If it Smells Like a Rose, is it a Rose?

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by  Elizabeth Fernandez

Trying to be an informed consumer, I often scan the ingredients list of the toiletries I buy. In the United States, where there are few regulations on what can be included in personal care products, the burden of being informed falls on the shoulders of the consumer. There are a great deal of chemicals included in common toiletries that may not be safe. Safety concerns are compounded because many of these ingredients have a cumulative effect, accumulating in the system from use of multiple products over time with the same potentially dangerous ingredients – chemicals that can be linked to allergies, cancer, fertility problems… the list goes on. Unfortunately, choosing “organic” or “natural” products is not always the easy answer, as these terms are not regulated.

Luckily, there is help for the consumer to choose safer products. There is a lot of information available, including the excellent database “Skindeep”.  This website has a lookup for thousands of products, and there is even an app that can scan the barcodes of the products you buy. The overall product, as well as each constituent ingredient, is ranked from 1-10 (where 1 is very benign, and 10 is, well, let’s just say I wouldn’t want to lather it all over my skin).

Perhaps you can imagine my excitement on finding this database. So much knowledge! I went on a tour of my bathroom, scanning in everything I could find. Toothpaste. Shampoo. Eye shadow. Deodorant. Sunscreen. Everything fell under scrutiny.

And to my surprise, almost everything had the same potentially “dangerous” ingredient, rated an 8 on Skindeep’s scale.

As a word, it seems simple enough.


Odd, I thought. I always assumed fragrance was derived from some fruit, an assortment of flowers, maybe some peppermint. Surely, those aren’t that dangerous?

It turns out that “fragrance” isn’t as simple as the word implies. Fragrance is a unique combination of anywhere from 50-100 chemicals, most of them synthetic, and many derived from petroleum. Some of them can be quite dangerous. But even considering this, the individual components of the fragrance in an individual product does not need to be made known to the consumer, qualifying as “trade secrets”.

What this means for you is that many of the products you use on a daily basis contain chemicals that can cause allergies, irritation, damage to the immune system, migraines, and organ damage. Phthalates, one such ingredient in “fragrance”, is a hormone disruptor, is linked to thyroid problems and diabetes, and can cause damage to the male fetus. Synthetic musks, another ingredient, can accumulate over time and attack tissues in your body. And from simply reading the ingredient list, there is no way for you as a consumer to know what you are putting in or on your body.

So what can you do to limit your exposure to these chemicals? When shopping, you can opt for “fragrance-free”, which means that no extra chemicals were added to change the product’s scent. You can also try to limit the number of products you use.

But most of all, it’s important to be an informed consumer. Fragrance is just one of the potentially dangerous chemicals within your personal care products. Be informed. There are many web resources out there, such as SkinDeep, and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which provides a “red list” of chemicals to avoid in toiletries, as well as resources and action alerts targeting politicians and lawmakers to help protect the consumer from dangerous chemicals within care products.

Article © Elizabeth Fernandez, 2015

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