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Fragranced consumer products: Chemicals emitted, ingredients unlisted

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Cleaning products (iStock)Cleaning products (iStock)Cleaning products (iStock)

“Fresh new scent!” is a frequent product pitch, and supermarket shelves groan with seemingly endless varieties of soaps, moisturizers, cleaners, air fresheners and more that vaunt their alleged nose-pleasing qualities.

While the FDA requires the manufacturers it oversees to list “fragrance” as an ingredient in their scented products, current laws don’t require disclosure of the compounds used. And the Consumer Product Safety Commission (which regulates cleaning supplies, air fresheners and laundry products) does not require “fragrance” to be mentioned, or require disclosure of what its components might be.

A 2011 study published in Environmental Impact Assessment Review by researchers at the University of Washington, the Battelle Memorial Institute and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Fragranced Consumer Products: Chemicals Emitted, Ingredients Unlisted,” analyzed 25 scented products using a gas chromatography/mass spectrometry. The tested products included laundry and dish detergents, fabric softeners, cleaners, soaps, disinfectants, hand sanitizers, lotions, deodorants and shampoos.

The study’s findings include:

  • The products tested emitted more than 130 different volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Of these, “24 are classified as toxic or hazardous under U.S. federal laws, and each product emitted at least 1 of these compounds.”
  • The average product emitted more than 17 VOCs. Of these, 1 to 8 were toxic or hazardous.
  • Nearly half the products generated at least 1 of 4 carcinogenic air pollutants (acetaldehyde, 1,4-dioxane, formaldehyde, and methylene chloride).
  • Of all VOCs identified, only one was listed on a product label and only two were listed on any material safety data sheet (MSDS).
  • Products labeled as “green” or “natural” did not emit significantly fewer VOCs than other products.
  • Overall, “none of the products listed all chemicals emitted, and 14 of the product labels did not list ‘fragrance’ (or a similar word), yet this appears to comply with U.S. laws.”

The researchers did not examine the possible risks of using scented products, but instead sought to better understanding product emissions and the broader implications. “Would listing all product chemicals, potentially hundreds, create false alarm? Or would listing some (but not all) ingredients create false assurance?” they ask. “With widespread attention to consumer products, these findings can contribute to further study and collaboration among scientists, policy makers, producers, and the public.”

Keywords: pollution, safety, consumer affairs, cancer, perfume, scented products

    Writer: | Last updated: October 19, 2012

    Citation: Steinemann, Anne C.; et al. "Fragranced Consumer Products: Chemicals Emitted, Ingredients Unlisted," Environmental Impact Assessment Review, April 2011, Vol. 31, Issue 3, 328–333. doi: 10.1016/j.eiar.2010.08.002.

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the issue-related New York Times article "Domestic Detox: Extreme Home Cleaning."

    1. If you were to revise the article based on knowledge of the study, what key changes would you make?

    Read the full study "Fragranced Consumer Products: Chemicals Emitted, Ingredients Unlisted."

    1. Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
    2. Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
    3. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)

    Newswriting assignments

    1. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
    4. Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.