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withSimplicity | Updated May 31, 2023


spraying bottle with mist coming out

In today's consumer-driven world, the cosmetics industry has grown exponentially, offering a wide range of products promising to enhance our beauty and confidence. However, behind the captivating aromas of perfumes, lotions, and cosmetics lies a hidden danger: artificial fragrance. While these fragrances may seem harmless, they can have detrimental effects on our health and the environment.

Let's explore the harmful effects of artificial fragrance in cosmetic products and why it's essential to be cautious when choosing your personal care items.

Side Note: In this blog, we mainly talk about Artificial Fragrance. There are also "natural fragrances". It's still good to know the ingredients that make up this "natural fragrance" as not all things "natural" are good for you. Some are actually poisonous or toxic.

What is Artificial Fragrance?

Artificial fragrance, also known as synthetic fragrance, is a mixture of various chemicals created to mimic natural scents. These fragrances are widely used in cosmetic products to enhance their appeal and mask unpleasant odors.

However, the term "fragrance" (and even "natural fragrance") on product labels can be deceiving, as it represents a complex blend of potentially harmful chemicals.

Does the FDA Regulate Fragrance in Cosmetics?

TLDR: Not really. The FDA loosely regulates fragrance formulation and leaves it to companies to deem whether or not the product is safe for consumers.

The specific ingredients that make up a fragrance formulation are often kept hidden from consumers under the guise of trade secrets. This lack of transparency raises concerns about potential risks and the ability to make informed purchasing decisions. 

A trade secret is a valuable form of intellectual property that provides a competitive advantage to a company. It is confidential information, such as formulas, manufacturing processes, or ingredients, that is not disclosed to the public. Fragrance formulations, including specific ingredients and their proportions, are often considered trade secrets by cosmetic manufacturers to safeguard their proprietary blends from competitors.

The FDA requires cosmetic products to list ingredients on their labels, except for the ingredients that compose fragrances. Instead, the term "fragrance" or "parfum" is used to indicate the presence of a scent blend. This exemption allows manufacturers to maintain the secrecy of their fragrance formulations.

The FDA does not directly regulate fragrance ingredients or conduct pre-market approval of cosmetic products. However, they have established the Voluntary (keyword: voluntary) Cosmetic Registration Program (VCRP) and the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) to assess the safety of cosmetic ingredients, including fragrance components. The CIR is an independent expert panel that evaluates the safety of cosmetic ingredients based on available scientific data.

Consumers truly don't know that the fragrance in their product could be formulated with hundreds of the 3,000+ toxins (which can be allergens, carcinogens, phthalates, and others that can cause birth defects and infertility) being used in fragrance formulation today.

It’s all up to the company to deem whether or not the product is “safe” for consumers. 

What are the Health Risks of Artificial Fragrance?

According to Women’s Voices for the Earth, fragrance is one of the most common allergens in the US. Fragrance allergy symptoms include: red bumps, itching, breathing problems, and heightened asthma.

  • Allergies and Sensitivities: Artificial fragrances are notorious for triggering allergic reactions and sensitivities. The chemicals used in these fragrances can irritate the skin, leading to rashes, redness, itching, and even dermatitis. Those with pre-existing skin conditions, such as eczema or rosacea, are particularly vulnerable.
  • Respiratory Issues: The volatile nature of synthetic fragrance compounds allows them to be easily inhaled. This can cause respiratory problems such as coughing, sneezing, wheezing, and even asthma attacks. Some fragrance chemicals are known to be respiratory irritants, exacerbating existing conditions or triggering new ones.
  • Hormonal Disruption: Many artificial fragrances contain phthalates, a class of chemicals used to make scents last longer. Phthalates have been linked to endocrine disruption, interfering with the normal functioning of hormones in the body. This disruption can have far-reaching effects, including reproductive issues, developmental problems, and even an increased risk of certain cancers.

What are the Alternatives to Artificial Fragrance?

Artificial fragrances may pose risks to our health and the environment. Fortunately, there are safer alternatives available that can provide pleasant scents without the potential harm. 

  • Essential Oils: Derived from plants, essential oils offer a wide range of aromatic options. They are concentrated extracts that capture the natural scent of flowers, fruits, herbs, and spices. Essential oils not only provide fragrance but also offer potential therapeutic and skin care benefits. However, it is important to note that some individuals may have sensitivities or allergies to specific essential oils, so it's essential to patch test and use them in appropriate dilutions.
  • Botanical Extracts: TMany plant extracts possess delightful natural fragrances. Ingredients like lavender, rose, chamomile, and green tea are known for their aromatic properties. These extracts can be used to provide fragrance and offer additional benefits such as soothing, antioxidant, or anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Hydrosols: Also known as floral waters, hydrosols are the byproducts of the steam distillation process used to produce essential oils. They contain trace amounts of the plant's volatile components and carry a subtle fragrance. Hydrosols are gentle and can be used directly on the skin or incorporated into cosmetic formulations to add a delicate scent.
  • Unscented or Fragrance-Free Products: For those who prefer to avoid fragrance altogether, unscented or fragrance-free products are a suitable choice. These products do not contain any added fragrance and rely on the natural scent of their ingredients, which is often very mild or undetectable.
  • It's important to note that natural fragrance alternatives may still cause sensitivities or allergies in some individuals, as any ingredient can potentially cause a reaction. It's recommended to read ingredient labels, patch test new products, and consult with a healthcare professional if you have specific concerns.

    For further information about Natural Fragrance and the regulation of fragrance, check out the EWG article, "Natural Extracts can Trigger Allergies".

    The information in this article is for educational use, and not intended to substitute professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should not be used as such.