It’s Easy Being Green: Mystery Fragrances

Ingredients in perfumes may pose health risks but consumers can get empowered and seek alternatives.

Bottles of perfume and cologne are shown in New York. Several organizations, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, are questioning the safety of chemicals used in fragrances. (AP/Mark Lennihan)
Bottles of perfume and cologne are shown in New York. Several organizations, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, are questioning the safety of chemicals used in fragrances. (AP/Mark Lennihan)

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Perfume fragrances are considered trade secrets, so companies don’t have to reveal what’s in them—which could be any number of synthetic chemical compounds. Even “unscented” products may contain masking fragrances, which are chemicals used to cover up the odor of other chemicals. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration isn’t required to review cosmetics for safety before they’re sold in stores, but organizations such as Consumer Reports and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics are trying to uncover what’s behind these mystery fragrances.

One of the trade secrets in perfumes and colognes is phthalates. Phthalates are used to help fragrances linger in perfumes, lotions, and other products, and they take the stiffness out of hairspray. But these chemicals could pose dangerous side effects. A recent Center for American Progress report shows that phthalates are linked to reproductive problems in men and women, including premature births, genital abnormalities in boys, and reduced sperm count.

Product tests conducted by Consumer Reports ShopSmart magazine in January 2007 found the phthalates DEP and DEHP in each of eight popular perfumes tested. And a 2002 report from the Environmental Working Group identified phthalates in more than 72 percent of personal care products tested, including fragrance-containing shampoos, deodorants, and hair gels. None of the products listed phthalates on the label.

The FDA says it doesn’t have compelling evidence that phthalates as used in cosmetics pose a safety risk. But the Breast Cancer Fund considers them endocrine disruptors because of their complex effects on several hormonal systems including estrogen and androgen. The Fund cites phthalate exposure studies in rats that show that the chemical interferes with the production of testosterone and estradiol, and disrupts the development and functioning of male and female reproductive systems.

Perfumes may have other harmful elements, too. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences identified fragrance ingredients as one of six categories of neurotoxins that should be thoroughly investigated for human health impacts. According to the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products and Nonfood Products, 1 in every 50 people may suffer immune system damage from fragrances and become more susceptible to allergic reactions from their ingredients. Once a person is sensitized they can remain so for a lifetime and experience allergic reactions with every subsequent exposure. And fragrances are considered among the top five known allergens and both cause and trigger asthma attacks.

The health risks of perfumes are still debatable, but consumers who don’t want to take chances have some options. A list of chemicals to avoid in cosmetics can be found at Some ingredients, including phthalates, may not be listed on the label, but consumers can look for products without the word “fragrance” on the label or choose products that use natural fragrances or essential oils. The Environmental Working Group has also created a database, Skin Deep, which lists products with no added fragrance.

Another option is to find out which companies have signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, whose signatories have pledged to manufacture cosmetics that comply with rules in the European Union where more than 1,000 chemicals have been banned.

Consider skipping perfume every other day or drop it altogether if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. And tell cosmetic manufacturers that you don’t want ingredients that could pose avoidable health risks in their products. You can send a message to the cosmetics industry at or submit a complaint to the FDA.

There are many unknowns when it comes to what’s in consumer products. But as consumers we can start asking tougher questions about what we buy and look for ways to avoid potential risks to our health.

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