The Short Answer:
There’s no regulation on the term “fragrance,” and it usually includes volatile organic chemicals (VOC’s), phthalates, and formaldehyde, all of which are linked directly to deleterious health outcomes.
Stay away from this stuff!
The Long Answer:
According to the FDA, specific ingredients in “fragrance” and “flavor”, although complex mixtures of many different natural and synthetic chemicals, do not need to be listed because they are considered “trade secrets.” The law does not require FDA approval before they go on the market. “Companies and individuals who manufacture or market cosmetics have a legal responsibility for ensuring that their products are safe and properly labeled.” Companies certainly aren’t creating large scale double blind studies on the safety of their products…
Essentially, they can put whatever they want in these products and they aren’t being regulated.
The ubiquitous “fragrance” can literally contain anything, many of the common ingredients are known and validated by science to cause health problems.
Some of the most offensive ingredients, VOC’s, phthalates and formaldehyde are known to aggravate asthma, cause hormonal and reproductive issues, birth defects, developmental disorders, and have been linked to neurological damage and even cancer.
Many air fresheners, an everyday product that contains “fragrance”, contain phthalates and according to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC, an international environmental advocacy group), “phthalates are hazardous chemicals known to cause hormonal abnormalities, birth defects, and reproductive problems. NRDC’s independent testing of 14 common air fresheners, none of which listed phthalates as an ingredient, uncovered these chemicals in 86 percent (12 of 14) of the products tested, including those advertised as ‘all natural’ or ‘unscented.'”
SC Johnson, makers of Glade and other household products, now list their fragrance ingredients on their website. They are doing it in an aim to be more transparent. Previously, the ingredients for their products only included “fragrance” or “fragrance oil” (the products still only contain those words but they’ve expanded what you can find online).
When you click Fragrance Oil to delve deeper and see what that entails… these are the real ingredients in “fragrance”
(e)-1-(2,6,6-trimethyl-1-cyclohexen-1-yl)-2-buten-1-one; [(3,7-dimethyl-6-octenyl)oxy]acetaldehyde; [1-methyl-2-[(4,4,5-trimethyl-3-bicyclo[3.1.0]hexanyl)methyl]cyclopropyl]methanol; 1-(2,6,6-trimethylcyclohex-3-en-1-yl)2-buten-1-one; 2,4-dimethyl-3-cyclohexene carboxaldehyde; 2,6,10-trimethylundec-9-enal; 2,6-dimethyl-7-octen-2-ol; 2-phenoxyethyl isobutyrate; 2-t-butylcyclohexyl acetate; 3.alpha.,4,5,6,7,7.alpha.-hexahydro-4,7-methano-1h-indenyl propionate; 3-hexenol; 3-methyl-2-butenyl acetate; 4,4.alpha.,5,9.beta.-tetrahydroindeno(1,2-d)-1,3-dioxin; 4-methylanisole; 5-methyl-2-(2-methylpropyl)-1,3-dioxane; amyl cinnamal; benzaldehyde; benzyl acetate; benzyl butyrate; butyl ester of pvm/ma copolymer; cyclamen aldehyde; decanal; dimethyl heptenal; dipropylene glycol; ethyl 2-methyl-1,3-dioxolane-2-acetate; ethyl 2-methylbutyrate; ethyl 2-methylvalerate; ethyl butyrate; ethyl isovalerate; ethyl linalool; ethyl methylphenylglycidate; ethyl salicylate; ethyl trimethylcyclopentene butenol; ethyl vanillin; gamma-decalactone; gamma-nonalactone; gamma-undecalactone; geranyl acetate; hexenyl acetate; hexyl 2-methylbutyrate; hexyl acetate; hexyl butyrate; hexyl propionate; indole; isoamyl acetate; isoamyl allylglycolate; isobutenyl methyltetrahydropyran; isobutyl methyl tetrahydropyranol; isopropylphenylbutanal; lauraldehyde; linalool; methyl anthranilate; methyl benzodioxepinone; methyl Ionones; methyl n-methylanthranilate; nona-2,6-dien-1-ol; nonadienal; phenethyl alcohol; ppg-2 methyl ether acetate; terpineol; trans-hex-2-en-1-ol; undecylenal
I won’t lie and pretend I know what any of that is or whether any one item is definitively bad. But I have no doubt in my mind that this is not something I desire to breathe.
Candles are another everyday product that almost always contains “fragrance”. In a 2009 study by South Carolina State University “The paraffin candles we tested released unwanted chemicals into the air. For a person who lights a candle every day for years or just uses them frequently, inhalation of these dangerous pollutants drifting in the air could contribute to the development of health risks like cancer, common allergies and even asthma,”
It gets better.
In a 2014 Scientific American Study, “The first study to explore the relationship between phthalates during pregnancy and future childhood asthma reveals a strong link between the two”.
According to the daily mail in 2005, “Chemical sprays, plug-ins and gels for home perfuming are hugely popular but investigators warn that they can include an array of hazardous substances which may cause lung damage and tumours, interfere with our hormones and cause such lifelong problems as asthma. Last month, a study involving Public Health England’s Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards, warned that plug-in air fresheners produce ‘considerable’ levels of formaldehyde: described by the US government’s National Toxicology Program as a known ‘human carcinogen’. It is most closely linked with cancers of the nose and throat and at the very least, it can also cause sore throats, coughs, scratchy eyes and nosebleeds. It is not the only chemical to fear in air fresheners. Other basic ingredients include petroleum products and such chemicals as p-dichlorobenzene, which hardly bring to mind summer meadows, vanilla pods and sultry spices.”
I hesitate to use the word “toxic” because it conjures up an image of woo woo anti-science chemical-phobio. I find that image grossly unfair, giving it’s the very same science showing how bad this stuff is. But I’ll say it here:
THIS STUFF IS TOXIC!
Now, what is a person to do? Forever live in a scentless world? Luckily there are safer options.
To help rid smells, if weather cooperates, you can open a window… that’s the best method. In addition to opening the window, houseplants help to clean air in the home.
To cover smells and create a scent, the next best option is to use a diluted essential oil (not all are the same so do make sure the mixture you use is indeed considered safe), a soy/food based candle, or dried flowers. Not potpourri you find at the store… that likely has added “fragrance”.. and you all know what that means.