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Who is Responsible for Ensuring Fragrances are Safe?

How Quarantine Binge Watching Led Me to this Question

by Katie Roering, Co-Founder & CEO

We’ve all had a little more free time than usual thanks to quarantine. Yes, I hate to admit, I did binge watch Tiger King on Netflix, and felt a little lost when I had finished the series. What could I watch to redeem myself?

I switched over to more informative documentaries so I didn’t feel like the time spent in front of the tv was a complete waste. After several recommendations from our clean living friends, Dark Waters was the clear choice. I sat through all 2 hours and 6 minutes of the film in complete horror and sadness at what had transpired for decades in West Virginia beginning in the 1970s.

For a complete synopsis of Dark Waters, check out this review from the New York Times. Even better yet, I highly recommend taking a few hours out of your day and watching it for yourself.

To quickly sum it up, a farmer in a small town of West Virginia is losing his cows to unexplained illnesses and he has a suspicion the neighboring landfill is to blame. It is notable to mention that Dupont had been disposing of the synthetic polymer, also known as Teflon, there. Not only had the Teflon had been poisoning the cows on the farm, but the chemicals had leached into the town’s water and had been poisoning all 70,000 of the residents in Parkersburg.

The worst part of all of this? Dupont knew that Teflon was harmful for years. They had been doing animal health studies and have been documenting report after report of ill employees. They had witnessed several pregnant workers on the Teflon lines experience both loss of pregnancies and birth defects. As a result, they removed all women from the Teflon manufacturing without notifying them why. These studies were buried for years until environmental lawyer Rob Bilott takes Dupont on for Wilbur Tennant, the farmer who first made the toxic discovery.

How did the lawsuit end? In 2017, Dupont settled the Class Action lawsuit with over 3500 personal injury lawsuits for roughly $670 million.

I continued down the rabbit hole of questioning product safety and corporate (lack of) transparency and pressed onward by pressing play on Toxic Beauty. This powerful documentary sheds light on the now famous case of Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder causing cancer. The film alleges that since the 1960s, J&J knew of the risks and did nothing to warn consumers. In 2018, Missouri’s St. Louis Circuit Court upheld the decision that awarded 22 plaintiffs $4.7billion, further proving that although J&J denied that their product was contaminated with asbestos, the company knew the product was indeed a hazard.

The film then takes a broader look at the product safety of the beauty and personal care industry. Studies are proving that parabens from personal care products are being found in breast tissue in women. We are slathering hundreds or even thousands of chemicals on our skin on a daily basis. Who is making sure these chemicals are safe?

The film concludes that in the United States, the Cosmetic and Personal Care Industry regulates itself. And we saw exactly how well that worked out with both the Dupont Teflon Case and the Johnson & Johnson baby powder case.

So I got to thinking about the Candle Industry. If you’ve been following us, you know I have been questioning the safety of the fragrance oils used to make conventional candles. I’ve been asking the question, are they REALLY safe? Watching these documentaries really took my questioning to the next level. Who is regulating and is responsible for the safety of these chemicals?

What’s wrong with fragrance oils in the first place? Our blog post The Problem with Fragrance Oils dives into this topic.

You see, because the components that go into giving a candle or any scented product its unique smell are considered a trade secret, manufacturers do not have to list any of the ingredients used in their fragrance.

Instead, “fragrance” is simply listed as one ingredient, while in actuality, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), many fragrances can contain as numerous as 5,000 ingredients!

Among those chemicals are aldehydes, benzene derivatives and toluene.

If those sound foreign, watch a documentary such as STINK (yes, we are adding another documentary to your must watch list!), and you’ll soon learn that those ingredients are some of the same ones found in toilet bowl cleaner, paint thinner, wart remover, and insect repellents!

These ingredients are also included on the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR)’s toxic substances list, with warnings like the following for toluene:

“Breathing toluene vapors in small amounts may cause a mild headache, dizziness, drowsiness, or nausea. With more serious exposure, toluene may cause sleepiness, stumbling, irregular heartbeat, fainting, or even death.”

So let’s go back to my question, who is responsible for regulating these fragrances and making sure they are safe?

It turns out that the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) governs itself through its own research division: the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM). From previous lessons, we know that this self regulation leads to major problems.

It leads to a conflict of interest which often serves the financial interest of the industry, instead of protecting public health.

But for more insight, Women’s Voices for the Earth further breaks down why this is such a problem in the report “Unpacking the Fragrance Industry” (I HIGHLY recommend reading the entire report that took the author 6 years to compile!):

  • The majority of the studies done on fragrance materials/ingredients are produced by the fragrance manufacturers or fragrance trade association labs. Do you want to see these studies? Well, you can’t. They haven’t been published or peer reviewed. They are not available to the public that may be using the fragrance on a daily basis.

  • The Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM) has produced no evidence that they have studied some of the most controversial ingredients such as phthalates, in the last 30 to 40 years.

  • The European Commission Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) reviewed studies on fragrance materials that had been submitted by RFIM to formulate their own opinions on the safety of these materials. SCCS noted that the studies from RFIM contained incomplete data, inability to confirm identity of the test substance, invalid test protocols, and lack of appropriate controls. As a result, they concluded that it was not possible to conclude safety from the testing that RFIM was conducting.

  • There are no standards for many of the controversial, and most harmful, ingredients in the fragrances.

So why don’t the candles that are containing the toxic fragrance chemicals have any warnings on the labels to inform consumers? That is the trade secret protection of the fragrance industry at work!

The Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act of 2019 hopes to end the concealment of these toxic secrets from consumers. It is the only federal cosmetic safety bill that calls for fragrance ingredient transparency, safety data sharing, and would immediately ban some of the most harmful chemicals.

The bill was introduced to the House of Representatives on September 12, 2019 and was referred to the subcommittee on Health. To follow the status of this bill, please visit Congress.gov.

So while we wait for this bill to go through the legislative process, what can we do as consumers to ensure that we are staying safe?

First and foremost, read the labels on the products you use on a daily basis! If you are worried about fragrance like I am, toss out any product with that ambiguous word.

Please remember that Essential Oils are the only truly natural way to scent a product.

And if you are unsure about the safety of any ingredient in beauty or cleaning products, check the EWG Database to see if the product is EWG Verified for safety. MadeSafe is another amazing product screening organization for a wider range of products including apparel, bedding, feminine care, and others.

Products that are not required to have ingredients listed, unfortunately like candles, are much trickier to vet for safety. Reach out to the company and ask about their ingredients. Many companies are claiming to sell natural candles when they are being made with fragrances! If they are made with fragrance, ask the company if they are willing to share the fragrance SDS with you. If they are not, please consider purchasing from a more transparent company!

It is up to US to ensure that the products we are using on a daily basis are not harmful to our health!

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