The truth about perfumes: Estée Lauder, Clinique and Liz Claiborne call them “beautiful”, “happy”, and “fresh”. Greenpeace, the Environmental Working Group and Consumer Reports call them “hazardous”, “toxic” and possibly “linked to developmental and reproductive health risks”. Someone isn’t telling the truth here.
For the past couple decades, perfumes have been under attack from the scientific community, but many of us don’t know about it because up until now there has been little industry regulation to force manufacturers to disclose potential dangers in their scents.
These chemical formulas that make them smell are considered trade secrets so companies are not required to list their ingredients. They need only label them as containing “fragrance.”
Perfumes as neurotoxins: the controversy began
In 1986, fragrances joined the ranks of insecticides, heavy metals, solvents and food additives, when the US National Academy of Sciences, in a report entitled “Neurotoxins: At Home and the Workplace”, targeted fragrances as one of the six categories of chemicals that should be put through neurotoxic testing.
At issue are the chemicals that make up perfumes, and there are a lot of them, but the most controversial are a group called phthalates: most commonly, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), diethyl phthalate (DEP), and diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP). Mainly used as a softener to make PVC into a flexible plastic, phthalates also show up in glue, paints, nail polish… and perfumes. Many major cosmetics firms use them to help their fragrances last longer, but their health effects are being questioned.
Animal tests have shown that phthalates can cause reproductive and developmental harm- like fetal and birth defects- as well as, toxic effects on the liver, kidneys, heart, lungs and blood. Some studies show similar results with humans, though others have never been tested on human beings. Despite the lack of testing, the National Institute of Health and Health Canada warn these studies are relevant to humans.
In 2002, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition of environmental and public health organizations, contracted a laboratory to test name-brand beauty products for phthalates. Of the 72 samples tested, 52 contained phthalates, including such name brands as Chanel, Dior, and Calvin Klein.
To warn women of the potential risks of these products, the coalition began publishing consciousness-raising ads in major media with titles like “Something has come between me and my Calvins” and the byline “Toxic chemicals in beauty care products”. Or another of a pregnant woman smelling perfume warning, “Sexy for her. For baby, it could be poison”.
The Body Shop protects its image
Reacting to the bad press, The Body Shop issued a statement in 2002 that because of “growing concern that certain phthalates can cause hormone disruption in humans” they pledged to “avoid the use of phthalates in all of our new perfumes” and to “phase out the phthalates that remain in existing perfumes as soon as practicably possible”.
When Greenpeace tested 36 randomly-selected perfume brands between 2003 and 2004, they found that nearly all contained phthalates, including The Body Shop’s ‘White Musk’. Surprisingly, the only brands without a phthalate presence- Gloria Vanderbilt’s “Vanderbilt” and Bogner’s “High Speed”- weren’t, like The Body Shop, manufactured by firms that marketed themselves as natural or eco-friendly. To The Body Shop’s credit, they never claimed they would remove phthalates immediately; according to their website, they should have finalized phasing them out from all their products by the end of 2006.
In 2004, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics gave all companies a chance to clean up their image by signing a pledge “to be free of chemicals that are known or strongly suspected of causing cancer, mutation or birth defects.” By 2007, over 500 companies had signed the voluntary agreement.
Europe and California take the lead
Aside from voluntary efforts by firms, this year, phthalates will finally be subjected to regulation, at least in some parts of the world. Beginning this June, the European Union will require companies to study and report on the possible risks to human health of the hundreds of thousands of chemicals being used in consumer goods. Known as Reach (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals), phtalates fall under this mandate.
Inspired by the EU’s action, the state of California’s legislature (as they’ve done with greenhouse gas emissions) took the matter into their own hands and in 2005, passed the California Safe Cosmetics Act. This legislation forces- beginning January 1st of this year- any manufacturers that sell over $1 million a year in personal care products in the state to disclose when they use products linked to cancer and birth defects. Two of the most controversial phthlates- DBP and DEHP- fall under this mandate. Since this information will be made public, many companies will probably choose to remove rather than report these ingredients.
The US FDA in denial?
The U.S. government has been much more relaxed regarding cosmetic chemicals, banning only 8 as opposed to the over 1000 banned by the EU. The U.S. FDA has refused to regulate phthlates concluding that it’s “unclear” what effect they have on health.
In 2005 the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics learned that the FDA had conducted a safety study of phthalates, but was refusing to release the findings. Friends of the Earth, a founding member of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the study. According to information uncovered by the group, the study showed that two-thirds of health and beauty products analyzed by the FDA contained phthalates. FOE campaign coordinator Lisa Archer charged the FDA with “withholding an important piece of scientific research from the public”, and that “as a publicly-funded agency, the FDA has a duty to tell the public what it knows about which products contain phthalates.”
Despite the new legislation, many aren’t getting the phthalates out
To find out who is still using this conflictive ingredient, this winter Consumer Reports tested 8 fragrances, including the top-sellers Celine Dion Parfums Eau de Toilette Spray by Coty, Clinique Happy Perfume Spray, Elizabeth Taylor White Diamonds Eau de Parfum, Estée Lauder Beautiful Eau de Parfum Spray, and Liz Claiborne Curve Eau de Toilette Spray.
All the fragrances contained at least two phthalates and, most surprisingly, even those whose manufacturers claimed were clean. “Two products-Aubrey Organics Jade Spice Eau de Parfum and Aveda Love Pure-Fume Essence-went into the test group because the companies say they don’t contain any phthalates. But we found DEP, DEHP, and diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP) in the Aubrey Organics product. Aveda’s perfume contained DEP and DEHP.”
Estée Lauder says that DEP is the only phthalate used in any of its products, but we found DEHP along with DEP in Estée Lauder Beautiful and its Clinique Happy (the company also owns Aveda). A Liz Claiborne representative told us that none of its products contains DEHP, but we found that chemical-plus DEP-in Liz Claiborne Curve.
Although DEHP is currently banned in the EU, testers found it in samples of Happy, Poison, and Beautiful bought in both the U.S. and Europe.
Where to find safer scents
As some companies try to come into line with the European and California directives, the industry is changing rapidly. To find up-to-date information on products, visit the Environmental Working Group’s cosmetic safety database. Updated on May 17, 2007, here you can find information and safety assessments for 22,808 products, 6,717 ingredients, 1,556 brands and 948 companies. The system doesn’t just search for phthalates, but for ingredients with other health/environmental concerns as well.
Check the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics database for companies that have voluntarily “pledged to not use chemicals that are known or strongly suspected of causing cancer, mutation or birth defects in their products and to implement substitution plans that replace hazardous materials with safer alternatives in every market they serve.”