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Fragrance Secrecy: An Outdated Tradition

Fragrance Secrecy: An Outdated Tradition

Alex head shot

Alex Scranton

Director of Science
and Research

Okay…so I’m a geek.  I love data.  I love reading longwinded, technical, scientific studies. I love finding the juicy nuggets of information that are buried in the boring stuff and bringing that to light.  And for the last year or so I’ve been digging into dermatological studies, being floored by the crazy statistics on skin allergies in women and kids.  Millions (yes literally millions) of people are affected by skin allergies every day.  Women are much more likely to be affected than men, and the rates in kids have been skyrocketing over the last few decades.  And in almost every study, the data points its fingers at “fragrance” as a major cause.  And that’s where the frustration kicks in.  What do we even mean when we say people are allergic to “fragrance?”  A fragrance can be made of tens to hundreds of different chemicals that collectively impart a scent.  But one “fragrance” can be made of completely different chemicals than another.

So what are people actually allergic to?  It’s like going to your doctor and being told, “Sorry, you are allergic to food.”  Sure, it may be accurate, but not exactly helpful.  In reality, you have an allergy to a specific allergen, such as soy, or peanuts or cow’s milk etc.  And when you go to the store to buy food, you can look at the label and find out whether it contains your problem allergen or not.  For the most part, you can choose what foods to avoid to prevent a reaction.  But with fragrance, you can’t do that.   For one, it’s hard to find out what fragrance allergen you are actually allergic to.  Is it geraniol?  Is it linalool?  And even if you can find that out, all that you are told on a label of a body lotion is that the product contains “fragrance.”  Well, is that a fragrance that contains my problem allergen or not?  Logically, you’d think that that’s the kind of information that folks with allergies would like to know.
Blonde woman reading label_cropped
But the fragrance industry keeps all those ingredients a secret.  What’s up with that?  The best answer I’ve been able to find is “tradition.”  The fragrance industry has long held extreme secrecy around its formulas as a value and asset to the business.   They fiercely protect their right to their intellectual property.  And no doubt, the creation of a fragrance is both an art and a science.  It involves some really complex chemistry and takes a lot of time, effort and money to get it right.  But is disclosing a simple list of the ingredients (without the other details like amounts or how these ingredients are combined) really a threat to intellectual property rights?

I’m pretty skeptical.  Have you seen some of the amazing technology the industry has these days to recreate scents?  Check out Living Flower Technology,  in which a glass globe with a sensor is placed over a live flower collecting the scent molecules the flower gives off.  After a half hour, the sensor sends all the collected data to a computer which creates a fragrance profile which can be recreated in the lab.  Fantastic!  But I’m thinking, if you can do that with a live flower, this thing would do a bang up job of recreating a scent from an open bottle of your competitor’s perfume too.   That’s where the threat to intellectual property lies these days…a simple list of ingredients is seems pretty irrelevant when it comes to counterfeiting risk.

So what’s the holdup?  It certainly seems that revealing fragrance ingredients in consumer products could make life for allergy sufferers and their health care providers a whole lot simpler.  And beyond that – there’s a whole world of even more serious health impacts from fragrance that have been documented.  From neurological symptoms, to immune system effects, to breathing problems and more.  Fragrance exposure is making life really, really difficult for some folks who are especially sensitive to fragrance.  And the frustrating thing is that we cannot explain why a lot of that is happening.  Because we don’t know what the chemicals are in fragrance that people are reacting to.  How does one even start a research program on fragrance reactions when you don’t even have specific chemicals to target?

As a society, we need to tackle this fragrance problem, for the health of those who are affected.  Because fragrance, in our society, is everywhere.  And it needs to start with the simple listing of ingredients in fragrance.  I know it’s a major change in the culture of the fragrance industry, but some traditions just have to be let go, especially when they are standing in the way of people trying to protect their own health.

Please join me in asking the fragrance industry to be part of the solution and stop keeping fragrance ingredients a secret.

And if you want to know more about this issue – check out our infographic,  and you can download my new report Secret Scents here.

Want more on this? Check out these other great blogs on Secret Scents:

Non-Toxic Kids
The Soft Landing
The Green Grandma
Safer Chemicals Healthy Families
Flour Sack Mama
Naturally Prevailing Essence
Mindful Momma
Healthy Child Healthy World
Mommy Greenest
Climate Mama
Groovy Green Livin
Choose Wiser

10 Responses

  1. SONDA

    When you choose to use fragrances, chemicals, or pesticides, You are not simply making a choice for yourself, You are making a choice for everyone around you!!!!

    I suffer from MCS– Multi Chemical Sensitivities & Environmental Illness & Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity & Fibromyaligia & Chronic Fatigue just to name a few health problems & I live in a “Safe home” as chemical & scent free as possible!!!!!

  2. I am totally outraged at the treatment of citizens in the U.S. and Canada by our governments!
    Why is it that uropeans governments care about the health of their citizens and their environment when our governmentsonly care about filling the coffers of greedy companies and their BIG profits. These companies are detrimental to the health of human life and the environment as a whole.
    When are people who care about their health and the environment going to see action by our governments to stop these greedy organizations from ruining our health.
    If we can’t have good health – then we have NOTHING!

  3. I have copd. Since I have had COPD I can not be around fragrance that is toxic. Perfume, especially air fresheners, etc. In fact, my sister had a toxic candle burning & I had to leave the room cause I got so sick to my stomach. My sister used Pine Sol (only a little bit too) and I had to leave the house!! She had to open windows to air it out for sometime. She then accidentally burned an air freshener and once again I got sick to my stomach. I was at an Xmas party & had to leave because one girl was wearing perfume & I kept getting too sick and couldn’t breathe. I hate all fragrance’s that have toxic chemicals. Give me natural or organic any time.

  4. Thanks for breaking down what’s behind the fragrance secrecy. I’ve been chatting with lots of moms and grandmas lately, and they’re fed up with this sort of secrecy that might even be putting their health at risk.

  5. Terry

    We applaud your effort to get chem & fragrance companies to divulge all the ingredients. But allergens are only a part of the problem. Most scents in products are a complex mix of TOXIC CHEMICALS. These chemicals cause a toxic effect on the body–not an allergic effect. Room “air fresheners” & scented laundry products that are so widely used today, are chemical toxins affecting your family 24/7.

  6. Thanks everyone – great comments. And yes, you’re right that there are a lot of chemicals used in fragrance beyond the allergens addressed in this report – the fragrance industry reports a little over 3,000 chemicals used as fragrance ingredients. And some of those ingredients are linked to neurotoxic effects, respiratory effects, immune system impacts and these definitely deserve greater investigation and attention than they have received. While some folks merely have the allergic skin reactions to fragrance, others have much more serious impacts – which should not be characterized as “allergies”. They are a whole different ballgame. Getting fragrance ingredients disclosed to the public is one step towards being better able to understand the toxicity of fragrance, and the impacts it has.

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