What is Fragrance?

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This is part of our ongoing series helping consumers better understand chemicals, chemistry, and product formulations. We translate the science, bust the myths, and give you an honest assessment, so you can make informed choices for your family!



What it is:

The term “fragrance” (aka “parfum”) can be used for any number of aromatic chemical concoctions. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, over 5,000 different fragrance chemicals —  in countless combinations — are used in products today.

What it does:

As you can probably guess, fragrance is added to products to make them smell better. Sometimes it’s to add a sense of luxury or personality. Sometimes they’re used to create a more “natural” aroma. And sometimes they’re used to cover up an offending odor. Scent sells and manufacturers know it, so novel fragrances are not only used in cosmetics, personal care products, and cleaners, they’re also increasingly found in hard goods like diapers, garbage bags, candles, tissues, toys, and more.

Why we’re featuring it today:

Fragrance is listed in our Honestly Free Guarantee of ingredients we will never use. Why? 

First, while every other specific ingredient used in personal care products must, by law, be listed on the label, fragrance is considered a trade secret (1). So, the dozens or perhaps even hundreds of chemicals used to create them are kept confidential from inquiring minds. We don’t agree with the practice of ingredient secrecy; it’s simply not Honest.

Secondly, there are potential serious health issues associated with these classified compounds.

  • According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), fragrance is the number one cause of cosmetic contact dermatitis and its prevalence is on the rise.
  • Studies have found many, potentially harmful chemicals hiding in fragrances, including:
    • Synthetic musks that build up in our bodies and may enhance the impacts of other toxic chemicals (2,3). Some of these musks have shown hormone disruption potential (4-8). Synthetic musks are also persistent in the environment and contaminate waterways and wildlife (9).
    • Phthalates linked to hormone disruption, which can affect development, reproduction, and child health (10-13).
    • Volatile organic compounds that are classified as toxic or hazardous under U.S. federal laws (14).
    • Neurotoxicants, which are chemicals that are toxic to the brain (15,16).

How you can avoid it:

Simply put, read the ingredients label on products and if “fragrance” or “parfum” is listed, put that product back on the shelf. For the more persistent shopper who prefers something scented, contact the manufacturer to see if they’ll spill the beans on what’s inside. If not, keep looking.

Be aware: “unscented” and “fragrance-free” are not as they seem. According to Dr. Joseph Schwarcz, chemist, author, professor, and director of McGill’s Office for Science & Society:

Unscented products are formulated to have no smell but can contain ingredients that have a smell but the smell has been neutralized by other components. A fragrance-free product cannot contain any ingredients that have been added to impart a smell but may contain ingredients that have a scent but are not added because of their scent. For example if a cream is made with an oil that has a smell, it could still be labeled as fragrance-free because the purpose of the oil is to act as an emollient, not as a scent. But it could not be labeled unscented. However, if a product is formulated with lavender, for example, but some chemical is added to mask the smell, the product can be labeled as “unscented.”

Again, read the actual ingredients label! If there’s no ingredients list, contact the manufacturer.

And, to clarify Honest’s position, we will never use artificial fragrances or hide ingredients from you behind the term “fragrance” or “parfum.” But we do use essential oils in many of our products to give them a pleasant, natural scent. You’ll always be able to identify exactly what we use, so, if you have allergies or sensitivities, you can easily avoid any triggers.


  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved September 21, 2015, from http://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/productsingredients/ingredients/ucm388821.htm
  2. Washam, C. (2005). A Whiff of Danger: Synthetic Musks May Encourage Toxic Bioaccumulation. Environ Health Perspect Environmental Health Perspectives, 113(1). http://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.113-a50a
  3. Schmeiser, H. H., Gminski, R., & Mersch-Sundermann, V. (2001). Evaluation of health risks caused by musk ketone.International Journal Of Hygiene and Environmental Health, 203(4), 293–299. http://doi.org/10.1078/1438-4639-00047
  4. Seinen W, Lemmen JG, Pieters RH, Verbruggen EM, Van der Burg B. (1999). AHTN and HHCB show weak estrogenic but no uterotrophic activity. Toxicol. Lett. 111, 161–168.
  5. Schreurs RH, Sonneveld E, Jansen JH, Seinen W, van der Burg B. 2005. Interaction of polycyclic musks and UV filters with the estrogen receptor (ER), androgen receptor (AR), and progesterone receptor (PR) in reporter gene bioassays. Toxicol Sci. 83(2): 264-72.
  6. Bitsch N, Dudas C, Körner W, Failing K, Biselli S, Rimkus G, Brunn H. 2002. Estrogenic activity of musk fragrances detected by the E-screen assay using human mcf-7 cells. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol. 43(3): 257-64.
  7. Schreurs, R. H. M. M., Legler, J., Artola-Garicano, E., Sinnige, T. L., Lanser, P. H., Seinen, W., & Burg, B. V. D. (2004). In Vitro and in Vivo Antiestrogenic Effects of Polycyclic Musks in Zebrafish. Environmental Science &Amp; Technology Environ. Sci. Technol., 38(4), 997–1002. http://doi.org/10.1021/es034648y
  8. Eisenhardt, S., Runnebaum, B., Bauer, K., & Gerhard, I. (2001). Nitromusk Compounds in Women with Gynecological and Endocrine Dysfunction. Environmental Research, 87(3), 123–130. http://doi.org/10.1006/enrs.2001.4302
  9. Bridges, B. (2002). Fragrance: emerging health and environmental concerns. Flavour and fragrance journal, 17(5), 361-371.
  10. Parlett, L. E., Calafat, A. M., & Swan, S. H. (2013). Women’s exposure to phthalates in relation to use of personal care products. Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, 23(2), 197-206.
  11. Jurewicz, J., & Hanke, W. (2011). Exposure to phthalates: reproductive outcome and children health. A review of epidemiological studies. International journal of occupational medicine and environmental health, 24(2), 115-141.
  12. Chen, X., Xu, S., Tan, T., Lee, S. T., Cheng, S. H., Lee, F. W. F., … & Ho, K. C. (2014). Toxicity and estrogenic endocrine disrupting activity of phthalates and their mixtures. International journal of environmental research and public health,11(3), 3156-3168.
  13. Ventrice, P., Ventrice, D., Russo, E., & De Sarro, G. (2013). Phthalates: European regulation, chemistry, pharmacokinetic and related toxicity.Environmental toxicology and pharmacology, 36(1), 88-96.
  14. Steinemann, A. C., MacGregor, I. C., Gordon, S. M., Gallagher, L. G., Davis, A. L., Ribeiro, D. S., & Wallace, L. A. (2011). Fragranced consumer products: chemicals emitted, ingredients unlisted. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 31(3), 328-333.
  15. Anderson, R. C., & Anderson, J. H. (1998). Acute toxic effects of fragrance products. Archives of Environmental Health: An International Journal, 53(2), 138-146.
  16. Bagasra, O., Golkar, Z., Garcia, M., Rice, L. N., & Pace, D. G. (2013). Role of perfumes in pathogenesis of Autism. Medical hypotheses, 80(6), 795-803.

This post was revised as of 1/26/2016.


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