Scents and Sensibility

Why synthetic fragrances can cause health problems.

If the perfume or body spray you buy contains “fragrance,” it might be more alarming than alluring, new research shows. We asked Stacy Malkan, cofounder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, to tell us a little about synthetic fragrances, and why they can cause health problems.

What is synthetic fragrance? And why don’t companies have to disclose what’s in it?

It’s a loophole in the labeling laws. Anything that adds a scent to a product does not have to be disclosed, because it can be considered a trade secret. A synthetic fragrance typically contains multiple petrochemicals that are not listed on labels. A natural fragrance, by contrast, usually uses plant-based essential oils, and generally, these are included on ingredient labels.

What kinds of problems can synthetic fragrances cause? 

More than 30 percent of people are sensitive to these fragrances and experience headaches, wheezing or asthma when exposed. But even nonsensitive people are at risk. We had 17 top-selling fragrances tested at an independent lab and found an average of 14 chemicals not listed on labels. We found an average of four chemicals in each product that act as hormone disruptors, interfering with the thyroid or mimicking estrogen. Diethyl phthalate, found in high levels in several popular fragrances for men, has been linked to sperm damage and infertility.

How can people avoid these toxins?

Unfortunately, even if a product is labeled “fragrance-free,” it might still have a masking fragrance — chemicals that are used to cover the odor of other chemicals. Look for products that do not contain any added fragrance, or that contain only natural, plant-derived fragrances.


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