This Stinks: What Perfume Makers Won’t Tell You

This Stinks: What Perfume Makers Won’t Tell You

Britney Spears lends her name to a perfume called Britney Spears Curious Eau de Parfum. But if you are curious about what goes into Britney's eau, don't ask Elizabeth Arden, the cosmetics giant that makes the fragrance.

Sure, some ingredients are identified on the label. They include Alpha Iso Methyl Ionone, Benzyl Benzoate, Benzyl Salicylate, Cital, Citronellol, Diethyl Phthalate, Eugenol, Farnesol, Galazolide, Hydroxycitonelle, Limonene and Linalool.

But another 17 chemicals are not listed, and they could be bad for your health, according to two advocacy groups, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the Environmental Working Group.

It's no wonder the marketing for the perfume asks: Do you dare? {related_content}

This week, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics published a report called "Not So Sexy: The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrances." The report included the results of laboratory tests performed on 17 name-brand fragrance products revealing that, as a group, they contained 38 so-called secret chemicals. The average product contained 14 chemicals not listed on the label.

Products tested include Hannah Montana Secret Celebrity Cologne Spray (yes, it's really called that), Jennifer Lopez J. Lo Glow Eau de Toilette Natural Spray, Halle by Halle Berry Eau de Parfum Spray, Coco Mademoiselle Chanel, Calvin Klein Eternity, Abercrombie & Fitch Fierce, American Eagle Seventy Seven, Clinique Happy Perfume Spray, Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue and Old Spice After Hours Body Spray.

The report says of the chemicals:

Among them are chemicals associated with hormone disruption and allergic reactions, and many substances that have not been assessed for safety in personal care products.

Also in the ranks of undisclosed ingredients are chemicals with troubling hazardous properties or with a propensity to accumulate in human tissues.

Consumers can't count on the government to protect them from potential hazards, according to the report:

A review of government records shows that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not assessed the vast majority of these secret fragrance chemicals for safety when used in spray-on personal care products such as fragrances. Nor have most been evaluated by the safety review panel of the International Fragrance Association or any other publicly accountable institution.

 The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrances."Now, as the headline on this blog post not-so-subtly indicates, the fact that perfume companies won't disclose their ingredients is an unfortunate thing. But is it a reason for alarm? I'm not qualified to judge. Keep in mind that advocacy groups, like the industries they target, have an agenda, which is about getting attention and raising money.

And while the 44-page report is laced with references to scientific studies, the science of measuring the effect of tiny amounts of chemicals on human health is both uncertain and controversial. See, as an example, the recent report by the President's Cancer Panel which warned of the threats from chemicals in the air, water and food, and the reaction it provoked from, among others, the American Cancer Society. Teasing out cause and effect is just incredibly hard to do.

Having said that, why anyone would choose to smear these chemicals on their face or body is a mystery to me.

Why, as a consumer, would you take any risk, when the allergic effects associated with fragrance products, according to the report, include "headaches, chest tightness and wheezing, infant diarrhea and vomiting, mucosal irritation, reduced pulmonary function, asthma and asthmatic exacerbation, rhinitis and airway irritation, sense organ irritation and contact dermatitis?"

And why as a company would you subject your customers to risk? Here's how crazy the confusion over chemicals has become: Several perfumes tested including a chemical called diethyl phthalate (DEP), which S.C. Johnson, the forward-thinking maker of Windex, Shout and Glade, agreed last year to phase out because of consumer concerns, while saying the chemical is safe.

What's a consumer to do? "I advise people to reduce exposure to fragrance wherever they can," says Stacy Malkan, who is a co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of a book called "Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry."

This isn't as easy as it sounds. While people can stop buying perfume, fragrances are everywhere–in soaps, shampoos, home cleaning products.  "Even looking for a shampoo without added fragrances is really challenging," Malkan says.

Nor is it simple to seek out safer alternatives.  Terms like "natural fragrance" and "pure fragrance" found on some personal care products don't have an enforceable legal definition. And, as the report notes, "just because a fragrance ingredient is derived from a plant or an animal source does not mean it is safe for everyone, since many all-natural and herbal products contain fragrance allergens." Try smearing poison ivy on your face if you doubt that.{related_content}

Still, companies like The Body Shop and Aveda have built their brands around being safe and green. They have a vested interest in retaining the trust of consumers. What's more, about 200 companies, mostly small ones, have promised to fully disclose all ingredients, including fragrances, on their labels, as part of their commitment to the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, a pledge of safety and transparency.

Not surprisingly, the EWG report calls for government action, both to require full disclosure of ingredients and to test them for safety. In a press release announcing the report, three Democrats in Congress -- Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin -- say legislative action is needed.

"Comprehensive federal safe cosmetics legislation" is needed, the report says, "to protect the safety and health of the American people from toxic, untested and unregulated chemicals in the cosmetics and personal care products we buy every day."

Again, I'm not persuaded.  Do we really want the FDA spending its time and our money trying to prove than the more than 3,000 chemicals used in fragrances are safe?

Markets could solve this problem, provided enough consumers care. Here's how:Perfume image

First, no one is forcing anyone to buy perfume. If you splash some eau de Britney on your neck and the result is "reduced pulmonary function," well, you'd have to be a moron to keep using it.

Second, people can buy from the more than 200 companies that have decided it's in their best interests to disclose their ingredient. If consumers favor them, others will follow.

Third, since there are concerns about the second-hand effects of fragrances, workplaces could take action to get rid of them. This is already happening. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has apparently established a fragrance-free policy in its offices to protect health and prevent indoor air pollution.

Perfume. The new tobacco. Senior Writer Marc Gunther is a longtime journalist and speaker whose focus is business and sustainability. Marc maintains a blog at You can follow him on Twitter @marcGunther.