A woman spritzing fragrance.

Use in Cosmetics

The term “fragrance” or “parfum” on a cosmetic ingredients list usually represents a complex mixture of dozens of chemicals. Some 3,000 chemicals are used as fragrances. i Fragrance is an obvious ingredient in perfumes, colognes, and deodorants, but it’s used in nearly every type of personal care product. Even products marketed as “fragrance-free” or “unscented” may in fact contain fragrance along with a masking agent ii that prevents the brain from perceiving odour. In addition to their use in cosmetics, fragrances are found in numerous other consumer products, notably laundry detergents and softeners and cleaning products.

Health and Environmental Hazards

Of the thousands of chemicals used in fragrances, most have not been tested for toxicity, alone or in combination. Many of these unlisted ingredients are irritants and can trigger allergies, migraines, and asthma symptoms. iii A survey of asthmatics found that perfume and/or colognes triggered attacks in nearly three out of four individuals. iv There is also evidence suggesting that exposure to perfume can exacerbate asthma, and perhaps even contribute to its development in children. v

People with multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) or environmentally linked illnesses are particularly vulnerable, with fragrances implicated both in development of the condition and triggering symptoms. vi

However, anyone might experience skin irritation or runny eyes and nose. U.K. researchers have reported that “perfume” is the second most common cause of allergy in patients at dermatology clinics. vii In addition, in laboratory experiments, individual fragrance ingredients have been associated with cancer viii and neurotoxicity ix among other adverse health effects.

Synthetic musks used in fragrances are of particular concern from an ecological perspective. Several of musk compounds are persistent in the environment and build up (bioaccumulate) in the fatty tissue of aquatic organisms. Measureable levels of synthetic musks are found in fish in the Great Lakes and the levels in sediment are increasing. x Environment Canada has categorized several synthetic musks as persistent, bioaccumulative, and/or toxic, and others as human health priorities.

Some fragrance ingredients are not perfuming agents themselves but enhance the performance of perfuming agents. For example, diethyl phthalate (prounced tha-late), or DEP, is widely used in cosmetic fragrances to make the scent linger. Phthalates are choice ingredients in cosmetics because they are cheap and versatile. However, the European Commission on Endocrine Disruption has listed DEP as a Category 1 priority substance, based on evidence that it interferes with hormone function. xi Phthalates have been linked to early puberty in girls, reduced sperm count in men, and reproductive defects in the developing male fetus (when the mother is exposed during pregnancy). xii Phthalate metabolites are also associated with obesity and insulin resistance in men. xiii As well, Health Canada notes evidence suggesting that exposure to phthalates may cause liver and kidney failure in young children when products containing phthalates are sucked or chewed for extended periods. xiv DEP is listed as a Priority and Toxic Pollutant under the U.S. Clean Water Act, based on evidence that it can be toxic to wildlife and the environment. xv

Laboratory analysis of top-selling colognes and perfumes identified an average of 14 chemicals per product not listed on the label, including multiple chemicals that can trigger allergic reactions or interfere with hormone function.

Regulatory Status

Fragrance recipes are considered trade secrets so manufacturers are not required to disclose fragrance chemicals in the list of ingredients. Environment Canada is currently assessing one synthetic musk (moskene) under the government’s Chemicals Management Plan and has flagged several others for future assessment. Health Canada recently announced regulations banning six phthalates in children’s toys (including DEP), but the use of DEP in cosmetics is unrestricted.

International regulations are stronger. The European Union restricts the use of many fragrance ingredients, including two common musks (nitromusks) and requires warning labels on products if they contain any of 26 allergens commonly used as cosmetic fragrances. xvi

i Fragranced Products Information Network. Fragrance Materials and Composition, p.41
ii Health Canada. Cosmetic Terms on Labels. Last update March 18, 2009.
iii Thyssen, JP et al. “Contact sensitization to fragrances in the general population: a Koch’s approach may reveal the burden of disease.” Br J Dermatol 460, 4 (Apr 2009): 729-35.
iv Shim C, Williams MH Jr. “Effect of odors in asthma.”Am. J. Med.80, 1 (1986): 18-22. Cited in Bridges, B. “Fragrace: Emerging health and environmental concerns.” Flavour Fragr. J. 17 (2002): 361-371.
v Bridges, B. “Fragrace: Emerging health and environmental concerns.” Flavour Fragr. J. 17 (2002): 361-371.
vi Sears, ME. The Medical Perspective on Environmental Sensitivities. Canadian Human Rights Commission. May 2007
vii Betton, C. “7th Amendment to the EU Cosmetics Directive.” Cosmetic Science Technology 2005: 234-236
viii U.S. National Toxicology Program. “NTP toxicology and carcinogensis Studies of 2,4-hexadienal (89% trans,trans isomer, CAS No. 142-83-6; 11% cis,trans isomer) (Gavage Studies).” Natl Toxicol Program Tech Rep Ser. 509 (Oct 2003):1-290 ; U.S. National Toxicology Program. “NTP Toxicology and Carcinogenesis Studies of Methyleugenol (CAS NO. 93-15-2) in F344/N Rats and B6C3F1 Mice (Gavage Studies).” Natl Toxicol Program Tech Rep Ser. 491 (Jul 2000): 1-412.
ix Anderson RC and Anderson JH. “Acute toxic effects of fragrance products.” Arch Environ Health 53, 2 (Mar-Apr 1998):138-46.
x Canadian Environmental Law Association and Lowell Center for Sustainable Production. The Challenge of Substances of Emerging Concern in the Great Lakes Basin: A Review of Chemicals Policies and Programs in Canada and the United States. Toronto: CELA, 2009.
xi RPS BKH Consulting Engineers. Study on Gathering information on 435 Substances with Insufficient Data. Final Report to European Commission DG Environment. Delft,Netherlands: RPS BKH, 2002
xii Griffin, S. CancerSmart 3.0: The Consumer Guide. Vancouver: Labour Environmental Alliance Society, 2007.
xiii Stahlhut, RW et al. Concentrations of urinary phthalate metabolites are associated with increased waste circumference and insulin resistence in adult U.S.males. Environmental Health Perspectives 115, 6 (Jun 2007).
xiv Health Canada. Government of Canada Acts to Help Ensure Soft Vinyl Toys, Child-Care Articles and Other Consumer Products Are Safer. News Release. June 2009
xv U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Toxic and Priority Pollutants. Last update Nov 6, 2009.
xvi European Union. Directive 2003/15/EC (7th amendment to the Cosmetics Directive). Official Journal of the European Union. 66, 26