Does Perfume Have Hidden Health Risks?

'Secret Chemicals' May Be Harmful, Group Says; Industry Official Says Products Are Safe

From the WebMD Archives

May 12, 2010 -- That fragrance you wear, perhaps named after a celebrity, may make you feel sexy and irresistible, but chances are the label isn't telling you everything that's in it, according to a new report.

And that could spell trouble, says Jane Houlihan, co-author of the new report, issued by The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in partnership with the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Some chemicals found in fragrances may be hazardous to your health, she says, yet makers of popular colognes, perfumes, and body sprays often don't disclose all the ingredients found in their products.

''The fragrance mixture itself can be comprised of dozens, even hundreds, of individual chemicals, and those don't have to be listed on the label," says Houlihan, senior vice president for research for EWG.

The report, "Not So Sexy: The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrance," includes test results on 17 fragranced products. On average, Houlihan says, the researchers found 14 "secret" chemicals not listed on the label, and she says some of them have been linked to allergic reactions or hormone disruption.

Not surprisingly, industry officials took strong exception to the new report. The new findings, according to John Bailey, PhD, chief scientist for the Personal Care Products Council, is ''another example of a group releasing information without providing all of the information that's relevant. There may be a bit of selective science going on here."

Inside the Fragrance Report

Houlihan and colleagues selected various popular fragrances, including colognes and body sprays marketed to both men and women, to see what fragrance chemicals they included. "We started with these 17 products," Houlihan says, "sent them off to the lab to see what other chemicals are in these products."

The list of products sent to an independent laboratory to be analyzed included:

  • American Eagle Seventy Seven
  • Chanel Coco Mademoiselle
  • Britney Spears Curious
  • Giorgio Armani Acqua Di Gio
  • Old Spice After Hours Body Spray
  • Quicksilver
  • Calvin Klein Eternity for Men
  • Bath & Body Works Japanese Cherry Blossom
  • Calvin Klein Eternity (for women)
  • Halle by Halle Berry
  • Hannah Montana Secret Celebrity
  • Victoria's Secret Dream Angels Heavenly
  • Abercrombie & Fitch Fierce
  • Jennifer Lopez J. Lo Glow
  • AXE Body Spray For Men-Shock
  • Clinique Happy Perfume Spray
  • Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue


The tests revealed that 38 ''secret'' chemicals were in the 17 name-brand products, with an average of 14 chemicals per product. American Eagle Seventy Seven had the most unlisted ingredients, with 24; Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue had the least, with seven.

When they looked closer, Houlihan and colleagues found an average of 10 chemicals linked with allergic reactions such as headaches, wheezing, or asthma. The researchers found 12 different chemicals they describe as potentially hormone-disrupting, such as benzyl benzoate, diethyl phthalate, and tonalide.

Of the 91 ingredients found, the researchers report, only 19 have been reviewed by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, which is industry-funded, and only 27 have been assessed by the International Fragrance Association and the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials, which have developed voluntary standards for chemicals used in fragrance products.

According to the report, the fragrance industry has 3,100 stock chemical ingredients to choose from.

The FDA and Fragrances

Fragrances in products are covered under the federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1973.

The act does require companies to list the ingredients of cosmetics, but allows them to simply lump fragrance chemicals as "fragrances."

Fragrance Labels: What Should Be Done?

''The chemicals that are in fragrances should be listed," Houlihan says.

"People should be able to know what they are being exposed to,'' she says. "Having a simple ingredient list on the label would help people avoid what they are allergic to.''

Fragrances and 'Hidden' Chemicals: Industry Response

The researchers are ''cherry picking their science," Bailey says. For instance, he tells WebMD, ''diethyl phthalate [which the researchers found in 12 of the 17 products and consider a hormone disrupter] has been extensively studied by a number of authoritative bodies and found not to be a problem."

Bailey contends that the industry does a good job of policing itself when it comes to fragrance. For instance, he says, the International Fragrance Association has set recommendations regarding the use of some chemicals in fragrances.

Allergic reactions are bound to happen with some of the products for some people, he says. If a product is found to cause widespread allergic problems, Bailey says, the FDA can step in and notify the manufacturer.

As for the suggestion to list all chemicals used for fragrance on the label, Bailey says "It's virtually impossible" because of the complexity and the number of chemicals involved.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on May 12, 2010



"Not So Sexy: The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrance," The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, May 12, 2010.

Jane Houlihan, senior vice president for research, Environmental Working Group, Washington, D.C.

John Bailey, chief scientist, Personal Care Products Council, Washington, D.C.

© 2010 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.


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