“I am SO proud of you!”
…I told my boyfriend one night a few weeks back. Craig had just arrived home from work and we were sitting down to dinner, catching up on the day.
“The lobby at work smelled like a Febreze factory!” he had just told me.“So I emailed someone and said that we need to get those out of the bathrooms. That we just can’t be exposing our athletes, clients, and employees to potentially carcinogenic chemicals.”
Craig works for a company that trains elite and professional athletes, military operators, and corporate wellness clients worldwide. In the name of health and for the sake of the thousands of people who walk through the front doors and into that lobby, he knew they could do better.
My heart skipped a beat. Is there anything more romantic than environmental health advocacy?
The F-word, trade secrets and regulatory loopholes
When you see the word “fragrance” on an ingredient label, your (obvious) assumption is that fragrance is, well, an ingredient. So it’s normal to feel utterly perplexed and perhaps even infuriated when you find out it’s not. Fragrance is actually a blanket-term representing up to hundreds of different ingredients. As consumers, there’s no way for us to know for sure what these chemical cocktails consist of because they’re protected by industry as “trade secrets” (1). Not only does this labeling loophole make complete ingredient transparency impossible, but it also exempts fragrance from ingredient listing requirements in existing or proposed legislation, including the Federal Personal Care Products Safety Act of 2015.
Surely fragrance is regulated somehow though, right?
It is, just not the the way you’d hope. The role of self-regulation falls into the hands of fragrance industry’s own International Fragrance Association (IRFA) and their research arm, the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM). And the conflict of interest is fairly obvious. The majority of health and safety studies on fragrance ingredients are conducted in manufacturers’ or trade association’s own labs, and are rarely published in credible journals or peer-reviewed (1). The IFRA's Transparency List includes more than 3,000 chemicals, which represents the palette of fragrance ingredients currently used by most fragrance manufacturers. IFRA has established safety standards for 191 fragrance chemicals in use. The problem is, manufacturers’ adherence to these safety standards is completely voluntary. In addition, IFRA has not established any standards for a host of other toxic fragrance chemicals, so chemicals like endocrine-disrupting phthalates, can still end up in fragrance. Thanks to Women’s Voices for the Earth, you can view Fragrance Chemicals of Concern Present on the IFRA 2015 list here.
A Stunning Response
A few days passed and Craig’s inquiry was met with no resistance.
“Sure, no problem. Just tell us a better product to use and we’ll replace it.”
And just like that, the restroom fragrance was replaced with a naturally scented air freshener I had recommended. I really was so proud of him. Maybe I’d planted the initial seed of awareness, but I knew he hadn’t sent that email to impress me (we’re past those days). Making the company he’s been a part of for almost fourteen years a healthier place to work, train, and breathe just by reducing exposure to synthetic chemical fragrance was important to him.
Reflecting on my own transition to “fragrance-free” was one thing, but had I ever stepped back to fully appreciate the changes he’d made? What the process had been like from his perspective? And how it had become an issue he was so willing to take a stand for?
You see, Craig’s always lived a healthy lifestyle. He’s worked his entire career in the health and fitness industry; he’s an avid mountain biker, a whole-foods eater, a yogi, and a super intelligent guy. But when we first started dating four and a half years ago, environmental health concerns like synthetic fragrance weren’t even on his radar. Given how they’re regulated, why would they have been? It’s not that he was dousing himself in cologne, but he was still exposing himself to synthetic fragrance every single day. In his Redken shampoo, his American Crew hair gel and Dove bar soap. In his Gillette shaving cream, Degree deodorant, and Aveeno lotion. And it wasn’t just personal care products. It was in the dish soap on his counter top and the hand sanitizer in his backpack. There was fragrance with unknowns in his scented candles and reed diffusers. His basic cleaning supplies, his Tide detergent, his dryer sheets.
“It’s been a recalibration of my entire life.”
“I used to walk through the laundry detergent aisle at Target and smell the boxes of dryer sheets until I found one that smelled ‘clean.’I just had absolutely no idea back then what ‘clean’ even meant,” he told me. “What I used to appreciate as ‘fresh and clean’ now smell like chemicals to me. Even when I get a whiff of someone’s perfume or cologne, I have an actual visual image of chemicals. I think about it completely differently today – how I smell as a person, what I bring into my home, even the smells I’m exposed to at work. It’s been a recalibration of my entire life.”
Wow. That last statement stuck with me.
A (worthy) challenge
There’s no sugarcoating it; going fragrance-free isn’t void of challenges. I remember the sheer frustration I felt years ago when I learned that “unscented” on a product label didn’t guarantee that it was fragrance-free (tip: always check the actual ingredient list) or when I realized that even products marketed as “natural” often still contained it. And sometimes our psychological attachment to a product can make things the toughest. Our sense of smell is so intimately connected to our moods, experiences, memories, relationships, and I’d even argue, our identities! What other ingredients do we have that kind of emotional connection to?
Over time, as Craig had learned why I was motivated to make certain consumer choices, those same motivators began resonating with him and gradually nudging his own behavior. But re-establishing new purchasing habits didn’t happen overnight. It was a process of trial and error.
“Your whole life, you’ve been choosing all of these conventional products not just because of how they smell but because you like how they work, so when you find out about fragrance, you have to go back to the drawing board and find products that not only are synthetic-fragrance free, but that function how you want them to. It’s not always easy, but you know why you’re doing it, and that makes it 100% worth it.”
Fragrance is everywhere (and why that can be a good thing)
I don’t need to convince you that potentially harmful fragrance is all around. Just start reading labels – exposure sources speak for themselves. Sometimes the more widespread a problem is, though, the more accessible its solutions are. So rather than feel overwhelmed and paralyzed into inaction, try taking a step back and realizing that there are so many potential starting points to go fragrance-free. Maybe you ditch the plug-in air freshener in your car and try an air purifying bamboo charcoal Moso bag instead. Maybe you opt for a healthier brand of laundry detergent or try out those non-toxic soap berries. The possibilities to make a positive change are endless. How liberating is that?
The take away
Knowledge is power but action – even in the smallest form - is what changes the world. Stand up for increased health and safety standards. Support ingredient transparency. Make the switch. Start somewhere. Choose one product – whatever feels within reach – and find a fragrance-free alternative. If there is a dish soap whose scent makes you happy because is reminds you of your grandmother…that’s not the one to try to tackle first. Go with a product whose fragrance is totally incidental to your use of the product. Its all about reducing your exposure. Just telling someone you love why it’s important to you can create a ripple effect that reaches further than you can imagine. Don’t underestimate that last one!
- Throughout this month the Savvy Women's Alliance shares tips, stories and ideas on how you can have an impact on your health and home by becoming Savvy about the Fragrance Revolution. Ready for another spritz?
- Learn more about the science, safety, and regulation of synthetic fragrance here:
Savvy Women’s Alliance Mugshots: Phthalates
Campaign for Safe Cosmetic’s Chemicals of Concern: Fragrance
- And check out these practical solutions for going fragrance-free:
- Women’s Voices for the Earth’s Report: Unpacking the Fragrance Industry: Policy Failures, the Trade Secret Myth, and Public Health