We associate the word toxic with a few key things: Britney Spears dressed as a seductive airline stewardess, our wannabe-musician ex-boyfriend, and these beauty ingredients we try to avoid at all costs. Our signature, can’t-live-without, much-loved fragrance does not come to mind—but now, maybe it will. A fellow editor recently clued us in to some pretty disturbing information about perfumes and the ingredients that go in them. Being the intrepid (and slightly paranoid) editors we are, we found ourselves in an Internet black hole, devouring all the recent research that links perfume ingredients with a slew of scary health issues. With the help of Caroline Cox, research director for the nonprofit organization Center for Environmental Health, we’re pulling back the curtain so you can be more informed before your next fragrance purchase. Read up—and spritz with caution.
Keep scrolling to find out the truth about perfumes and toxicity.
Most people know what the FDA is and the purpose it serves: to protect us, consumers, from harmful ingredients in the food and products we use and consume. Except for this one little loophole: something called the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which does not require cosmetic products and ingredients to be approved by the FDA before they go to market (the exception being color additives). Yes—you read that right. To put it shortly, as Cox says, federal laws aren’t enough to adequately protect us. Which is where being a smart and informed consumer comes in. But when it comes to fragrance in particular, you won’t get by with just reading the ingredients label, either. That’s because many perfumes simply list “fragrance”—and that little word can include a whole world of ingredients and chemicals, some of which may be harmful to your health. According to Environmental Working Group (EWG), “Companies that manufacture personal care products are required by law to list the ingredients they use, but fragrances and trade-secret formulas are exempt.”
So, there are secret, potentially harmful ingredients possibly lurking in our perfume—what exactly are they? Cox says phthalates are the class of chemicals she has been focusing on; they’re a common ingredient in perfumes because they help them last longer. “A European study found four phthalates in almost all the perfumes tested, with DEP found at the highest concentrations,” she says. The four phthalates—DEP, DiBP, DEHP, and DBP—have all been linked to everything from genetic damage to reduced fertility and even cancer. DEP, or diethyl phthalate, in particular has been shown to be a hormone disrupter—and yes, that includes testosterone, so warn your boyfriend. Considering the fact you’re spraying these chemicals close to your body and rubbing them into your skin, it’s not really a question of whether you’re being exposed, but rather how much exposure is considered harmful. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t clear, mainly because you can’t spray a bunch of phthalates on people and see how much it takes for them to start showing adverse affects.
Now that we’ve sufficiently scared you, what are you supposed to do next? You could check to make sure your favorite fragrance isn’t in the EWG list of perfumes with the most unknown chemicals, and spritz cautiously moving forward. You could try all-natural fragrances, which are made with essential oils instead of chemicals. However—not to be the bearers of yet more bad news—essential oils have some little-known side effects too. As for natural ingredients, Cox specifically calls out pulegone, a natural mint fragrance and flavoring that has been known to cause cancer. You could cut all fragranced products out of your life, which sounds as difficult as it probably is. (If you’re pregnant, it may be the safest route to go.) Your best bet is to school yourself, Cox says, and to know which brands and products are considered safe—and which aren’t. A good resource to start with is the Think Dirty app, which helps you learn about potentially toxic ingredients in a simple, easy-to-digest format.
At the end of the day, the decision is up to you—but make sure you’re well informed when you’re making it.
In the market for a fragrance-free moisturizer? We love Glossier’s Priming Moisturizer ($25) and Honest Beauty’s Even Brighter Everyday Moisturizer ($34).
What do you think of the information above—are you as shocked as we were? Would you cut artificial fragrances out of your beauty routine? Tell us below.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Cosmetic ingredients. Updated December 12, 2019.
Orecchio S, Indelicato R, Barreca S. Determination of selected phthalates by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry in personal perfumes. J Toxicol Environ Health Part A. 2015;78(15):1008-10018. doi:10.1080/15287394.2015.1021433
Environmental Working Group, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Not so sexy: hidden chemicals in perfume and cologne. May 2010.
Jabba SV, Jordt S-E. Risk analysis for the carcinogen pulegone in mint- and menthol-flavored e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products. JAMA Intern Med. 2019;179(12):1721–1723. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2019.3649