What Is The Deal With Fragrance?

Fragrance Pic
Fragranced products span across the entire personal care sector.

What exactly is “Fragrance”?

You’ve likely seen the word hundreds of times. You know fragrance as a delightful smell that pleases your senses. But do you know ‘fragrance’ as an ingredient? You’ll see it on the ingredient list in nearly every personal care product on the shelf. From your shampoo, makeup, and shaving cream- to your home air fresheners and cleaning products. It’s a singular word. But it’s so much more.

In fact, fragrance as an ingredient is a beauty industry dirty little secret. Or more specifically, a trade secret. It’s often a proprietary blend of upwards of dozens of chemicals that do not have to be disclosed. This is due to the rather infamous “industry loophole” of fragrance disclosure. Or nondisclosure, as it were. There are major regulatory discrepancies between the FDA and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act.[1] As a result, a company does not have to list the host of ingredients that make up their fragrance blend. They can simply use the word “fragrance”. That singular word facilitates a covert dumping ground for unsavory and toxigenic chemicals.

What is Lurking Within…

When you see the word “fragrance”, “parfum”, “eau de toilette” listed on an ingredient list, take pause. And seek to find out more. A common chemical used in fragrance blends are PHTHALATES. Phthalates are a man-made compound of chemicals that are plasticizers- used to make plastics more flexible. [2]

 But they are also used to make fragrances last longer and have staying power. They’re why smell can linger on freshly washed clothes for weeks. You may have a sentimental attachment to that lingering laundry smell, but at its root is phthalates.  They are known to cause hormone disruption, allergic reactions, and have a propensity to accumulate in human tissue. [3]

The Environmental Working Group, (EWG) lists “fragrance” as an 8/10 in Toxicity. This is because of the mixed-bag of unknowns there within. These Include chemicals like styrene, resorcinol, musk ketones, phthalates and petroleum distillates to name a few. [4] Many unlisted ingredients can trigger migraines, dizziness, and asthma in those who are sensitive. [5]

What About Natural Fragrance?

Unfortunately, ‘Natural’ is another meaningless word when it comes to FDA regulation. [6]
There is no determined definition of the word. So when a company says “natural fragrance”, it’s open to interpretation . This can come down to the integrity of the company when it comes to transparency vs. marketing tactics. Usually, a company is alluding to it having some essence of plant-basedness. Whether it be an isolate, or “nature-identical”, it’s still made in the lab. Essential Oils and plant botanicals are really the only unadulterated natural fragrance when it comes to extraction from nature.

So, Now What?

Look for transparency and full disclosure. Start paying attention to the use and language that surrounds the word fragrance. It should be an ongoing area of study. 
Look for EWG Verified products, which check ingredient safety and disclosure policies.
One can also look for MADE SAFE Certified products, which have a similar vetting process.
Perhaps if you see the word fragrance on the ingredient list, put the product back and look for a fragrance-free alternative instead. 

Here at Haskill Creek, we have a strict and ever-evolving “fragrance policy”. We lean into companies that use essential oils and true botanical extracts. We favor companies that get down to the nitty gritty, disclosing their formulations in their entirety. Any "fragrance" in our product lines, is at least free of phthalates and parabens. This is a developing arena, one that seeks to balance prioritizing health with delighting the senses.

Sarah Ogle Author Pic

Author profile

Sarah Ogle

Sarah is a HCF Buyer and specializes in Product Research and Ingredient Safety.

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