Clear the Air: Toxic Chemicals in Fragrances

the fragrance industry must change its ways - and you can help
toxic fragrance chemicals ingredients
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / marrakeshh

From washing your face to applying serum, a daily skincare routine may involve using as many as 16 different personal care products! While you can read the ingredient labels to make sure you’re avoiding known toxic chemicals like phthalates or parabens, it’s hard to steer clear of unwanted ingredients when they’re not even listed! Because fragrance is a substance that is traditionally considered proprietary, it is one of the worst—and most secret—offenders.

People like to smell nice, and companies have conducted many focus groups to discover the power of a product with a pleasing aroma and how it impacts a consumer’s buying decisions. Surprisingly, fragrances aren’t just to give products a desired scent. They’re also added—even those labelled “unscented” or “fragrance-free”—as a masking agent to hide the natural, and sometimes off-putting scent of the product. Fragrances can contain an unlimited amount of chemicals such as phthalates and synthetic musks. Many of these chemicals are hormone disruptors, allergens (especially for children and people with multiple chemical sensitivities), respiratory irritants, or carcinogens. They can cause allergic reactions or induce everything from a headache to an itchy rash! By not disclosing fragrance ingredients, consumers can’t make informed decisions regarding their health.

Failing the smell test

Globally, the fragrance market was valued at nearly $70 billion in 2017, and by 2024 it is estimated to be worth about $92 billion. In 2016, personal care and fine fragrances made up 75 percent of fragrance sector sales, with the other 25 percent going to household goods. The fragrance industry is entirely self-regulated by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA), which serves the collective interests of the industry and is estimated to represent 90 percent of fragrance suppliers.

Fragrance ingredients are not required to be labelled on a product because they’re considered “confidential business information” (CBI). There are no federal guidelines in Canada or the US regulating the disclosure of fragrance ingredients from fragrance suppliers to manufacturers, regulatory agencies, or consumers—even if a fragrance supplier is using toxic chemicals. 

While California is taking the lead, disclosing specific chemicals of concern including fragrance in personal care and cleaning products, and the European Union has legislated that some allergens used in fragrances have to be listed, there are no regulations at all regarding a product’s fragrance in Canada or much of the US.

Why aren't fragrance ingredients labelled?

All personal care products (such as makeup, moisturizer, and toothpaste) sold in Canada and the US require all ingredients except for fragrances to be labelled on the product, and cleaning products aren’t required to label their ingredients at all! These practices have become so problematic that both California and New York State created precedent-setting requirements in 2017 for any product sold in stores, manufactured, or available online in those two states to begin to disclose cleaning product ingredients on labels or available on websites. Implementing a phased-in structure, New York set a disclosure deadline of October 2019 for Phase 1. California began imposing requirements for websites in January 2020 and will follow suit with labels in January 2021.

Government regulation and consumer choice

As consumers, we have the right to know what ingredients are hiding in the products we use. Until it becomes legislated by the government to disclose fragrance ingredients (or to ban toxics in products in the first place!), companies need to wake up, step up, and voluntarily label fragrance ingredients to protect consumers. Luckily, people across North America are demanding change, and some companies are listening.

Thanks to the hard work of many US advocacy groups such as Breast Cancer Prevention Partners and Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, some major companies have started revealing fragrance ingredients on their website. Proctor & Gamble and L’Oreal have committed to disclosing fragrance ingredients in Canada and the US. Other major companies, such as Johnson & Johnson, have product-specific restrictions and only disclose fragrance ingredients in their baby product line. 

While increasing transparency of ingredients is an improvement, the onus still rests on the consumer to research the harmful effects of chemicals and discern which ones to avoid. Considering there are thousands of different fragrance ingredients, this can be completely overwhelming (and unreasonable) for the average shopper.

What’s really needed is a change in the legislation that governs toxic chemicals in the products that people use every day. In Canada, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) hasn’t been updated in 20 years and in the US, the last major federal law governing the cosmetics industry was passed in 1938! Fortunately for Canadians, the federal government has made a commitment to reform this legislature, and organizations like Environmental Defence, Ecojustice, and the David Suzuki Foundation have continued to pressure the government to commit to a strong timeline to introduce an updated CEPA. Individual states are leading the way in passing cosmetic reform legislation, but a piecemeal approach is inadequate and a federal law is necessary to protect all Americans from toxic chemicals.

Doing the work

Until stronger laws are put in place to protect us from the harmful effects of toxic chemicals, consumers must do much of the grunt work themselves:

  • Do your research and only buy products that do list fragrance ingredients.
  • Opt for products that clearly state on the product that they do not use phthalates and synthetic musks.
  • Download Environmental Defence’s Toxic Ten pocket guide ( which lists the top 10 chemicals to avoid in skincare products, such as parabens, talc, and oxybenzone.
  • Call on your favourite companies to disclose fragrances so that you can make informed choices. Check out to take action today! Or get creative with brands—tweet, or go old-school and mail a letter, or give them a call!

Ultimately, there must be stronger restrictions, regulations, and protections from toxic chemicals. Pressure from consumers to impel the government to act on chemicals of high concern is imperative to keep the momentum going against harmful ingredients. Call or set up a meeting with your local government official and tell them why you’re concerned about fragrances and other toxic chemicals in products and don’t give up until they listen!

You may also enjoy: Spring Cleaning Without Toxic ProductsWhy the Nursery Could Be the Most Toxic Room in the Home, and Reading Cosmetic Labels