By David S. Martin
CNN Medical Senior Producer
Perfumes commonly list “fragrance” as an ingredient, rather than naming the specific chemicals involved, withholding information that could cause allergic reactions and other health effects, a report released Wednesday asserts.
Looking at 17 popular perfumes, colognes and body sprays, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found an average of 14 unlisted ingredients in each of these products. By law, companies are not required to list chemicals used to create their fragrance.
“We as consumers have a right to know what we’re putting on our bodies,” says Sean Gray, senior analyst with the Environmental Working Group, which conducted the study for The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. “Some of those hidden chemicals you don’t know about have human health impacts.”
The fragrances tested contained, on average, 10 chemical sensitizers, which can trigger reactions such as asthma, wheezing, headaches and contact dermatitis when they are breathed in absorbed into the skin.
John Bailey, chief scientist for the Personal Care Products Council, the Washington-based industry group, said the chemicals in question were sensitive only at very high doses.
“I think they’re misusing information at several levels,” Bailey says. “They report the so-called secret materials in products and they don’t report the levels. As an analytical chemist, you have two jobs. One is to identify chemicals. And the other is to identify how
much is there. The quantity is critical.”
In Europe, 26 substances must be listed on the label even if they are part of the fragrance. Of those 26 substances, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics study found 22 in the products it tested.
In the report, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics called on Congress to rewrite the Federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1973 to require all the chemicals in a perfume or cologne to be listed.
But Bailey says that’s unrealistic. He says there wouldn’t be enough room on labels to include all the ingredients used to create a fragrance and that the information would be meaningless to consumers.
Bailey says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other agencies have the authority now to restrict or ban any substance used in cosmetics consider unsafe.
In the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics study, 12 of the 17 fragrances tested also contained diethyl phthalate, known as DEP.
Phthalates are generally classified as endocrine disruptors, meaning they can interfere with the chemical signaling system in the body, and some studies suggest they may interfere with the reproductive development of boys in the womb.
But Bailey says DEP is not a health concern in the amount it is used in cosmetics, and DEP deemed safe by American and European regulators.
“Fragrances have been used for centuries. We know a lot about the composition. There’s really a basic tool chest of materials being used,” Bailey says. “It’s not as though we don’t have any experience with them.”
In December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency named eight phthalates to a new “chemicals of concern” list, citing adverse effects on the reproductive system in male laboratory animals and human studies showing associations between phthlates and health problems in people. DEP was not among those phthalates cited by the EPA.
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is a coalition of non-profit groups, including the Environmental Working Group, Alliance for Health Tomorrow, the Breast Cancer Fund, Commonweal, Friends of the Earth and Women’s Voices for the Earth.