Why Perfume Is the Last—and Perhaps Most Important—Frontier in Clean Beauty
“Transparent” would seem the perfect word to describe a bottle of perfume—you can see right through it. But few products available in the US are less transparent than perfume, actually: The term “fragrance” is, by design, a bucket into which beauty companies can put whatever ingredient they want, without having to disclose it on the label. When you see “fragrance” listed, unexplained, on any cosmetics label—not just on perfumes, but also skin cream, shampoo, body wash, lipstick, anything—it’s important to know that it could include any number of some 3,000 potential cosmetic ingredients, some toxic, some not.
“The term ‘fragrance’ is, by design, a bucket into which beauty
companies can put whatever ingredient they want, without having to
disclose it on the label.”
The only thing you know for sure is that for some reason, the manufacturer of that product doesn’t want you to know what’s in it, says GP: “The term ‘fragrance’ has become a way for corporations to hide ingredients, from phthalates, parabens, potential endocrine disruptors and carcinogens, to anything toxic they don’t want to list on the label.” What began as a term to keep perfume formulas a trade secret has evolved into this chemical dumping ground.
“I was horrified to find I’d been spraying endocrine disruptors all over my body,” she continues. “I love perfume, and like everyone else, I’d trusted the beauty companies.”
The Hidden List of Chemicals
“Consumers shouldn’t trust a company that’s not being transparent,” says Nneka Leiba, deputy director of research at the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Accordingly, if the list of ingredients on a label includes “fragrance” and doesn’t break out what’s in that fragrance, don’t assume that all of those hidden ingredients are safe: The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (a coalition of some 100 organizations including EWG, all advocating transparency in the personal care industry) commissioned independent laboratory tests on 17 bestselling fragrances, and found an average of 14 hidden chemicals in each.
“If the list of ingredients on a label includes ‘fragrance’ and doesn’t
break out what’s in that fragrance, don’t assume that all of those
hidden ingredients are safe.”
Among those hidden chemicals are solvents, stabilizers, preservatives and dyes, including compounds associated with hormone disruption, allergic reactions, and accumulation in human tissue—and many of them have never been assessed for safety in personal care products.
Reproductive Deformities in Boys
Among the most common hidden ingredients are phthalates, particularly diethyl phthalate (DEP), a known endocrine disruptor that’s especially dangerous for men and boys. “DEP contributes to two specific deformities of the reproductive tract in male infants,” says Leiba. “It’s also linked to sperm damage in human epidemiological studies.”
But the most important point, she says, isn’t even the (admittedly terrifying) potential toxicity of a particular ingredient—it’s that no one can know what they’re exposing themselves to. “Only the companies have that information,” says Leiba. “Not even the FDA knows.”
“The FDA doesn’t know what is in it either.”
We deserve the right to make decisions about our exposure, and we do not have that right. “The cosmetics industry woefully under-regulated, with an enormous list of potential ingredients—and we’re not allowed to know anything about what they are within a given product, and the FDA doesn’t know what is in it, either,” says Leiba. “DEP, at least, we know something about—but there are plenty of ingredients that haven’t been studied for use in personal-care products. And while there are definitely ingredients many cosmetic companies are starting to move away from, we don’t know what they are, or who’s moved away from them,” she continues.
Chemical Sunscreens in Fragrance
What we do know: “The fragrance industry has disclosed a list of more than 3,000 ingredients they can use in their palettes,” says Leiba. There are definitely things you wouldn’t expect in there: “Chemical sunscreens are often put into fragrance, so the color of the product doesn’t change due to sun exposure,” she explains. “As an informed consumer, you might never use oxybenzone [a skin irritant and known endocrine disruptor] in your sunscreen, but you could unknowingly be spraying it on your body when you wear your favorite fragrance.”
Some fragrance ingredients also react with ozone in the indoor air, generating more potentially harmful chemicals like formaldehyde and ultrafine particulate that we inhale as a form of secondary air pollution.
DEP and phthalates in general rise to the top in terms of known risky ingredients often found in fragrance, Leiba says: “Phthalates are plasticizers that add a stickiness to formulas so they adhere to the skin better—in fragrance, they help the smell last longer. They’re a class of chemicals reported in the bodies of more than 90 percent of Americans, and an important exposure route is in personal care products. They can be powerful endocrine disruptors, which are particularly concerning for men and baby boys in particular, as they’re linked to the deformities I mentioned—krytorquidsm and hypospadia. In general, hormone studies are finding that endocrine disruptors have more of an effect on men than women.”
How Much Are We Absorbing?
Can a drop of cologne affect the hormones of a developing baby boy? That’s the classic argument: There’s so little of X ingredient in my formula, it couldn’t possibly hurt anyone—the dose makes the poison! The problem is, we’re not allowed to know the dose or the potential poison, and each dose is multiplied by the incredible number of products infused with “fragrance” we use every day: “It’s in socks, new cars, and in garbage,” says Leiba. “It’s pumped into the air in retail stores and in hotels; it’s in shampoos, lotions, bath products, cleaning sprays, air fresheners, laundry and dishwashing detergents.” Anything that’s scented is adding to your exposure of these potentially toxic chemicals. ”When you amass the number of exposures an individual gets over the course of day, a month, or year, for example, you see a much higher level of exposure,” says Leiba.
At the end of the day, Leiba emphasizes, EWG is not saying we shouldn’t use perfume. “It’s not about avoiding fragrances, or that people should live fragrance free,” she says. “Consumers deserve to be able to choose products based on transparent information,” she says. “You shouldn’t have to blindly trust that what you—and your unborn child—are being exposed to is safe. You should be able to know that it’s safe.”
“Our stance is not synthetic versus natural—
it’s simply about full disclosure.”
Products with the words “natural” or “organic” on the label don’t constitute transparency—only an ingredient list that fully discloses everything that’s in the product, including the fragrance, aroma, or parfum. “Our stance is not synthetic versus natural—it’s simply about full disclosure,” says Leiba. “More disclosure is always better. An educated consumer can make smarter decisions. We’re advocating for full transparency. People should be able to choose what they expose themselves to.”
What We Put in goop Perfume
The below reflects the level of transparency we believe we deserve from beauty companies: It’s a complete list of the ingredients in goop’s edition 04 — Orchard. We use a base of 100% organic sugarcane alcohol, plain water, and citric acid, and blend in the following (incredible) elements:
Carries feminine spiritual energy and instills romance and passion in a relationship.
Conjures feelings of luxury and decadence.
Ignites dormant passions in relationships and encourages intimacy, awakening and enlivening the sensual intimacy. Strengthens resolve and promotes clarity.
A spiritual, sacred oil, used around the world during prayer and meditation practices. Encourages letting go of ego, calms a busy mind, promotes a peaceful state.
Promotes healthy boundaries. Encourages stepping into one’s own strength.
Used in Ayurvedic medicine as an aphrodisiac and mood elevator. Provokes divinity, spirituality, peaceful synergy and positive energy.
Used to break hexes in concert with other oils.
Aphrodisiac, elevated mood.
Great for the second chakra, and encourages creative expression.
Dispels negative astral influences.
Encourages clairvoyance, refines the senses, and awakens the spiritual side.
Alleviates the loss of friends, loved ones, or the end of a relationship.