If you are like many of us, your nose occasionally leads your wallet. Personally, I know for a fact that if something smells amazing, I am more inclined to purchase it, for better or worse. As a matter of fact, it has been proven that certain specific scents will trigger a reaction in the human brain that causes one to be more apt to purchase something.
Due to this, many companies have learned to play up the scent in products, including those in the skin care market. Some brands, like Cle de Peau, even have their own unique aroma that exudes absolute luxury and matches their exorbitant price tag.
Unfortunately, sometimes a product smelling absolutely amazing could mean that it is not the best for your skin.
You see, fragrances get a bit of leniency from the FDA. While the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients, also known as the INCI, holds companies accountable for their ingredient listings by forcing them to use specific names for ingredients to make it easier for consumers to understand what is in their product of choice, fragrances get an exemption.
In fact, it is the only ingredient that gets a pass and does not have to explicitly name itself within a product’s given ingredient list. It can simply be written as “fragrance”, a vague and somewhat misleading term that works to hide a host of different ingredients under an imaginary perfume scented curtain.
Brands can list “fragrance” on a label and actually mean any combination of over five thousand different individual ingredients that all fall under the usable umbrella term. To put into perspective what this means, a brand could, hypothetically, choose to use every single one of those five thousand plus different ingredients in their product and still just list it as a single word: “fragrance”.
Though this is an extreme and incredibly unlikely option, it is still entirely possible under current regulatory measures. Basically, if a product says “fragrance”, you do not really know what is in your cosmetic.
The exemption was originally created to help prevent products from being copied. Developed to protect companies from copycat manufacturers, the law was passed in 1996 as part of the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act.
Though it had noble intentions, the law was actually rather ill-formed and unnecessary, as listing ingredients on a label does not mean copycats can snatch the formula and run. For example, if you give two people a basket containing cocoa powder, butter, eggs, milk, flour, and the other ingredients to make a chocolate cake and tell them to bake one, the two cakes will likely be very different.
Just because the ingredients are the exact same does not mean the products will be comparable since the ratios and introduction methods will vary. Even if a company lists the entire ingredient list on a package, a copycat company cannot just look at it and immediately copy it perfectly.
When looking at the list of fragrances that can be added to cosmetic products, it can become alarmingly clear that many are dangerous synthetic chemicals. Over ninety-five percent of all fragrances incorporated into cosmetic products are actually derivatives of petrochemicals, or petroleum byproducts.
These include nasty things like benzene derivatives, aldehydes, phthalates, and other scary chemicals that are known to cause a host of health issues ranging from mild dermatitis and allergic reactions to cancer and birth defects.
Some are even cited on the Environmental Protection Agency’s hazardous waste list, a collection of chemicals that cannot be safely dumped into the environment and must be carefully disposed of to protect the general population.
So, you should be able to avoid this whole mess by opting for fragrance free products, right? Not really, unfortunately. There is no universally recognized definition for “unscented” or “fragrance free”, meaning that these words are up to the corporation that produces the product’s discretion.
Yep, the companies producing the products get to decide if their ingredients meet the requirements for fragrance free or unscented labeling. This opens up an entirely new avenue of concerns, as brands purposefully mislabel their products to pander to those looking for safer alternatives to synthetic chemical laden traditional products.
A company can legally call a product fragrance free while it still contains scented ingredients and unscented while it still contains fragrances; it is all just a game of semantics.
The only real way you can avoid fragrances is to diligently check the product labeling on every single item you use. You absolutely should not have to do this, though, and many people are lobbying for stricter laws to be placed to prevent sneaky corporate exploitation.
Companies are pushing back but strides are being made everyday in the fight for clear, concise, and consumer friendly product labeling. Thanks to these efforts, perhaps one day we will be able to use products with peace of mind and confidence.
If you want to do your part to push the issue, try researching products before purchasing and only opting for those with ethical labeling. Additionally, you can reach out to your localized groups and see what you can do to help fight against these practices on a local or larger scale level.