Fragrance ingredient disclosure and the Personal Care Products Safety Act

When it comes to fragrance, what we don’t know is actually hurting us.  Secrecy around ingredients is a long held tradition in the fragrance industry, but one that is outdated, unnecessary and poses a real barrier to ensuring the safety of personal care products.

The Personal Care Products Safety Act (S. 1014) is a bill that aims to improve the safety of cosmetics by increasing the regulatory authority of the FDA and requiring manufacturers to substantiate the safety of their products.  These are important tools, but the bill also needs to close the loophole on fragrance ingredients, which by law are allowed to be kept secret from both consumers and cosmetic manufacturers.  The only required disclosure for personal care products labeling is that the ingredients list includes the word “fragrance”. 

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Unfortunately, a “fragrance” can include dozens to hundreds of individual chemicals, some of which are known carcinogens, neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors, or known to cause allergies. Toxic fragrance ingredients, like styrene, phthalates and musks, which would raise eyebrows if they were listed on a package label, can legally be hidden from view by being collectively listed as “fragrance.”

In many cases, even the manufacturers of scented lotions, shampoos and other products do not know the components of the fragrances in their own products, because their fragrance suppliers won’t disclose them.  The human health impacts of these secret fragrance ingredients are seen every day worldwide.  Tens of millions of people, predominately women, experience skin reactions and rashes to “fragrance” without being able to identify the specific allergens causing the problem.  It is well-documented that exposure to “fragrance” can exacerbate asthma and other breathing problems, and can trigger migraines.  But again, the precise fragrance components causing these adverse reactions are unknown due to the fragrance disclosure loophole.  The potential numbers of cancers, birth defects, immune diseases or other syndromes linked to fragrance exposure are simply unknown, but of great concern.  

How can we truly work towards safer personal care products when we are prevented from even identifying many of the ingredients that are adversely affect our health?  There is consensus that personal care product safety is vital to public health, given the direct and intimate exposures to the multiple products we use on a daily basis.  

Requiring fragrance transparency, on a par with all other cosmetic ingredients, will serve to advance our knowledge, and allow individuals, manufacturers and the FDA to ensure that personal care products are safe and healthy to use.

Scranton is director of Science and Research at Women's Voices for the Earth.

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