The number of individuals sensitive to fragrances is growing, according to this article titled Dangerous Fragrances. As many as 30 percent of people show some type of physical reaction to scented products—and for some, the reaction can be severe.
About five percent of individuals have such sensitivity to chemicals that it greatly diminishes their quality of life, says Claudia Miller, an environmental health and allergy expert at the University of Texas.
Professor Anne Steinemann at the University of Washington recently analyzed 25 of the most popular fragranced products, including air fresheners, fabric softeners, soaps, lotions and shampoo. She found that they emitted 133 different Volatile Organic Compounds. VOCs are gases that can affect both the environment and health.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, VOCs are 10 times more concentrated indoors than outdoors. In addition to personal care and cleaning products, they are released from paint, lacquers and glue. Steinemann found that one fourth of them were considered toxic or hazardous by federal law.
“When I started doing this research, I got hundreds of people wanting to tell me their story; it really resonated with people,” she says. “I knew it was a problem; I had no idea of how big of a problem it was.”
Steinemann has heard from fragrance sufferers worldwide. People have described seizures and asthma attacks from being around the products, she says. One woman was unable to be with her dying mother because her sister used scented hair products.
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Steinemann calls the health effects of someone being exposed to scents not belonging to them or the products they own, “secondhand scent.”
“It is almost like cigarette smoke,” she says. “While people stopped going into places with cigarette smoke, people are now going to stop shopping in particular stores.”
That’s already happening.
In October 2010, Teens Turning Green, a student education and advocacy group, protested outside Abercrombie & Fitch’s New York store on 5th Avenue; they objected to the store’s excessive overuse of their fragrance, Fierce. The group stated that the fragrance is reportedly sprayed on all the merchandise and even pumped through the vents of the store.
The corporation responded on its Facebook page that its cosmetics are formulated, tested, labeled and monitored to assure regulatory compliance and safety.
In May 2010, the Environmental Working Group found that 17 popular fragrances, including Fierce, contained a variety of synthetic chemicals. The non-profit public health and environmental organization says that the fragrances included petrochemicals derived from petroleum and chemicals that can alter human hormones.
“It’s no surprise why people often feel ill around fragrances,” says Stacy Malkans, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, another organization authoring the report. “They spray the stores down both inside the stores and outside the stores, without any notification or consent from people.”
The report, Not So Sexy: The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrances, revealed that 38 chemicals were included in the 17 fragrances but undisclosed on the label. An average of 14 secret chemicals were included in each of the products.
The American Eagle fragrance Seventy Seven contained 24 chemicals unlisted on the label, the highest number of any of the fragrances tested. Chanel’s Coco had 17 and Abercrombie & Fitch’s Fierce for men had 11.
Concealing the chemicals that make up a fragrance is common.
The Federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1973 requires companies to list cosmetic ingredients but exempts fragrances. Many of them are protected as “trade secrets.”
“If companies were proud of their formulations and knew them to be safe, they wouldn’t hide their identities,” says Leann Brown, press associate with the Environmental Working Group. “We are not surprised that so much was missing from the label.”
Approximately 66 percent of the products not listed on the fragrances tested by the Environmental Working Group and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics were never assessed for safety, according to the organizations.
An average of 10 “sensitizing” chemicals or allergens were found in the 17 fragrances tested in the report. These chemicals can cause severe allergic reactions including asthma, wheezing and headaches, and are found in more than just perfumes or colognes.
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“Sensitizing chemicals are those that can trigger allergic reactions,” says Malkan. “We have had many reports of people in stores who use these products who have had watery eyes, headaches and just can’t stand being in there.”
In 1999, the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products and Non-Food Products released a list of well-known and frequently used allergenic substances. Europe requires that those substances be listed on all the labels of products when they exceed 10 parts per million. The United States has no such requirement.
Giorgio Armani Acqua Di Gio contained 19 sensitizing chemicals, the most of any fragrance tested for the Not So Sexy report.
These chemicals are prevalent throughout the fragrance industry and included as ingredients in products such as laundry detergent, air fresheners and more, Steinemann says.
Twelve hormone disrupters, an average of four in each product, were also found in the fragrances tested in the Not So Sexy report. Halle by Halle Berry, Quicksilver and Jennifer Lopez’s J.Lo Glow all contained seven hormone-disrupting chemicals. The chemicals have been known to disrupt estrogen levels in women and androgen levels in men. Some are also linked to thyroid problems, breast and prostate cancer and obesity.
One of the most prevalent hormone disrupters discovered in the study was diethyl phthalate or DEP, a chemical known to cause abnormal genitalia in baby boys and sperm damage in adult men. It’s used to make the fragrance stick to the subject longer. The Environmental Working Group and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found DEP in 12 of the 17 fragrances tested for the report.
Recent research has also linked DEP to Attention Deficit Disorder in children, according to the Not So Sexy report.
To make fragrances last, manufacturers often add UV-absorbing chemicals found in sunscreens. When fragrances are exposed to sunlight and air, they can break down. UV-absorbing chemicals are used to prevent them from weakening.
But these chemicals are also particularly potent hormone disrupters. And approximately 76 percent of the fragrances tested in the Not So Sexy report contained at least one of them.
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For more on Professor Steinemann's study, click here.