11 June 2019

How could smelling good actually be bad for you?

Do you really know what your scented products contain?

If you thought you knew what your scented products contain, think again.

A report revealed that three quarters of all toxic chemicals detected in a test of 140 personal care and cleaning products came from the added fragrances. 

The chemicals discovered in the study were linked to chronic health issues, including cancer.

Trade secrets

It is estimated that there are over 4 000 chemicals used to add fragrance to products – none of which ever appear on the ingredients list, because these ingredients are all simply grouped under the term "fragrance".

This generic term is commonly found on ingredient lists of household products and cosmetics, representing a combination of tens to hundreds of individual fragrance chemicals.

The formulation of fragrances is regarded as manufacturers' "trade secrets", which means ingredients don't have to be disclosed.  

The term "fragrance" is used on ingredient lists for a vast number of cosmetics, personal care and cleaning products. It's been reported that a single scent can contain anything from 50 to 300 distinct chemicals.

Cause for concern

Another 2018 report found there are more than 1 200 chemicals flagged as "unknown" or potential "chemicals for concern". These include 15 chemicals prohibited from use in cosmetics in the EU and seven carcinogens and other dangerous substances cited on warning lists.

The report goes on to say that most basic studies are conducted by the manufacturer themselves and are never published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Furthermore, "there is no independent review of laboratory practices, appropriate controls, levels of significance or any of the hallmarks of authoritative science to ensure that the results of these studies have not been manipulated to serve the interests of the manufacturer conducting the testing."

The report also states the International Fragrance Association has no standards in place for most of the controversial fragrance ingredients of concern, and the standards establishing "safe" levels of skin sensitisers have failed, resulting in little to no decreases in reported allergy to fragrances.

Although many people are exposed to fragrances on a daily basis, women face a greater risk due to the fact that most scented products come from beauty and cosmetic products, which are absorbed through the skin.

In a 2016 study, besides common reactions to fragrances, 34.7% of people reported migraines or other respiratory problems because of fragrances.

Even products labelled as "unscented" could have some fragrance to mask the smell of other chemicals, meaning products that claim to be "natural" or "organic" could still contain harmful fragrances.

The bigger picture

When companies do not disclose the ingredients of their fragrances, consumers cannot know what they are being exposed to in order to avoid certain chemicals.

The report adds that "those who are sensitive or allergic are unable to diagnose what specific fragrance chemicals are causing their reaction".

It then concludes by saying that a deeper investigation revealed a lack of oversight, transparency and regulation of materials used in fragrance.

These missing links in the process allow potentially toxic chemicals to be included in fragrances without further examination, which means that the public cannot verify the safety of scented products.

Image credit: iStock


Live healthier

Lifestyle »

E-cigarettes: Here are five things to know

E-cigarettes have become hugely popular in the past decade, but a rash of vaping-linked deaths and illnesses in the US is feeding caution about a product that's already banned in some places.

Allergy »

Ditch the itch: Researchers find new drug to fight hives

A new drug works by targeting an immune system antibody called immunoglobulin E, which is responsible for the allergic reaction that causes hives.