Fragrance Regulations Prioritize Wealth Over Health

Delaney Szwed

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2023

Whether it is recognized or not, humans are exposed to a variety of products containing fragrances every single day. However, for something that is so common in the average human’s life, these chemicals are not as highly regulated as consumers would expect. While the Food and Drug Administration has requirements in place that fragrance formulas must meet in order to be incorporated in products, these formulas can also be considered “trade secrets.” This means that the formulas do not have to be disclosed to the public after FDA review. As a result, consumers should become more educated about potentially hazardous fragrance chemicals. These chemicals may lead to negative health consequences because they have gone unnoticed by the public.

What are fragrances?

Fragrances are a combination of chemicals that when mixed together emit a pleasant scent. While perfumes and colognes are commonly known forms of fragrances, they are also contained within a variety of everyday products such as cosmetics, cleaning supplies, shampoo, and body lotion. Even though a product may be labeled as “unscented,” it still may contain fragrance that the manufacturer added to mask the unpleasant scent of other ingredients within the product.

Current FDA regulations and their imperfections

The FDA currently regulates fragrances differently depending on what type of product the fragrance is contained in and how that product is intended to be used. With regard to cosmetics containing fragrances, the fragrance ingredients must meet the same requirement for safety as the other cosmetic ingredients do within the product. Though there are a few exceptions, cosmetics do not need FDA premarket approval and, therefore, neither do cosmetics that contain fragrances.  Therefore, the FDA rules regulating fragrances contained in cosmetics are rather lenient and easy to meet.

While harmful ingredients in fragrant cosmetic products are explicitly prohibited by the FDA, their regulations provide some loopholes for producers trying to bring their product to the market. According to the FDA requirements, product labels must list each ingredient contained within the cosmetic, but fragrance ingredients can simply be listed as “fragrance.” Not every chemical comprising the fragrance needs to be listed, so this rule provides a shortcut for producers.

When considering this information, it may appear confusing and potentially alarming that producers are not required to disclose the chemical ingredients contained in fragrances and can instead mask them on labels under the broad term “fragrance.” This is because the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA) protects a company from disclosing their trade secrets. Since fragrances contain a complex mixture of ingredients that companies have created as a result of their own research and experimentation, these formulas are considered a form of intellectual property that producers can keep secret from the public and competitors. Therefore, the FPLA protects producers from having to disclose vital information that makes their product unique.

Fatal flaws

The primary issue resulting from a producer’s ability to suppress fragrance ingredients from consumers is the potential harm to human health. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that some chemicals enter our bodythrough the skin and these chemicals can cause diseases. Specifically, research has shown that chemicals contained in fragranced products have been linked to cancer, birth defects, hormone disruption and other adverse health effects. If some fragrance formulas contain hazardous chemicals, and these fragrances are within products humans put on their body, then it is very likely the chemicals will make their way into a person’s bloodstream. Moreover, some consumers may be allergic to ingredients contained in some fragrance formulas that can cause reactions. However, the FDA does not have authority to require allergen labeling for cosmetics, so sensitive consumers have to do their own research when purchasing products containing fragrances.

Protection from perfumes

Unfortunately, since fragrances are found in a variety of everyday products used by the vast majority of consumers, it is difficult, if not impossible, to completely rid one’s lifestyle of the potentially hazardous chemicals. Even if a consumer is cautious of the products they use, the people around them likely are not, so the consumer is constantly at risk of ingesting the fragrances used by others. However, one way to protect oneself from potentially harmful chemicals contained in fragrances it to avoid products whose labels contain no other ingredient information other than the word “fragrance.” Additionally, essential oils are a great natural alternative to synthetic fragrances and emit a pleasant scent without the added health risk.

As the FDA continues to permit camouflaging fragrance formulas as “trade secrets,” the health risk to consumers will remain. Until producers are required to disclose the entire list of ingredients contained within fragrances, traces of potentially hazardous chemicals might go undiscovered.