What You Need To Know About Fragrance—A Trade Secret With Not-So-Secret Health Implications

January 16, 2023

By Alexandra Zissu, Editorial Director

Fragrance is everywhere. And it’s not only where you think it is, like perfume, body cream, and candles. It’s in diapers, toothpaste, even baby dolls and orange juice!

So what is fragrance? How can one product (say, diaper cream) that smells entirely different than another product (say, laundry detergent) contain the same ingredient?

Pay attention to the answer; it’s both upsetting and confusing.

Fragrance is just a word. It functions as a placeholder for up to 5,000 different ingredients (some people say less, some people say more). The actual mix of those ingredients is a trade secret. Even though typical fragrance chemicals have been linked to everything from hormone disruption to cancer to asthma to skin irritation, our government protects trade secrets over humans. It’s hard to believe, but here is how the FDA puts it: “If a cosmetic is marketed on a retail basis to consumers, such as in stores, on the Internet, or person-to-person, it must have a list of ingredients. In most cases, each ingredient must be listed individually. But under U.S. regulations, fragrance and flavor ingredients can be listed simply as “Fragrance” or “Flavor.””

And here’s their explanation of why fragrance mixtures are trade secrets: “FDA requires the list of ingredients under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA). This law is not allowed to be used to force a company to tell “trade secrets.” Fragrance and flavor formulas are complex mixtures of many different natural and synthetic chemical ingredients, and they are the kinds of cosmetic components that are most likely to be “trade secrets.””

Given this loophole, Environmental Working Group suggests consumers reading the word “fragrance” on any label translate it as “hidden chemicals.” Pretty solid advice.

To avoid hidden chemicals, parents can shop for fragrance-free products. Unfortunately even unscented items can contain hidden chemical masking agents to suppress any scent. Read labels religiously and avoid anything with the words “fragrance” or “parfum.” Choosing natural products from companies that voluntarily disclose all ingredients can be good, especially if the items are 3rd party certified natural. Products containing natural essential oils can still be irritating, but they won’t also contain a whole host of synthetics you might want to avoid (benzene? acetone?). Purchasing fragrance-free certified natural products is a way to vote with your dollars, to send a message to manufacturers that you’re not interested in products containing secret ingredients. Another way to raise your voice is to take action and let manufacturers know you don’t want them hiding behind a loophole, that you want them to release their fragrance ingredients.

Even if you keep your home as scent-free as possible, kids will inevitably come into contact with fragrance. Everyone from your babysitter to the in-laws is likely wearing some fragrance—be it in musky cologne, hand cream, hair spray, makeup, or as residue in freshly laundered clothing. Exposure happens as they pollute the air, and cuddle and play with your kids. Because fragrance is so ubiquitous, it’s good common sense to minimize your kid’s contact with it if and where you can.


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