By Catherine Clabby

In the personal care product aisles at a Walmart Supercenter in Morrisville this week, Stephanie Bishop Schweickert took just minutes to find baby lotion, shampoo, conditioner and other items with no scent ingredients on their labels.

“It just says ‘fragrance.’ That’s all,” said Schweickert, an organizer with the North Carolina Conservation Network, before dropping a plastic container of baby wash into her cart with a disapproving clunk.

Out of concerns for consumer health, Schweickert and a national environmental advocacy group are working to disrupt such secrecy.

An unknown portion of personal care product makers feature scents made from mixes of potentially harmful chemicals, including allergens, suspected carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, said Janet Nudelman, Director of Program and Policy for the Breast Cancer Fund.

But the federal Fair Labeling and Packaging Act exempts manufacturers from disclosing proprietary fragrance mixes on labels. That means consumers don’t always know what they are bringing home.

“The big obstacle here is the fragrance industry,” said Nudelman, whose nonprofit group advocates for full disclosure of chemicals used to make many products, including toys, make up and cleaners. “They don’t want to disclose formulas for their secret sauce. It’s a real double standard.

Stephanie Bishop Schweickert checks out of a Walmart in Morrisville this week with her toddler son on her hip. It took the NC Conservation Network organizer just minutes to find shampoo, conditioner, baby oil and baby lotion with undisclosed fragrance ingredients at the store. Photo by Catherine Clabby.
Stephanie Bishop Schweickert checks out of a Walmart in Morrisville this week with her toddler son on her hip. It took the NC Conservation Network organizer just minutes to find shampoo, conditioner, baby oil and baby lotion with undisclosed fragrance ingredients at the store. Photo credit: Catherine Clabby

“The personal care companies often disclose what else goes into their products.”

The Breast Cancer Fund has asked environmental groups around the country, including the North Carolina Conservation Network to collect items with undisclosed scent ingredients from local stores. The San Francisco-based advocacy group will have the content of each product analyzed. The plan is to publish all of the compounds that are detected.

What’s the problem?

Sample a hand lotion or sniff a shampoo and they almost always smell lovely. But are those wafting scents good for you?

International Fragrance Association North America, which represents the fragrance industry, lists the collective ingredients its members use to make fragrances on its website. The organization frequently stresses that its members address safety concerns in all their manufacturing processes.

But researchers who investigate health risks from environmental exposures are tuning into the multitude of chemicals people are exposed to today.  Even small amounts of chemicals in products people bring home can cause adverse reactions.

For instance, in 2016 Harvard researchers reported a study of 350 pregnant women and found that those with the highest levels of a common fragrance ingredient – monoethyl phthalate – in their urine had doubled risk of extra pregnancy weight gain compared to women with the lowest levels of the chemical. The women with the high levels also had seven-times higher odds of having elevated blood glucose levels. Both weight gain and high blood sugar are risk factors for developing diabetes during pregnancy.

Photo shows a tray of non-descript cosmetics such as nail polish, lipstick and other beauty products
Many cosmetics, beauty, home and cleaning products contain fragrances that are not listed on the ingredients labels. Image courtesy: Akira Ohgaki, Flickr Creative Commons


Studies like the one above don’t mean that all products lining shopping aisles are making people sick. But they do indicate that shoppers may unknowingly be exposed to chemicals that, even in small doses, can interact with living cells and potentially disrupt normal biological functions.

And there are so many of those chemicals.

An Australian scientist in 2015, for example, analysed 37 scented and fragrance-free home products and detected 156 different volatile organic compounds (VOCs), with an average of 15 in each product tested. Among them, 42 of the VOCs are classified as “toxic” or “hazardous” by U.S. regulators. Of the volatile ingredients emitted, fewer than 3 percent were disclosed on any product label or material safety data sheet, the study found.

Heather Patisaul, a molecular biologist and toxicologist at North Carolina State University, is an expert in the ways that endocrine-disrupting chemicals can affect living cells and normal development in lab animals. These molecules closely resemble natural hormones, which spur changes in cells in tiny amounts. But because they are not precisely identical to hormones, they can actually alter some of the processes hormones regulate.

“Most endocrine toxicologists agree that endocrine-disrupting chemicals can potentially pose a risk at very low doses,” Patisaul said.

Knowing what she knows, Patisaul favors unscented products when she buys pretty much anything for her home, whether that be body lotion or candles.

“’Fragrance’ is actually a catch all term for hundreds of different compounds, including phthalates which are notorious endocrine disruptors. Choosing fragrance-free will certainly reduce your chemical exposure,”Patisaul said.

A trend toward change

The consumer and health-advocate push to know more about what is in products, and companies’ efforts to respond, are already creating change.

For one, the US EPA has acknowledged people’s concerns to allergic threats from fragrance components, as well as incomplete toxicological studies about their components. The agency developed a process by which products can display verified fragrance-free labels, a move the industry opposed saying it is not necessary and created an unwelcome precedent.

The big home-care product maker SC Johnson, maker of Glade air fresheners, Pledge and others, discloses on its website product-specific fragrance down to .09 percent of the product formula. Proctor & Gamble, whose products include Tide detergent and Head and Shoulders shampoo, now post fragrance ingredients it does and does not use.

Just this month, Unilever United States announced a “transparency initiative” to disclose fragrance ingredients in a product’s formulation above 0.01 percent, or 100 parts per million.

For Nudelman of the Breast Cancer Fund, these are all steps in the right direction. And there is more work to be done.

“You shouldn’t have to be an organic chemist to understand what secret ingredients are in your cosmetics and your cleaning products,” she said.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Catherine Clabby (senior environmental reporter) is a writer and editor. A former senior editor at American Scientist magazine, Clabby won multiple awards reporting on science, medicine and higher education...