Julia Vanella is a staff writer for Brief Policy Perspectives and a first-year MPP student.
The definition of the term “fragrance” is a sweet or pleasant scent. And while the smell may be intoxicating, it can also be toxic. The label of nearly every personal care product includes long lists of ingredients that the average person cannot identify or comprehend. The term “fragrance,” which is the easiest to understand from ingredient lists, is actually one of the most complex and problematic. In fact, “fragrance” is a catchall for 10,000 different ingredients.
What Is the Problem With Fragrances?
Experts have produced an increasing amount of evidence linking the ingredients in cosmetic and cleaning products to the emergence of various adverse health effects, ranging from allergic reactions to reproductive harm. Most notably, a recent study conducted by Breast Cancer Prevention Partners indicates a connection between toxins in cosmetic products and an increased risk of breast cancer. However, due to trade secret laws enacted to protect companies from revealing the formulas of their products, consumers find little transparency around what toxins companies use in their products.
Furthering these concerns, news outlets have reported on various cases of consumers suffering from severe allergic reactions to different products. One of the most famous incidents occurred when Brandon, a ten-year-old boy from Pennsylvania, spent significant time in the hospital after a life-threatening allergic reaction to the fragrance chemicals used in Axe Body Spray. Since Unilever, the parent company of Axe Body Spray, would not disclose any of the products’ ingredients, Brandon’s mother contacted and worked with multiple medical specialists who had to sign gag orders in order to review the official ingredients list. Still, no expert could test for the exact ingredient that caused Brandon’s reaction. Soon after, Unilever announced that they would begin to reveal the ingredients in their products, making them the first major personal care product company to voluntarily commit to disclosing ingredients in more than 1,100 products as a means to generate transparency between consumers and the company.
In response to expert studies and viral cases like Brandon’s, advocacy campaigns targeted at increasing public knowledge of the exact ingredients cosmetic companies use in their products — and their effects — have gained traction across the U.S in recent years. While advocacy campaigns have raised awareness, the movement for policy changes aimed at dismantling trade-secret laws has lagged.
Federal Drug Administration’s (FDA) Authority
Although the European Union bans over 1,300 toxic ingredients from personal care products, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the U.S. only bans nine such ingredients. Current law does not require approval of ingredients in cosmetic products before companies release them into the market, with the exception of products with color additives. The FDA expects the producers to care for the safety of consumers, and the consumers to possess the underlying knowledge required to know which chemicals and ingredients to avoid. While no formal testing or regulating process performed by the FDA currently exists, the FDA has repeatedly recommended that manufacturers use any and all testing necessary to ensure the safety of consumers. However, since companies do not face an enforced regulation process, there is zero accountability to ensure that manufacturers will use ingredients that do not harm consumers.
The Policy of Toxic Chemicals
As more cases surrounding the toxicity of fragrances have made headlines, policymakers have started to prioritize this concern for a consumer’s wellbeing. In California, Sen. Connie Leyva introduced the Cosmetic Fragrance and Flavor Chemicals Right to Know Act, also known as SB 312, which Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law on Sept. 30, 2020. Beginning in 2025, this new law will require all companies in California that sell beauty or personal care products to disclose toxic fragrance and flavor ingredients in their products to the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) Safe Cosmetics Program. In her proposal, Sen. Leyva emphasized that Californians have a richer understanding of the ingredients used to clean their homes than the toxins in cosmetic products they put on their faces and bodies daily.
Her concern that California consumers’ lack of information in this area results in consumers making harmful decisions for themselves and their families is echoed by numerous activists, who have petitioned for further regulation of these products. Supporters note how the new law will allow consumers to make well-informed decisions regarding what products are best for them and their families without the fear of cosmetic companies taking advantage of the general public’s limited knowledge of the ingredients listed on the back label of products. If the goal is to empower consumers to make educated decisions, then this bill is a step in the right direction and policymakers should take note.
The passing of SB 312 in California paves way for future legislation of a similar nature, which could nudge Americans to become more conscious of their personal care products. Before this bill, no state or federal law required companies to disclose and inform consumers of the ingredients used to create products’ scents, which allowed companies to easily hide their ingredients under the word “fragrance” while sharing little information about the product’s components with consumers.
Recently, this issue has surfaced to the forefront of the policy agenda through the advocacy efforts of celebrities and other political figures. In 2018, Kourtney Kardashian spoke to Congress regarding lack of FDA regulation on personal care products, and in 2019, U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., introduced the Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act of 2019, which would require cosmetic companies to disclose the ingredients listed on the back labels of each product. Rep. Schakowsky’s bill is a further attempt to empower consumers to make the best decisions for their bodies and their families by creating transparency between companies and the consumer through policy decisions.
Hopefully, both federal and state legislators will pass future legislation to address ingredient transparency concerns and protect the public from health-adverse ingredients. Until then, California’s new law lays the groundwork for future regulation of toxic chemicals in our products.