    Thanks for writing about this topic Marc. You make some excellent points. However, I do believe that regulation is necessary for the market to function properly. It is not a free and fair market if people and companies do not have access to full information about the chemicals in products and the health risks, in order to make the best choices. This is an important debate and I will have more to say on this in the future, for now I am too friend after a very crazy week!
    Best wishes,
    PS: your blog also has me wondering, how airbrushed is Britney in that photo???

  3. FLAnderson says

    Glad you are bringing attention to this problem.

    What people should attempt to understand about fragrance use is that the ‘personal choice’ to wear strong scents affects people many feet away from them – so those who are moronic enough to keep splashing toxic fragrance chemicals all over themselves are also affecting other human beings who are attempting to breathe near them.

    Migraineurs and asthmatics in particular often suffer horribly at work every day, simply because they are forced to share office space with co-workers whose ‘signature scents’ are more like blistering and monumental olfactory graffiti.

  4. Possum says

    Yeah thank you Marc!!! I don’t think the average person is aware of the potential risk from all these chemicals in their lives…

    I read that Coco Chanel fragrances were the forerunner of the synthetic fragrances marketed??!!! And before that, there was no large synthetic fragrance industry??!!

    I got an attack of someone’s perfume in a stairwell yesterday…Not nice!!

  5. keinst says

    I don’t think testing sounds like a bad thing. We should know how bad those chemicals are for us. I’m not sure what the most efficient way of solving this problem is though, but I wouldn’t be against regulation that forces corporations to test their chemicals. It is very possible that these chemicals are not that bad for us, but it’s also possible that they are.

    You make a good comparison with cigarettes. To borrow that analogy, if they turn out to be carcinogenic, then people need to know.

    It’s one thing that people knowingly buy something that will harm their bodies, they have the right to do that. But it’s another thing when people, who don’t want to harm their bodies, end up buying things that harm them because of lack of transparency.

  6. AHalston says

    Shame on you Mr. Gunther. Your article is simply a mouthpiece for the NGOs thinly disguised as as analysis of the report.

    You correctly mention that numerous reputable scientists have come down on this report citing it as “junk science”. But then you spend most of your article quoting said junk science claims as grounds for not using fragrances. You also mention DEP as being unsafe and yet governments around the planet have tested and retested DEP and continually upheld it as safe to use in personal care products and fragrances.

    As for your claim that the fragrance industry has not disclosed its ingredients, that is also baloney. I like to check out the facts before I accept anything and went to the International Fragrance Association’s website and right there it lists thousands of chemical used in fragrances. How that that be construed as non-disclosure?

    So what gives, Mr Gunther? Are you a member of or a volunteer for one of the NGOs who prepared this report? Or perhaps a member of the trial injury lawyers association who continue to handsomely fund one of the NGOs?

    • Kat says

      “governments around the planet have tested and retested DEP and continually upheld it as safe to use in personal care products and fragrances.” Yeah, cause “governments” don’t take money from outside sources and are 100% trustworthy. I, personally, know it makes no sense to put a chemical on my skin, my skin has pores, it will get into my body. Any government that approves chemicals on the body is dumb, or paid.

  7. says

    To AHalston,

    Nowhere in my story did I refer to the report as “junk science.”

    You are correct that the International Fragrance Association website discloses ingredients. More than 3,000 are listed here

    But this very long list does not let consumers know what it is any particular brand of perfume. So it’s useless for those who want to avoid one chemical or another.

    There’s controversy, as you and I both say, about the safety issues here. Here is a link to the industry press release criticizing the EWG report. The industry says DEP is safe; others disagree.

    As I wrote, I’m not in a position to judge the safety issue. But on the question of transparency, the perfume industry could and should do better.

    Finally, I’m not a member or volunteer of any NGO quoted here, nor part of the trial lawyers group. I always disclose any potential conflicts of interest on this blog. For what it’s worth, I make most of my income from journalism and some from consulting and speaking for big companies. I did a small amount of writing for two green groups (Environmental Defense Fund and NRDC) in 2009 but no long work for either one.

  8. says

    Mr. Halston,
    Please don’t insult us by saying that IFRA publishing the list of 3,000-plus chemicals that may be used in fragrance counts as disclosure. Yes this was a step forward, albeit an obvious and long-overdue one. However, consumers have a right to know which particular mixture of chemicals they are being exposed to from their favorite fragrances.

    You are also probably aware that the government assessments of diethyl phthalate do not take into account new information from recent human studies by independent scientists that associate high DEP exposure to sperm damage in adult men, ADD in children, and genital changes in baby boys. Many of the fragrances tested by Campaign for Safe Cosmetics contained high levels of DEP, and some products contained none — showing it is possible to make fragrance without this chemical of concern. The cosmetics industry would be wise to take a precautionary approach and phase out DEP.

  9. Paula says

    It’s only a personal choice to where perfume until you are exposed to it at work – with no choice as to whether you can leave or not.

    And how about being told that you may lose your job if they can’t figure out what to do with you because you get sick because of perfume.

  10. shri says

    Interesting blog. I believe regulation is necessary. To begin with, its a huge task, but as time goes on, it can become smooth. I guess, we need the following information:

    1) Whether a chemical is an allergen or not. If it is affecting even 30% of the population, it should be treated as an allergen.
    1.1) Whether it affects just the wearer or even people around the wearer.
    1.2) How long after wearing, will the allergen be active?
    2) In what quantity does it become an allergen?
    3) What is the range within which it retains its allergicity.
    4) What is the safe quantity of any perfume that can be used per use – 1 spray, 2 spray, etc.
    5) Is there a combination of chemicals, that need to be avoided, even if the individual chemicals are benign?

  11. Kat says

    Great article, thank you for being someone who sheds light on this subject! Thank you, too, Stacy Malkan. My daughter is not allowed to spray perfume on her body, she hasn’t ever been allowed…

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