Consumers who are sensitive to fragrances found in detergents and other cleaning products are often forced to brave the cleaning process through most of their lives, ignoring their bodies’ responses. According to FairWarning.org, the fact that companies aren’t required to disclose the list of specific chemicals used in parts of their products may have a great deal to do with the problem.
According to FairWarning’s report, fragrance makers treat their recipes as trade secrets. Cleaning product manufacturers, as a result, are often forced to simply list the ingredient as “fragrance,” rather than listing the ingredients used to produce scents. Without full knowledge of what fragrance makers use, consumers who are allergic or sensitive to certain ingredients end up failing to recognize exactly which products to avoid.
A 2009 study, FairWarning reports, “found that more than a quarter of Americans were irritated by the smell of scented products on other people while 19 percent experienced headaches or breathing difficulties from air fresheners.” With an estimated total global sales of $40 billion per year, the fragrance industry claims it ensures product safety by following regulations administered by the International Fragrance Association, the industry’s trade group. But to Alexandra Scranton, the director of science and research at Women’s Voices for the Earth — a small women’s advocacy organization in Missoula, Montana — there’s “a real kind of state of ignorance on the part of scientists, on the part of researchers, on the part of consumers, on what is in fragrance and how safe fragrances are for your health.” And that’s what the group is trying to change.
Currently, Scranton claims her organization is “trying to pick apart the claim that the industry is making that they are ensuring the safety of fragrance.” According to the advocacy organization’s website, the fact that synthetic chemicals “linked to health impacts ranging from eye and skin irritation to hormone imbalance and increased risk of breast cancer” are used in countless modern day fragrances is cause for concern. Especially if these fragrances are part of products we use regularly like shampoo and cosmetics. The advocacy group believes the industry should embrace full disclosure of its ingredients so consumers know what they are being exposed to, thereby boosting their power of choice.
While this organization has been pressing the issue recently, concern regarding the safety of fragrances used in modern products is nothing new.
FairWarning states that a “2005 California law, the California Safe Cosmetics Act, requires cosmetics manufacturers to report any products that contain ingredients known or suspected to cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm.” While the data provided by the industry is posted on the California Safe Cosmetics Program website, which is funded by the state’s government, ingredients identified as trade secrets by fragrance makers and others are never disclosed. The government accountability program has been struggling with complaints from several experts who claim cosmetics firms often fail to disclose important information about their ingredients.
When it comes to federal rules, agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) have limited jurisdiction, which excludes them from having a role in dictating regulations pertaining to fragrances.
Though the FDA does not have authority over fragrances, it does oversee cosmetics and most of their ingredients. However, the FDA does not require cosmetic producers to prove their ingredients are safe. According to FairWarning, the FDA “also requires cosmetics to list their ingredients, but allows a trade secret exemption for chemicals deemed to be fragrance or flavor.” The CPSC, on the other hand, has authority over laundry detergents, air fresheners, and other scented products, but it does not have a program that looks into the fragrances used by each company in their ingredients.
To Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, the government’s failure to “provide a real regulator” is the problem. But to Women’s Voices, pressuring the industry to become more transparent could be a great leap forward. The organization has been pushing the industry since 2008, FairWarning reports, but it was only in 2010 that the International Fragrance Association posted a list of some 3,000 chemicals used by its members. According to Women’s Voices, a review of these chemicals shows that “a large number of them appear on official lists of hazardous chemicals, or are banned or restricted in consumer products.”
“… a comprehensive classification of chemical hazards adopted by the United Nations tags 1,175 chemicals on the fragrance list with the word ‘warning’ and labels another 190 fragrance chemicals as a ‘danger,’ according to Women’s Voices.
“The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, classifies seven fragrance chemicals as possible carcinogens in humans, the organization said. Fifteen chemicals on the fragrance association’s list are barred from use in cosmetics in the European Union, Women’s Voices said.”
While the industry has taken a step in the right direction by disclosing these ingredients, Scranton notes the list does not offer any information on the quantity of each chemical used.
“When I see styrene [a possible carcinogen] on the list of chemicals in fragrance, that’s a red flag. … Is it only used very, very rarely, in very small amounts? Possibly, and maybe it’s not as much of a problem. Is it used in every fragrance that you come across? Then it’s going to be a problem.”
So far, the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials, the fragrance industry association’s research arm, has either “banned or restricted the use of 186 substances in fragrance products,” FairWarning reports. But according to Women’s Voices, the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials often fails to ensure the standards are being followed. According to a statement issued by the organization after Women’s Voices released its research, “the industry is committed to addressing consumers’ interests through a continuous health and environmental safety review.”
As lawmakers attempt to address the issues raised by Women’s Voices locally through legislation, the advocacy group continues to keep track of the industry’s every step, pressuring leaders to follow their own regulations.
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