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What’s lurking in fragrances and flavors?

Chemicals — such as allergens and sensitizers — are known to have harmful health effects, yet are hidden in product labels. But states are stepping up and enacting legislation to make sure consumers have access to this information.

Janis Hall is the founder of Fragrance-Free Friends, a support and advocacy group for people who have chemical sensitivity conditions.

Brattleboro

Do you know what’s in the products that you slather on your skin and inhale into your lungs? If you knew all the ingredients, you might be alarmed and look for alternatives. However, many manufacturers have been able to keep their ingredients secret.

Even products that list ingredients have rarely provided comprehensive lists. The simple word “fragrance” on a product label is an umbrella term that can hide dozens or hundreds of chemicals from a list of more than 2,000.

Personal care products, perfumes, air fresheners, and cleaning products are not regulated the way foods and drugs are, so they’re not required to list ingredients or to exclude chemicals that are known allergens and sensitizers. It has been virtually impossible to get an ingredient list if the manufacturer did not care to publicize it.

As U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky announced upon introducing the Cosmetic Fragrance and Flavor Ingredient Right to Know Act in 2021:

“Unlike food and drugs, cosmetics and personal care products remain one of the least regulated consumer products by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The $100 billion cosmetics industry uses roughly 10,000 unique chemical ingredients in personal care products, and the vast majority have never been assessed for safety by any publicly accountable body.”

* * *

This bill has not gained enough support to pass at the federal level, but states are stepping up and enacting legislation to make sure consumers have access to ingredient lists. These bills help all Americans, because it’s difficult for companies to do separate labeling and marketing for just one state.

Some of these state laws took effect in January, so ingredient lists are now becoming available. In some cases, the ingredients aren’t listed on product packaging, but you can look them up online.

State legislation includes:

• California’s Cleaning Product Right to Know Act of 2017 created ingredient disclosure requirements for cleaning products made on or after Jan. 1, 2022. Some manufacturers now provide links to ingredients on the product pages of their websites; others use third-party sites and phone apps such as Smartlabel to provide ingredient lists.

• A Menstrual Products Right to Know Act, enacted in both California and New York, requires disclosure of ingredients on labels of products such as tampons and menstrual cups. You’ll start seeing these label changes phasing in over the next year or two.

• The California Cosmetic Fragrance and Flavor Ingredient Right to Know Act of 2020 took effect in January. This is not just about women’s products. It includes aftershave lotions, anti-perspirants, and baby products, just to name a few.

This bill requires manufacturers of cosmetic and personal care products to reveal to the California Department of Public Health certain added fragrance and flavor ingredients, if they are present in amounts above a certain level.

The ingredients that must be disclosed include chemicals — such as allergens and sensitizers — that are known to have harmful health effects.

Search for your favorite product names, brands, or UPC numbers at the Safe Cosmetics Program database at the California Department of Public Health, cdph.ca.gov.

Please note that ingredient disclosure laws do not always require every ingredient to be listed. For example, if a chemical is present at less than 100 parts per million in a cosmetic product and isn’t on a list of things that are outright banned, it might not show on the ingredient list.

But even considering such exceptions, ingredient transparency has made truly impressive progress.

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Clearly, a new day is dawning for health and safety. I urge you to take advantage of it, especially if you suffer from asthma, chronic headaches, or an autoimmune condition.

Take some time to explore the ingredients of products you use, such as laundry supplies, deodorants, and hair products. And if you don’t like what you see, seek out safer products that might be better for your health, and that of your children and pets.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #661 (Wednesday, April 27, 2022). This story appeared on page C1.

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