|The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrance
by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
May 12th, 2010
A rose may be a rose. But that rose-like fragrance in your perfume may be something else entirely, concocted from any number of the fragrance industry’s 3,100 stock chemical ingredients, the blend of which is almost always kept hidden from the consumer.
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics commissioned an independent lab to test 17 fragrance products. Campaign partner Environmental Working Group assessed data from the tests and the product labels. The analysis reveals that the 17 products contained, on average:
The majority of chemicals found in this report have never been assessed for safety by any publicly accountable agency, or by the cosmetics industry’s self-policing review panels.
Chemicals in people
Some perfume and cologne ingredients are found on product labels, but others hide under the secretive ingredient “fragrance.” Due to this trade secrets loophole, nearly half of the ingredients in the products we tested were not listed on labels.
Here’s what you can do to protect yourself, your loved ones and future generations from unnecessary exposure to toxic chemicals in personal care products.
President’s Cancer Panel report highlights threat from hormone-disrupting chemicals – many found in new fragrance study
San Francisco – A new analysis reveals that top-selling fragrance products – from Britney Spears Curious and Hannah Montana Secret Celebrity to Calvin Klein Eternity and Abercrombie & Fitch Fierce – contain a dozen or more secret chemicals not listed on labels, multiple chemicals that can trigger allergic reactions or disrupt hormones, and many substances that have not been assessed for safety by the cosmetics industry’s self-policing review panels.
The study of hidden toxic chemicals in perfumes comes on the heels of last week’s report by the President’s Cancer Panel, which sounded the alarm over the understudied and largely unregulated toxic chemicals used by millions of Americans in their daily lives. The President’s Cancer Panel report recommends that pregnant women and couples planning to become pregnant avoid exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals due to cancer concerns. Several fragrances analyzed for this study contained multiple chemicals with the potential to disrupt hormones.
“This monumental study reveals the hidden hazards of fragrances,” said Anne C. Steinemann, Ph.D., Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Professor of Public Affairs, University of Washington. “Secondhand scents are also a big concern. One person using a fragranced product can cause health problems for many others.”
For this study, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a national coalition of health and environmental groups, commissioned tests of 17 fragranced products at an independent laboratory. Campaign partner Environmental Working Group assessed data from the tests and the product labels. The analysis reveals that the 17 products contained, on average:
- Fourteen secret chemicals not listed on labels due to a loophole in federal law that allows companies to claim fragrances as trade secrets. American Eagle Seventy Seven contained 24 hidden chemicals, the highest number of any product in the study.
- Ten sensitizing chemicals associated with allergic reactions such as asthma, wheezing, headaches and contact dermatitis. Giorgio Armani Acqua Di Gio contained 19 different sensitizing chemicals, more than any other product in the study.
- Four hormone-disrupting chemicals linked to a range of health effects including sperm damage, thyroid disruption and cancer. Halle by Halle Berry, Quicksilver and Glow by JLOeach contained seven different chemicals with the potential to disrupt the hormone system.
The majority of chemicals found in the testing have never been assessed for safety by any publically accountable agency, or by the cosmetics industry’s self-policing review panels. Of the 91 ingredients identified in this study, only 19 have been reviewed by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), and 27 have been assessed by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) and the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM), which develop voluntary standards for chemicals used in fragrance.
“Something doesn’t smell right—clearly the system is broken,” said Lisa Archer, national coordinator of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics at the Breast Cancer Fund. “We urgently need updated laws that require full disclosure of cosmetics ingredients so consumers can make informed choices about what they are being exposed to.”
“Fragrance chemicals are inhaled or absorbed through the skin, and many of them end up inside people’s bodies, including pregnant women and newborn babies,” said Jane Houlihan, senior vice president for research at Environmental Working Group.
A recent EWG study found synthetic musk chemicals Galaxolide and Tonalide in the umbilical cord blood of newborn infants. The musk chemicals were found in nearly every fragrance analyzed for this study. Twelve of the 17 products also contained diethyl phthalate (DEP), a chemical linked to sperm damage and behavioral problems that has been found in the bodies of nearly all Americans tested.
Members of Congress who are working to develop safe cosmetics legislation reacted to the report:
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.: “There’s no reason that people should be exposed to potentially harmful chemicals because they use perfume, cologne or body spray. But this report suggests that is exactly what’s happening. The chemicals detected in popular fragrances, which are often endorsed by celebrities, could have a range of adverse health effects and Americans are being exposed unknowingly. I think this is a clear sign of how woefully out of date our cosmetics laws are and how urgently the cosmetics safety legislation we’re developing is needed. The ingredients used in these products need to be tested for safety and the FDA must be empowered to fully protect the health of Americans by blocking chemicals deemed unsafe. Americans need to know that the fragrance products they buy don’t contain chemicals that could harm them.”
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass.: “A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but in some cases sweet smelling fragrances may in fact be dangerous. I am happy to be joining with my colleagues to soon introduce legislation that will make disclosure of ingredients used in cosmetics and fragrances mandatory and ensure that toxic chemicals are kept out of colognes and perfumes. Consumers have a right to know just what is in the products they spray and rub on their body every day.”
Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.: “It’s alarming that cosmetics products we use every day contain hidden toxic chemicals. That’s why I’m working with colleagues in Congress on legislation that will overhaul our outdated cosmetics oversight and regulation. We all deserve to know our products are as safe as possible.”
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Download the report: NotSoSexy_report_May2010
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is a national coalition of nonprofit women’s, environmental, public health, faith and worker safety organizations. Our mission is to protect the health of consumers and workers by securing the corporate, regulatory and legislative reforms necessary to eliminate dangerous chemicals from cosmetics and personal care products.
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is working with endorsing organizations, responsible businesses and thousands of citizen activists to shift the cosmetics market toward safer products and to advocate for smarter laws that protect our health from toxic chemicals and encourage innovation of safer alternatives.
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics coalition members include the Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow (represented by Clean Water Action and Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition), the Breast Cancer Fund, Commonweal, Environmental Working Group, Friends of the Earth and Women’s Voices for the Earth. The Breast Cancer Fund, a national 501(c)(3) organization focused on preventing breast cancer by identifying and eliminating the environmental links to the disease, serves as the national coordinator for the Campaign.
FAQs about “Not So Sexy”
Science: Synthetic musks
Synthetic musks are a large, poorly-studied class of chemicals added as scents to cosmetics, including perfumes, lotions and many other personal care products. Several studies suggest some of these compounds may disrupt hormone systems or trigger skin sensitization when exposed to UV light (i). Synthetic musks identified in fragrances have been found in the cord blood of newborn babies (ii), as well as in blood, breast milk and body fat.
Products That May Contain Synthetic Musks
Two types of musks have historically been used in fragrances, cosmetics and personal care products: nitromusks, such as musk ketone, and polycyclic musks, such as Galaxolide and Tonalide. Synthetic musks are widely used as scents in personal care products and are found in many perfume, lotions, colognes and body sprays.
There is evidence that exposure to synthetic musks can have hormone disrupting effects. Galaxolide and Tonalide can bind to and stimulate human estrogen receptors (iii), and both musks have been shown to affect androgen and progesterone receptors (iv). Tonalide has also been reported to increase the proliferation of estrogen-responsive human breast cancer cells (v). Further, Tonalide has been identified as a photosensitizer, a chemical that becomes more toxic when exposed to sunlight on the skin (vi) and has been linked to liver toxicity (vii).
Due to the ubiquity of these chemicals, synthetic musks are pervasive in people’s bodies—even in newborns. Environmental Working Group tests of umbilical cord blood found 7 out of 10 babies had been born with Tonalide and/or Galaxolide in their blood (ii). Another study detected Galaxolide in the blood of 91 percent of Austrian students.
Several studies have specifically linked personal care products with elevated body levels of synthetic musks. A 1996 study found Galaxolide and Tonalide in body fat and breast milk after use of cosmetics and detergents (viii). A survey on routes of exposure linked body lotion to higher Galaxolide concentrations (ix, x), and another study found frequent use of perfume during pregnancy resulted in elevated concentrations of Galaxolide in breast milk (xi).
Synthetic Musk fragrances are produced in high volumes (industry reported manufacturing or importing between 1 and 10 million pounds of Galaxolide in 2006 alone (xii)) and can accumulate in the food chain and negatively impact the environment (xiii). Environmental studies from areas as diverse as the Great Lakes, Germany and China have documented widespread Galaxolide and Tonalide contamination of both fresh and marine water samples, air, wastewater and sludge (xiv, xv). Studies also report Galaxolide and Tonalide contamination in many species of aquatic wildlife (xvi).
The combination of widespread human exposure, environmental contamination and persistence raises questions about the safety of their widespread use in fragranced products. Reducing the volume of fragranced products in daily use could make a significant difference to pollution in people and the environment.
One billion tons of phthalates are produced worldwide each year. Phthalates are used in a variety of common consumer products: they soften vinyl plastics that are common in toys, are responsible for the smell of new vinyl shower curtains and are a frequent component of fragrances used in air fresheners, detergents, cleaning products and more. They show up in cosmetics to hold color and scents, and have also been found in nail polish and treatments.
Products That May Contain Phthalates
Most personal care products that contain phthalates don’t list them on the label. In field research, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found phthalates listed as an ingredient only in nail polish (i). Yet our 2002 report, “Not Too Pretty,” described phthalates in nearly three-fourths of tested products, even though none of the 72 products had phthalates listed on the labels (ii). Follow-up testing conducted by the campaign in 2008 found that some – though not all – of the same products tested in 2002 now contained lower levels of phthalates (iii). A significant loophole in the law allows phthalates (and other chemicals) to be added to fragrances without disclosure to consumers. Because fragrance occurs in nearly every conceivable product, including lotions, soaps, cleansers and hair care products, phthalates are common.
Where It Comes From
Phthalates are ubiquitous in human bodies. A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that every one of the 289 people tested had dibutyl phthalate (DBP) in his or her body. The CDC scientists speculated these high levels could come from personal care products and cosmetics, among other things (iv). A later, more extensive study of 2,500 individuals found metabolites of at least one phthalate in 97 percent of the tested group (v).
Two decades of research suggest that phthalates disrupt hormonal systems, which can cause harm during critical periods of development (vi). Phthalate exposure in pregnant women, as measured by urine samples, has been associated with a shortened distance between the anus and genitals in male babies, indicating a feminization had occurred during genital development (vii). Shorter anogenital distance is characteristic of female sex in both humans and animals. Other research in humans has shown that baby boys exposed to phthalates in breast milk had alterations in their hormone levels (viii).
Other research in adult human males has found exposure to some phthalates is associated with poor sperm quality and infertility (ix). Further research in male animals has shown that exposure to various phthalates causes birth defects of the genitals – such as hypospadias (an abnormal location for the opening of the urethra on the underside of the penis) and undescended or small testicles – resulting in low sperm counts and infertility (x). Female laboratory animals exposed to phthalates also have been found to have alterations in sex hormones and experience fetal loss (xi).
One of the ways that phthalates interfere with reproductive functioning is by reducing the levels of sex hormones, which are critical for development and functioning of the sex organs (xii). Additional research suggests that these same mechanisms may link phthalates to breast cancer (xiii). Phthalates have also been shown to cause proliferation of breast tumor cells and renders anti-estrogen treatments, such as tamoxifen, less effective against tumors (xiv).
What’s in your products: Fragrance
What’s that smell? Unfortunately, there’s no way to know. Fragrance is considered a trade secret, so companies don’t have to tell us what’s in it – often dozens or even hundreds of synthetic chemical compounds.
Almost half the products in Skin Deep contain the generic term “fragrance,” from shampoos and deodorants to lotions and shaving creams. Even “unscented” products may contain masking fragrances, which are chemicals used to cover up the odor of other chemicals.
What’s Really in the Bottle?
Some hidden hazards that may be lurking in products that contain synthetic fragrance include:
Allergens and sensitizers: One in every 50 people may suffer immune system damage from fragrance and become sensitized, according to the EU’s Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products and Non-food Products. Once sensitized to an ingredient, a person can remain so for a lifetime, enduring allergic reactions with every subsequent exposure. Fragrances are considered to be among the top five known allergens and are known to both cause and trigger asthma attacks.Product tests conducted by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in 2010 revealed an average of 10 sensitizers in each fragrance tested.
Phthalates: This class of chemicals has been linked to hormone disruption, which can affect development and fertility. Although some phthalates are being phased out of cosmetics under consumer pressure, diethyl phthalate (DEP) is still used in many products, including fragrance. In 2010, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found DEP in 12 of 17 fragrance products tested for our report, “Not So Sexy.” Product tests conducted by Consumer Reports ShopSmart magazine in January 2007 found the phthalates DEP and DEHP (which is banned in Europe) in each of eight popular perfumes tested. DEP is a ubiquitous pollutant of the human body, found in 97 percent of Americans tested by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recent epidemiological studies have associated DEP with a range of health problems, including sperm damage in men. Most fragrances don’t list phthalates on the label, but hide them under the term, “fragrance.”
Neurotoxins: As far back as 1986, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences identified fragrance ingredients as one of six categories of neurotoxins (chemicals that are toxic to the brain) that should be thoroughly investigated for impacts on human health. However, this research has not been demanded or funded. The FDA has taken no action on a petition submitted to the agency in 1999 requesting fragrance components to be listed on labels.
Synthetic musks: A 2009 study of Austrian college students found that those who used the most perfume and scented lotion also had the highest levels of synthetic musks, including Galaxolide and Tonalide, in their blood. Research by the Environmental Working Group has even foundsynthetic musks in the umbilical cord blood of newborn U.S. infants. Preliminary research suggests that musks may disrupt hormones. Both Galaxolide and Tonalide can bind to and stimulate human estrogen receptors and have been shown to affect androgen and progesterone receptors. Tonalide has also been reported to increase the proliferation of estrogen-responsive human breast cancer cells. These musks have an environmental impact – they have been found to be toxic to aquatic life in numerous studies and can accumulate in the food chain.
What You Can Do
- Choose products with no added fragrance: Use the Skin Deep advanced search to find products that do not include fragrance. Read ingredient labels, because even products advertised as “fragrance-free” may contain a masking fragrance.
- Less is better: If you are very attached to your fragrance, consider eliminating other fragranced products from your routine, and using fragrance less often.
- Help pass smarter, health-protective laws: Sign our petition to Congress to voice your support! Buying safer, fragrance-free products is a great start, but we can’t just shop our way out of this problem. In order for safer products to be widely available and affordable for everyone, we must pass laws that shift the entire industry to non-toxic ingredients and safer production.
- Sign on to our letter to the celebrities whose fragrances we tested – Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, Halle Berry and Miley Cyrus – and ask them to show their true leadership by taking a stand against toxic chemicals in personal care products, beginning with their own fragrance lines. You can also contact other cosmetics companies to ask them to disclose their fragrance ingredients. We’ve put together talking points to get you started.
- Support companies that fully disclose ingredients in their products.
Dr. Maryann Donovan, of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, talks about a new report on perfumes and fragrance chemicals.