Have you ever wondered what it means when you see the word “fragrance” as an ingredient in a product like shampoo, body wash, or deodorant? When the term “fragrance” (also listed as “parfum”) is applied to a product, what it means is a mix of ingredients that can include any of over 5,000 different chemicals, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Obviously, fragrance is added to products to make them smell better or to cover up anything that might smell funky. You don’t get a luxurious aroma of citrus blossom or sparkling mountain stream without adding a little something extra. So that’s nice, now you can be tempted to eat your soap every time you wash your hands. What’s wrong with that?
Well, there is no way to know what the exact chemicals are that make up these fragrances, and what potential they might have for serious health effects. Under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) requires cosmetics to have an “ingredient declaration” that lists all of the product’s ingredients. This law is intended to make sure that consumers have information they need to compare products and make informed choices. However, regulations for this list of ingredients cannot be used to force a company to disclose “trade secrets” (FPLA, section 1454(c)(3)). By this law, fragrance ingredients do not need to be listed individually on cosmetic labels because they are the ingredients most likely to be “trade secrets”, and instead may simply be listed as “fragrance.” This is pretty scary because, according to the International Fragrance Association’s master list, fragrances can include chemicals that are known carcinogens, irritants, allergens, and potential endocrine disruptors, and a study by the American Academy of Dermatology found that fragrance is also the number one cause of cosmetic contact dermatitis.
However, there is limited research on the synergistic and synchronistic long-term effects that chronic exposure to fragrance may have on the body. If you want to start avoiding it altogether, then be sure to read the ingredient labels on products, looking for “fragrance” or “parfum”. An important thing to be aware of is that “unscented” and “fragrance-free” mean different things. Fragrance-free means that there is nothing added to the product, whereas unscented means that an additive was used to mask any other chemical smells. Why do they have to be so tricky? Is it really so much to ask to NOT make everything smell like a Bath & Body Works store? Apparently. The other day I was looking for a soap that was both anti-bacterial and fragrance-free. Seems like it wouldn’t be that difficult to find, but I hit up five different pharmacies and convenience stores and found none. What gives? Why is fragrance taking over the world and trying to kill us all slowly by making us inhale rosewater honeysuckle baby’s breath waterfall scented shampoo? I’m starting to think that I should just use my years of chemistry knowledge and start manufacturing my own soap instead.