Scented Secrets

A major loophole in federal law allows fragrance manufacturers to hide potentially hazardous chemicals in product scents, including substances linked to allergies, birth defects, and even cancer. Because they won't tell you what's in the scents they sell you, we combed through thousands of Valentine's Day gift ideas to bring you products that not only smell great, but that are also free of hidden, potentially hazardous fragrances.

Fragrance-free valentine card

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"Fragrance" = "Hidden Chemicals"

Take a quick look at a personal care product label, and you'll nearly always find a long list of chemical ingredients in tiny print. Chances are, somewhere in the midst of these technical chemical terms, is the simple word "fragrance." Although companies are required by law to list all chemicals ingredients in a product, a special loophole allows them to hide what's in the "fragrance" component[1]. And what's hidden in that simple word can include complex mixtures of up to hundreds of chemicals that studies show may be linked to a variety of health problems, including allergies, skin reactions, endocrine/hormone disruption, and possibly even birth defects. Companies are not required to test cosmetics for safety before they are sold. The label is the primary protection we have to make decisions about products we rub, pour, and lather on our skin and hair. Yet when it comes to fragrances, we don't even have this simple protection.

Who makes sure fragrances are safe?

The FDA, the agency responsible for overseeing product safety, does not systematically review the safety of fragrances. The FDA cannot require that fragrances be tested for safety before they are sold. Instead, the fragrance industry regulates itself, through their trade association, the International Fragrance Association, which funds and conducts safety assessments for fragrance ingredients. This self-regulating scheme has led to the widespread use of chemicals in fragrances that raise concerns when it comes to our health:.

Top hazards hidden in fragranced products:

  • Phthalates: Common plasticizing ingredients linked to birth defects in the reproductive system of boys at exposure levels typical for about one-quarter of U.S. women [2, 3]. Lowers sperm-motility in adult men [4]. Studies in laboratory animals show significant developmental toxicity [5] and damage to adult reproductive, adrenal, liver, and kidney organs [5]. Under consumer pressure, some cosmetic companies recently agreed to remove phthalates from their products — but many others have not. Our product tests show phthalates in nearly three-quarters of 72 name-brand products tested [6], even though none of these products contained the term "phthalate" on the ingredient label. Instead, in most cases these phthalates were almost certainly hidden in the product's fragrance.
  • Musks: Artificial musks accumulate in our bodies, and are often detected in breast milk and blood [7-10]. Musks come in two basic types, nitromusks and polycyclic musks. Nitromusks are linked to skin irritation, sensitization [9,10], and even cancer in laboratory studies [11, 12]. They are also linked to reproductive and fertility problems in women at high levels of exposure [13]. Laboratory studies also suggest that both polycyclic musks and nitromusks may affect hormone systems [14-19]. While the European Union has banned use of some nitromusks in cosmetics and personal care products [20], the use of polycyclic musks as an alternative to the more toxic nitromusks has increased. In the US, all musk chemicals are unregulated, and safe levels of exposure have not yet been set.
  • Allergic reactions: Fragrances are considered to be among the top five known allergens [21, 22], and are known to both cause asthma and trigger asthma attacks [23, 24]. Unfortunately, EWG's 2005 detailed survey of approximately one-third of the industry safety panel's ingredient reviews revealed that allergen and sensitizer determinations were made with little scientific rigor and inadequate safety margins.

We recommend that you choose products free of fragrance for your Valentine's sweetheart. But read ingredient labels carefully — the term "fragrance-free" on a product does not necessarily mean a product is actually free of fragrance chemicals. Instead, a fragrance may be masking a chemical scent to create an illusion of fragrance free. But better yet, use EWG's guide for fragrance-free products for easy Valentine's shopping.

How We Made the List

To compile this list, EWG's researchers searched not only our own toxicity and product ingredient databases, but also searched the most current literature for toxicity concerns surrounding the ingredients in these 10 products. All of the products on the list are ranked as green, or safer choices on the Skin Deep website. While some of these products may contain some ingredients not yet assessed for safety, all the ingredients in these products are listed on the labels and none contain secret ingredients hidden in fragrances.



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1. EHNC, FDA Petition 99P 1340. 1999, Environmental Health Network of California.

2. Marsee, K., et al., Estimated daily phthalate exposures in a population of mothers of male infants exhibiting reduced anogenital distance. Environ Health Perspect, 2006. 114(6): p. 805-9.

3. Swan, S.H., et al., Decrease in anogenital distance among male infants with prenatal phthalate exposure. Environ Health Perspect, 2005. 113(8): p. 1056-61.

4. Duty, S.M., et al., The relationship between environmental exposure to phthalates and computer-aided sperm analysis motion parameters. J Androl, 2004. 25(2): p. 293-302.

5. CERHR, NTP-CERHR expert panel report on di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP). 2000, Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction.

6. Houlihan, J., C. Brody, and B. Schwan, Not Too Pretty - Phthalates, Beauty Products & the FDA in Skin Deep. 2002, Environmental Working Group: Washington, DC. p. 24.

7. Rimkus, G.G. and M. Wolf, Polycyclic musk fragrances in human adipose tissue and human milk. Chemosphere, 1996. 33(10): p. 2033-43.

8. Liebl, B., et al., Transition of nitro musks and polycyclic musks into human milk. Adv Exp Med Biol, 2000. 478: p. 289-305.

9. Hutter, H.P., et al., Blood concentrations of polycyclic musks in healthy young adults. Chemosphere, 2005. 59(4): p. 487-92.

10. TNO, Man-made chemicals in maternal and cord blood. 2005, TNO Built Environment and Geosciences: Apeldoorn, The Netherlands. p. 1-39.

11. Maekawa, A., et al., Long-term toxicity/carcinogenicity of musk xylol in B6C3F1 mice. Food Chem Toxicol, 1990. 28(8): p. 581-6.

12. Apostolidis, S., et al., Evaluation of carcinogenic potential of two nitro-musk derivatives, musk xylene and musk tibetene in a host-mediated in vivo/in vitro assay system. Anticancer Res, 2002. 22(5): p. 2657-62.

13. Eisenhardt, S., et al., Nitromusk compounds in women with gynecological and endocrine dysfunction. Environ Res, 2001. 87(3): p. 123-30.

14. Seinen, W., et al., AHTN and HHCB show weak estrogenic--but no uterotrophic activity. Toxicol Lett, 1999. 111(1-2): p. 161-8.

15. Chou, Y.J. and D.R. Dietrich, Interactions of nitromusk parent compounds and their amino-metabolites with the estrogen receptors of rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) and the South African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis). Toxicol Lett, 1999. 111(1-2): p. 27-36.

16. Bitsch, N., et al., Estrogenic activity of musk fragrances detected by the E-screen assay using human mcf-7 cells. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol, 2002. 43(3): p. 257-64.

17. Gomez, E., et al., Estrogenic activity of cosmetic components in reporter cell lines: parabens, UV screens, and musks. J Toxicol Environ Health A, 2005. 68(4): p. 239-51.

18. Schreurs, R.H., et al., Examination of the in vitro (anti)estrogenic, (anti)androgenic and (anti)dioxin-like activities of tetralin, indane and isochroman derivatives using receptor-specific bioassays. Toxicol Lett, 2005. 156(2): p. 261-75.

19. Schreurs, R.H., et al., Interaction of polycyclic musks and UV filters with the estrogen receptor (ER), androgen receptor (AR), and progesterone receptor (PR) in reporter gene bioassays. Toxicol Sci, 2005. 83(2): p. 264-72.

20. SSNC, Fragrances - Draft for public hearing. 2000, Swedish Society for Nature Conservation: Stockholm. p. 49.

21. de Groot, A.C. and P.J. Frosch, Adverse reactions to fragrances. A clinical review. Contact Dermatitis, 1997. 36(2): p. 57-86.

22. Jansson, T. and M. Loden, Strategy to decrease the risk of adverse effects of fragrance ingredients in cosmetic products. Am J Contact Dermat, 2001. 12(3): p. 166-9.

23. Norback, D., et al., Asthmatic symptoms and volatile organic compounds, formaldehyde, and carbon dioxide in dwellings. Occup Environ Med, 1995. 52(6): p. 388-95.

24. Millqvist, E. and O. Lowhagen, Placebo-controlled challenges with perfume in patients with asthma-like symptoms. Allergy, 1996. 51(6): p. 434-9.

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