I want to acknowledge that I have been procrastinating writing this post for too long. I am so passionate about the topic, but I knew that writing about it would require a decent amount of research, and I wanted to be as thorough, accurate, and informative as possible. But now is the time to just DO IT, because I keep seeing influencers and brands pushing candles, perfumes, diffusers, and beauty products HARD at consumers in time for the holidays– and if I can convince even one person to think more critically before purchasing, it will be worth it to me.
So what am I on about? The fragrance loophole. And the fact that we FILL our homes to the brim with products containing a mystery cocktail of potentially or overtly harmful chemicals, which aren’t even disclosed to us on the label (!!!) because it is guarded by the blanket terms “fragrance” or “parfum.”
So what is the fragrance loophole, exactly?
Fragrance acts as a loophole on the FDA’s regulation of personal care products. Fragrance is deemed a “trade secret” under the Fair Package and Labeling act of 1966, allowing companies to refrain from listing ingredients, so their specific formula cannot be knocked off easily by copycats. The downside is that this gives brands an opportunity to add in cheap-yet- toxic chemicals to their goods in order make a scent that disperses well and so it lingers for longer, which pleases the consumer (who has no idea that they may potentially be poisoning themselves by using said product).
According to the Environmental Working Group, the average fragrant contains about 14 secret chemicals that aren’t listed on the label, many of which are linked to hormone disruption and allergic reactions, as well as about 80 percent of them not being tested for human safety in personal care products. Terrifying, right?
The fact is that there is an absolute disconnect between what a product claims to contain, and what is actually inside. For instance, a well-known fragrance (I won’t name names, but this is a real example) might say “black currant, grapefruit, sandalwood, cedar, and magnolia.” If you look CLOSER, the ingredients listed are “alcohol denat., FRAGRANCE (PARFUM), water, linalool” etc etc. But if you LOOK EVEN CLOSER… which is something that most consumers don’t have the means to do, but experts have done via a laboratory analysis… you’ll find that the actual ingredients, hidden under the vague umbrella term “FRAGRANCE,” include a cancer-linked chemical, a cigarette additive, a prop 65 listed carcinogen, a “potentially deadly” chemical, and an FDA-banned sunscreen material. Brands claim that they aren’t disclosing the chemicals that compose their “fragrance” for proprietary reasons– so other companies can’t knock them off. But the truth is that if someone wants to copy a fragrance, they will find a way to do it; it is evidently not difficult to do. The reasons a brand will really refrain from disclosure are most likely: a) they don’t want to scare the consumer by listing all the chemicals (yep makes sense); b) the consumer would then understand that the fragrance contains zero sandalwood, cedar, grapefruit, or any other refreshing component advertised; and c) they actually have no idea what is in their own fragrance (which is perhaps less sinister, but is irresponsible and scary in and of itself).
As an example: When I first started researching the fragrance loophole, I emailed a popular “cruelty-free, non-toxic, vegan” candle company. This was our exact exchange:
ME: “Hi! How are you? I am hoping to write a feature on non-toxic candles, and was wondering how I might find out the exact ingredients in your “fragrance” so that I might include you. Happy to sign any NDA. Thank you so much; I’m very excited to hear about your company!”
Brand: “Hi Molly! My fragrance oil suppliers don’t share the exact ingredients for the oils, even with me, since it’s proprietary. But I have documents stating that they are petroleum free, and never tested on animals! Please let me know if you need anything else. Thanks so much.”
SAY WHAT?? Even the owner of this company has no idea what is in her candles???
To take the implications a step further here– this very much means that a product can be labeled as being “paraben-free” or “phthalate-free,” etc., but in actuality the ingredients encompassed by the “fragrance” label may contain harmful parabens and phthalates. In fact, this is very likely; diethyl phthalate, for instance, is often used as a solvent. (Phthalates, often effective at making fragrances linger for longer, have been linked to many diseases and major health issues, including reduced sperm count, liver and breast cancers, reproductive malformation and diabetes. This carcinogen has been banned in many countries… But shocker, not in the US!)
Regardless, my point here is not to say what you should and shouldn’t put on your body, in your home, and on/around your children. My point is that every consumer has a right to KNOW what they are putting on their body, in their home, and on/around their children. Something important to consider is that fragrance doesn’t just impact the person using/wearing it; it can severely impact anyone else around, triggering headaches, allergies, and disease. Another important point is that we have NO idea what the longterm effects on one’s health can be when certain materials are rubbed into/sprayed onto someone’s skin every single day for years.
So– what can I do if I still do want to wear and use fragrance? Are there truly clean and/or transparent options out there?
Check out these options (clean ingredients, and do disclose their full fragrance ingredients list):
- Goop Beauty (I’m referring to the actual Goop beauty brand– I’m not endorsing all fragrance options/all brands available in the Goop shop.)
- When you choose a product, simply click “ingredients” for the full list)
- Henry Rose (Michelle Pfeiffer is a fragrance-transparency activist, and has started her own transparent perfume line! Bonus: it’s EWG Verified.)
- When you choose a product, simply click “ingredients” for the full list)
- Phlur (fragrance, body care, and candles are available). Read about their fragrance/ingredients policy; it’s interesting!
- On the actual Phlur Website (not the beauty retailer page I’ve linked), you can see the full ingredients list of each fragrance when you click on a product
- Credo Beauty’s “Radical Transparency Page”, which lists all products in their marketplace which fully disclose the ingredients!
- As a clean beauty retailer, they really are the one leading the way to changing the standard for disclosure and closing the fragrance loophole! (When you click on a product, simply then click on “see full ingredients” and then select “here’s what’s in it.”)
- Important: not all brands/products on Credo’s website disclose their fragrance ingredients! ONLY the products and brands listed on the above link.
A Few Notes
- Because I know that people will bring this up: no, I am not including essential oil options in this write up. I consider that to be an entirely separate topic in and of itself, and a complicated one at that. I also have not done sufficient research on the purity of different essential oils (which I understand varies greatly from brand to brand), safety and application of such oils, and dilution requirements. For instance, certain essential oils are dangerous to diffuse/apply around animals, certain ones are neccessary to only use/diffuse in small doses, oftentimes they are mixed with synthetics in fragrance/candle products, and some can trigger allergies and/or be unsafe for pregnant women.
- I think one thing that is important to remember is that fragrances can absolutely impact the health and comfort of those around you. I have gotten so many messages from readers saying that they feel like they are suffocating in the halls or elevators at work, that they’ve had 3-day-long migraines after staying with a friend who used scented detergent on the sheets, and that they’ve been physically ill after hanging out with certain friends who wore a particularly potent fragrance. Personally, if someone is wearing an obvious fragrance, I won’t let them hold my babies. I’m not saying this to shame anyone, but I do want to just bring up a very real point that many are too polite to voice aloud– so it’s no wonder that the fragrance-wearer is unaware of any issue!
- I do list affiliate links in this post under my recommended options. At most, if you buy something I might get a few bucks in commission, all of which goes to animal rescue orgs anyway, so these links in no way impact my opinions expressed in the post.
- I care about your overall safety, so even though its a bit off-topic, I did want to mention that when it comes to purchasing CANDLES specifically, there are other very important considerations that go beyond fragrance. You need to please make sure that you don’t choose super-toxic paraffin wax; that the wick is UNBLEACHED natural cotton or wood.
If you have anything to add– any thoughts on the fragrance loophole, or any brands/products you would like added to the transparent options list– please do let me know!!!
I so hope that this has been helpful and informative! Love you all. Stay healthy and mindful out there!