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Secret Scents

Posted on February 20, 2013

Secret ScentsUncovering hidden allergies from fragrances

By Alexandra Scranton

Director of Science and Research Women’s Voices for the Earth

Okay…so I’m a geek. I love data. And for the last year or so I’ve been digging into dermatological studies, only to find crazy statistics on skin allergies in women and kids.  Millions (yes millions) of people are affected by skin allergies every day. 

Women are much more likely to be affected than men, and the rates in kids have been skyrocketing over the last few decades.  And in almost every study, the data points its fingers at “fragrance” as a major cause. And that’s where the frustration kicks in.  What do we even mean when we say people are allergic to “fragrance?” A fragrance can be made of tens to hundreds of different chemicals that collectively impart a scent. But one “fragrance” can be made of completely different chemicals than another.

Today Women’s Voices for the Earth released an important report on this subject called Secret Scents: How Hidden Fragrance Allergens Harm Public HealthWe hope to uncover some of the mystery around fragrance allergies and some solutions we can take to move us towards a healthier society.

So when it comes to fragrances, what are people actually allergic to? 

It’s like going to your doctor and being told, “Sorry, you are allergic to food.” In reality, you have an allergy to a specific allergen, such as soy, or peanuts or cow’s milk etc. And when you go to the store to buy food, you can look at the label and find out whether it contains your problem allergen or not. For the most part, you can choose what foods to avoid to prevent a reaction. But with fragrance, you can’t do that.

For one, it’s hard to find out what fragrance allergen you are actually allergic to. Is it geraniol? Is it linalool? And even if you can find that out, all that you are told on a label of a body lotion is that the product contains “fragrance.” Does that contain my problem allergen or not?

But the fragrance industry keeps all those ingredients a secret...why?

The best answer I’ve been able to find is tradition. The fragrance industry has long held extreme secrecy around its formulas as a value and asset to the business. They fiercely protect their right to their intellectual property.  And no doubt, the creation of a fragrance is both an art and a science. It involves some really complex chemistry and takes a lot of time, effort and money to get it right. But is disclosing a simple list of the ingredients (without the other details like amounts or how these ingredients are combined) really a threat to intellectual property rights? 

So what’s the holdup? 

It certainly seems that revealing fragrance ingredients in consumer products could make life for allergy sufferers and their health care providers a whole lot simpler. And beyond that – there’s a whole world of even more serious health impacts from fragrance that have been documented.  From neurological symptoms, to immune system effects, to breathing problems and more.

Fragrance exposure is making life really, really difficult for some folks who are especially sensitive to fragrance. And the frustrating thing is that we cannot explain why a lot of that is happening.  Because we don’t know what the chemicals are in fragrance that people are reacting to. How does one even start a research program on fragrance reactions when you don’t even have specific chemicals to target?

As a society, we need to tackle this fragrance problem, for the health of those who are affected. Because fragrance, in our society, is everywhere. And it needs to start with the simple listing of ingredients in fragrance. I know it’s a major change in the culture of the fragrance industry, but some traditions just have to be let go, especially when they are standing in the way of people trying to protect their own health. 

Please join me in asking the fragrance industry to be part of the solution

And if you want to know more about this issue – check out our infographic and you can download my new report here.

To follow WVE on Twitter: @women4earth




This case cannot be separated from the Government policy against fragrances. The government should set up a requirement for all fragrance producers to report their secret chemicals consisted in their fragrances.

Without this, I believe that people will always be in risk to get allergy due to allergen from fragrance.

Life without fragrance is likely impossible. We need regulatory requirements for this issue. It's really important.

Posted by: lukman hakim | Feb 20, 2013 9:58:02 PM

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