Read the Label: “Added Fragrance”
Photo: Christopher Griffith/Trunk Archive
You don’t even realize how many personal care and beauty products you use everyday, from that glob of toothpaste in the morning to makeup wipes to clean the day’s grime off at night. As a result, we’re putting hundreds of different chemicals onto and into our bodies everyday. Shouldn’t you know what some of those things are? In this column, we chat with cosmetic chemists, doctors, and other experts to dive deep into the ingredient lists of your favorite products.
Otherwise known as: Perfume, parfum; sometimes ingredients will be listed as individual fragrance components (e.g. “rose oil)
What it does: According to Randy Schueller, a cosmetic chemist and the co-founder of The Beauty Brains, fragrance serves three functions. First, it’s used to mask any undesirable odors coming from the product itself; second, it gives an aesthetically pleasing scent to the product to increase consumer appeal; and, third, it sometimes reinforces the theme or function of a product. (Think baby powder that smells like talc and sunscreen that smells like pina colada.)
Where you’ll find it: In pretty much every single beauty product you use, sometimes even the ones labeled “unscented.” (These often contain masking fragrances.) And even if a product doesn’t list “fragrance” as an ingredient, other ingredients in the product can produce a scent. Generally, fragrance makes up about 2% or less of a product.
Potential side effects: This is the part where it gets tricky. Like we mentioned in our story on phthalate-free perfumes fragrances, even ones that are added to products, are considered proprietary and companies don’t have to disclose what chemicals are in them. “Since fragrances are composed of dozens, if not hundreds, of different ingredients it’s impossible to give one safety assessment for all fragrances. However, it is well known that some fragrance components do tend to cause irritation and/or allergic reactions,” Schueller says. “By law, these chemicals must be declared on the ingredient list. As a rule of thumb, when a person has a skin reaction to a product, fragrance is typically the prime suspect.” Geraniol, eugenol, and cinnamal are common fragrance allergens.
Safety profile: According to Mia Davis, the head of health and safety at Beautycounter, a cosmetics company that has voluntarily eschewed the use of 1,500 chemicals in their products, the two most concerning ingredients in fragrances are phthalates and synthetic musk. Animal studies have suggested that phthalates cause reproductive toxicity, and that synthetic musks can enhance the toxic effects of other chemicals. There are several types of both of these ingredients; some are more concerning than others. The FDA weighed in on phthalates and stated that it couldn’t find an “association between the use of phthalates in cosmetics and a health risk,” but the safety question has been raised, so consumers are leery. A cosmetic formulator tells us that many cosmetic companies are starting to request that their fragrance suppliers provide phthalate-free options, but it’s still not something you’ll see on the label, unless they advertise “phthalate free.”
Expert opinion: Due to consumer pressure, Davis suspects (and hopes) that more brands will start to disclose fragrance ingredients in a more transparent way in the future. Even if some of these questionable ingredients turn out to be harmless, consumers have a right to know what they’re squirting on themselves, particularly in light of the allergen potential.