Build a healthy environment for your baby with practical and easy tips from national nonprofit Healthy Child Healthy World.

Are Fragrance-Free Products Safer?

iStockphoto/Alexey Norkin

by Margie Kelly, Communications Manager, Healthy Child Healthy World

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Have you noticed scents wafting throughout some stores and even airplanes? According to AdWeek, associating a scent with a brand is the latest retail trend.

It may seem you’re smelling freshly-cut grass or a citrus delight but what you’re really inhaling is a combination of natural and synthetic mystery chemicals, some of which aren’t good for your health.

Manufacturers who use fragrance for personal care products won’t tell you what’s in their chemical mixtures, hiding that information as a highly guarded trade secret. The federal law governing ingredient disclosure for cosmetics explicitly exempts fragrance ingredients, which makes consumers unable to make informed choices about what they are putting onto their skin.

“We’re spraying this stuff on our bodies and in our homes, and we have no idea what’s in it,” said Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of the book, “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.” “We do know that typical fragrances often contain hazardous synthetic chemicals.”

Fragrance testing by advocacy organizations has revealed the average fragrance product has fourteen secret chemicals not listed on the label. Better known components of fragrance, including phthalates and DEP, are hormone disruptors. Other chemicals are sensitizers, which may set off allergic reactions.

According to one peer-reviewed study, 30% of people report adverse physical effects from fragrance exposure. The number is nearly 40% of people with asthma.

Strong reactions to chemical fragrances, plus a desire to bring fewer chemicals into the home have led consumers to demand manufacturers change their ways. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has identified 322 “Champions,” companies that fully disclose their ingredients on labels.

“These companies are showing it can be done and this is the direction all companies need to be going,” Said Malkan.

Other manufacturers have created fragrance-free product lines. But are these products a solution for people who want to lessen their chemical exposure?

Unfortunately not. According Malkan, there is no legal definition for fragrance-free, so it could mean that chemicals are used to mask scents or that the product has no perceptible odor but may contain chemicals that pose health risks.

“If a product claims to use ‘natural fragrance,’ then the type of essential oil should be listed on the label. If not, call the company and ask them to provide you with that information.”

“We recommend avoiding or at least reducing fragrance exposure, including fragrances in laundry detergents, lotions and other household products. Also see the Skin Deep database to search for products with no added fragrance.”

“But we can’t just shop or way out of this problem,” Malkan said. “We also have to pass smarter laws to require companies to stop using hazardous chemicals and to require them to be honest about their products.”

Here are some tips to avoid or lessen your exposure to fragrance:

  • Check ingredient list: look for products that don’t have any fragrance (but remember to be wary of “fragrance-free” claims)
  • Use less: If you can’t cut fragrance out of your life altogether, look for places where you can make that switch – maybe fragrance-free detergents? Or lotions?
  • Take action ! Let your elected officials know that you think your health is more valuable than fragrance trade secrets.

About Healthy Child Healthy World

Healthy Child Healthy World is a national non-profit inspiring the movement to protect our children from harmful chemicals. Healthy Child translates scientific findings and empowers parents to create healthy environments where families can flourish. Visit for more information.

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