Fragranced Products: Truly a Surprise Package

July 6th, 2008

This article was originally published in the trade journal, ‘Indoor Environment Connections’ but those archives are no longer available.

Fragranced Products: Truly a Surprise Package

By Barbara Rubin

Public concern continues as more unwelcome ingredients, such as asbestos and lead in children‘s toys, are discovered in a variety of imported products. A longer-running dispute continues domestically between consumers and vendors of many products boasting undisclosed ingredients.

Among them is the class of widely marketed products known as synthetic fragrances. The older question about consumers’ right to know about the contents of any purchase is now entering a new realm of debate about the need to know all about the chemically laden manufactured goods on the market.

As reports about the adverse health impacts of commonly encountered products mount, the current American version of “free” enterprise seems to be traveling a collision course with the growing public outcry for greater regulatory oversight. Basic marketing philosophy for materials concocted in modern laboratories appears to be in conflict with the original vision of capitalism as a consumer-driven process, in which demand shapes supply. What happens to the nature of consumer demand in an era of consumer ignorance regarding the items they buy? Let’s examine this question using as a microcosm the debate surrounding the production of synthetic fragrances.

As many as 5,000 different chemicals are incorporated within various fragrance formulas, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Industry asserts that fragrances have been used safely for hundreds of years. Such claims are belied by the fact that chemical compounds appearing in the products (e.g., benzaldehyde and linalool found to be present in a 1992 EPA laboratory study), have not been known for very long. Today’s fragrances rarely contain only those natural ingredients used in earlier centuries; hence the adjective, “synthetic.”

The public is prone to assume that all these chemicals have been thoroughly vetted for their safety prior to sale. Many chemicals have multiple uses across industries, appearing in cosmetics, medications, cleaning products and even food flavorings. The intended use of a product determines what agency, if any, has jurisdiction for inquiring into its business.

For instance, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration states that it has no oversight duties with regard to the ingredients used in cosmetics. These consist of products intended to enhance attractiveness whether the product is ingested, topically applied or inhaled. The only exception is with colorants (as in hair dyes). Otherwise, unless some claim is made regarding benefits to health, as opposed to self-esteem, there is no requirement for registration of these products with the FDA. This means that recalls of products suspected of containing potentially harmful ingredients are essentially a voluntary act on the part of vendors.

How complex is the task of developing appropriate testing protocols for fragrance chemicals? There are multiple avenues for their internalization apart from direct application and absorption through the skin. Fragrances are intended to be inhaled, which would seem to make assessment of their potential as respiratory irritants or sensitizers a priority at least equal to the more commonly cited skin testing. Once airborne, fragrance chemicals are going to be absorbed by all in their vicinity, not just the intentional user. A class of secondary, unintentional fragrance consumers is created via the same mechanisms by which secondhand cigarette smoke has become an issue before the general public. Therefore, the societal impact of these products is far greater than basic consumer demand summarized in sales statistics.

Measurable reductions in lung function, to a moderate degree, have been observed upon exposure to the chemical 1,4 dichlorobenzene, which is commonly found in deodorizing compounds. Ninety-six percent of subjects in a 2006 study (Elliot et. al.) showed evidence of exposure via blood sampling. Exposure by persons with pre-existing respiratory problems or by healthy individuals in combination with other common environmental irritants would have an even greater impact upon intentional and unintentional consumers.

A thoroughly tested synthetic chemical can provide data accounting for factors of carcinogenicity, central nervous system effects, reproductive and developmental toxicity, cardiovascular and endocrine effects, and specific organ vulnerabilities (e.g. liver or kidney damage). While the industry may have dispensed with a few harmful substances formerly incorporated in fragrances, manufacturers do not speak of the thousands currently in use. These include petrochemicals, aldehydes, phenols and esters, which are all known to have wide-ranging adverse effects when studied in isolation. Their effects in combinations have yet to be addressed in research models.

A newer area of concern is that of “mutagen” effects, or how chemicals around us alter the ongoing activity of our genes, cuing them to turn themselves on or off as they go about the daily business of regulating our bodily functions. The interactions of the environment with gene functions (referred to as gene expression), indicates that one need not have a genetic predisposition or defect for harm to occur.

The identification of hazardous or potentially hazardous ingredients in a product is usually followed by assurances that the amount present is negligible. Unfortunately, the determination of how much is too much is highly variable. Relevant factors include age, gender, weight, general health status and cumulative levels of exposure to multiple chemicals.

Practically speaking, this position is irrelevant to the very large numbers of people who report that a product has harmed, rather than enhanced, their quality of life. Science has also progressed beyond the old saw “the dose makes the poison.” It is now recognized that small amounts of a substance can sneak under the radar of one’s physical defenses while larger amounts of the material would alert the body to implement damage control procedures.

The American Academy of Dermatology also informs us that fragrance ingredients, along with preservatives, are respectively the first and second most frequent causes of contact dermatitis. Physicians warn us that contact can be from airborne particles and not just occur in primary users of a product. Between 40 and 50 million Americans (20 percent of the population) have allergies to one or more substances. Health care costs and losses in productivity are estimated at $6 billion annually from this widespread problem.

Approximately 35 million Americans suffer from some form of chronic lung ailment. The majority are diagnosed with asthma (over 22 million) and a majority report fragrance as being a common trigger for attacks. Asthma costs the public over $19 billion per year in direct healthcare costs and lost productivity. It is the most frequent cause of missed school days in children.

Migraine headaches are experienced by some 28 million Americans at an annual cost of $14 billion in medical costs and lost productivity. Among the majority, who report triggering events for their attacks, a sizable percentage count olfactory stimuli among them (perfume and/or strong odors).

Subgroups of chronically ill persons like those on chemotherapy and people who became ill following incidents of exposures to toxic chemicals are particularly vigilant in attempting to avoid such products. There is a sizable body of evidence that synthetic fragrances are a burden upon very large numbers of people.

According to sufferers, reactivity ranges in severity from annoying to disabling. Advice by vendors to individuals with adverse reactions to such products has simply been to avoid them. These consumers may choose to leave fragranced products untouched on store shelves, yet are still exiting stores, offices, hospitals, schools and libraries with molecules from these products left adhering to their nasal passages and lungs. These particles may later be deposited in other organs or stored in adipose (fatty) tissue and subject to gradual release over time. The indoor air of our typical environments is heavily laced with fragranced products emitted from store merchandise, cleaning products, air fresheners and the individuals we encounter throughout the day. Residues from various laundry and personal care products cling to their skins and clothing articles. Products may now include phthalates, those plasticizers which can act as perfume “fixatives,” making them longer lasting. The FDA plans to assess their safety in the near future, although other researchers classify them as endocrine disruptors.

Since general avoidance of fragrance chemicals is frankly impossible, consumers are left to try to identify key offending ingredients. This, too, is impossible, since industry is legally permitted to label the often-complex conglomeration of ingredients with a single term, namely “fragrance.” This does not allow individuals to collaborate with their physicians and isolate causes for environmentally triggered problems. It does not allow proactive, health-conscious individuals to discriminate among the varieties of fragranced products on the market today.

Only disclosure of ingredients offers consumers the opportunity to select preparations which are truly benign. The absence of such information makes it impossible to select products best suited to an individual’s particular health challenges, even by the expensive process of trial and error. Some adverse effects may be delayed and therefore not easily recognized.

Ostensibly, this withholding of information from consumers is done to protect trade secrets. One wonders what consumers are expected to do with such revelations if they became available. Certainly, competitors already analyze one another’s products in their own laboratories as a matter of course. In Europe, where labeling is required, companies do not appear to be going out of business because of competition from the man (or woman) on the street, who might choose to make such products at home!

Clearly, we need greater assistance from the fragrance industry to help consumers make appropriate selections from among thousands of fragranced products. These were created to enhance the quality of life rather than detract from it. Patents serve to protect industry interests, but only full disclosure of product ingredients will allow consumers to protect their own interests. Of course, this raises the question of why the interests of consumers and vendors would ever truly come into conflict with one another. Satisfied, healthy consumers generate more disposable income. This in turn enriches the makers of products that satisfy the demand for that level of quality in composition. If competition relies less on consumer ignorance and more on informed consumer preference, the marketplace can only become a source of healthy competition in a capitalist society.


Barbara Rubin holds an MA in speech/language pathology and worked in the field of developmental disabilities for 25 years within educational and medical settings. In addition to her role as a therapist and supervisor of clinical programs, she also taught in several colleges and universities in her field of expertise.

Following her retirement in 2000, Rubin became a freelance writer about the human health effects of pollutants commonly encountered within indoor settings. She has published several magazine articles and numerous commentaries in various newspapers and journals. She would like to thank Barb Wilkie and Alison Johnson for their gracious editorial assistance with this article.

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  1. Chooses to remain anonymous

    Currently a federal employee who has multiple chemical sensitivity. Confirmed by a doctor allergic to Balsam of Peru. Please post a link for ‘sick building syndrome’. OSHA regulations are severly limited. But you call IOSHA. I am sorry I don’t have the link but EPA website does. Thanks for a fabulous website!

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