Which Fragrance Ingredients Are Safe? It’s Not As Simple As It Looks.

I’m gearing up to join my health and sustainability friends at ShiftCon, a blogger conference focused on how online bloggers can shift the conversation toward a healthier world. Pretty cool huh? As I prepare to host and speak on panels during the conference, my colleagues and I have been trying to tackle the challenging question: How can you tell when fragrance ingredients are safe? 

The answer isn’t as simple as it was a few years ago. Let me explain.


Photo credit: Chelsea Prestin Photography

Why fragrances can be toxic

To start, let’s take a brief step back in time. Ten to fifteen years ago, scientists sounded the alarm on a class of chemicals called phthalates, which are commonly used in fragrances of all types. They help perfume stick to your skin throughout the day, are loaded into air fresheners used in people’s cars and plug-ins, and they are even hiding in scented candles. Leading organizations like Women’s Voices for the Earth also compiled compelling research on fragrance allergens used in a variety of products, even those that are used in feminine care products.

Fragrance loophole keeps consumers in the dark

In the 1970s, Ralph Nader spearheaded a federal law that requires ingredients to be listed on personal care products, with the exception of fragrances. This pesky “fragrance loophole” lets companies simply use the word fragrance or parfum on the ingredient list, rather than including the MANY chemicals that make up that particular scent. According to the International Fragrance Association, there are over 3,000 different chemicals and components used in creating fragrances.

Target becomes synthetic fragrance

In light of the unknowns about fragrance ingredients, manufacturers of scents have kept their mixes highly confidential. In fact, this information is considered so proprietary that the manufacturers of fragrances often don’t even tell the people buying and using their scents what’s in them.

As a result, health advocates (including myself) created a simple rule for consumers: avoid all synthetic fragrance and choose products with essential oils. But this is where things get interesting and where things have changed over the years…

Essential oils emerge as safer options, with exceptions

So if we don’t know much about synthetic fragrances, one thing we could look for and use are pure essential oils. I’ve been a big fan of essential oils, but have found that just like much of the consumer product industry, it’s wildly unregulated and companies can claim to be “pure” with little oversight or enforcement from federal or state agencies.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, just because something is “natural“, like essential oils, doesn’t automatically mean they are safe. So essential oils, while a great safer option in some cases, are not always inherently safe and have recently fallen under scrutiny. Many citrus oils can be caustic to the skin if they are used at high levels, companies are using filler and synthetic oils and marketing them as pure/plant-based essential oils, and some have been found to alter normal hormone function.

So as you can see, the answer to our simple question is getting quite complex!

Next generation of safer fragrances

Whether you’re buying personal care products with scents, candles etc, the first thing you should ask the company is if they screen essential oils for both quality, purity and safety. Many essential oils can be safely used, and I would argue synthetic fragrances can be as well.

The big thing to understand is that a naturally derived ingredient that is manipulated or replicated in a lab (and therefore synthetic) could be both a safe and more sustainable option.

We must collectively demand that companies:

  • Disclose fragrance ingredients and components
  • Screen fragrance ingredients for health impacts including: asthma triggers, allergens, dermal harm, carcinogenicity, hormone disruption, etc.
  • If using a synthetic fragrance, explain to us why it’s safe!

How to protect yourself 

For starters, we need better laws that require companies need to disclose fragrance ingredients (including allergens) to allow consumers to make healthy, smart decisions.

1 – You can text the word “BETTERBEAUTY” to 52886 to ask Congress for better beauty laws.

2 – Avoid wearing perfume or cologne, kindly ask your friends to abstain from wearing fragrances. Skip air fresheners for your car and home.

3 – Choose safer beauty products, including those formulated with carefully screened ingredients.

If you’re attending ShiftCon, be sure to attend our session, hosted by Made Safe!

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2 Responses to Which Fragrance Ingredients Are Safe? It’s Not As Simple As It Looks.

  1. Micaela @MindfulMomma January 6, 2018 at 12:28 pm #

    Lindsay – you come to my rescue once again! I’m writing a post about green cleaning (coming out next week) and want to try to explain the complicated world of fragrance – so I jump over to your site to see if you’ve written anything – and I find exactly what I need! I’ll be linking to this for sure! Thx – and see you at ShiftCon!!

    • Lindsay Dahl January 7, 2018 at 9:33 am #

      So glad it’s helpful! See you soon!

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