Do You Know What is in Your Beauty Products? Part 1: Fragrance

Hi lovely ones:

The topic of beauty product ingredients fascinates me, as I know it does many of us. My dear friend Christie is a lawyer who does a ton of work on toxic torts. She also has a cool blog (linked here) where she discusses the nasty crap we put in our bodies . She let me share something with you that she wrote recently on “fragrance”…  pretty relevant to us beauty lovers!

The FDA, Fragrance And Rat Poison. The Politics Of Your Bathroom.

by Christie Asselin

Coumarin. Formaldehyde. Methylene chloride. Phthalates.

Nobody ever said your shampoo, lotions, soaps and perfume were per se healthy for you. But did you know these ingredients were lurking in the pretty bottles and tubes (not to mention egads feminine products) lining the shelves in your bathroom and shower?  Go take a look. I’ll be here when you get back…

You don’t see them listed? Well, let me help you read between the lines. Somewhere in that long paragraph of ingredients, you will come to the magic word “fragrance.”  Sounds simple enough right? It’s just scent! Everything needs to smell good. We are all guilty of picking up bottles at the shampoo aisle, popping open the top and taking a sniff. The cosmetics industry wants you to do that.

What they don’t want you to know is exactly what you are sniffing. And, oddly, the FDA, the administrative agency charged with protecting you from harm from dangerous ingredients, cannot do much about it.  According to the law, the term “fragrance” is none of your business. It is a trade secret.  A trade secret is a loop hole (or in my personal opinion, a gaping black hole) to the FDA’s requirements that the cosmetics industry tell you what is inside the products that you purchase.

The FDA has several obligations as an administrative agency including making sure that cosmetics and dietary supplements are safe and properly labeled.  The trade secret law allows cosmetics industries to avoid having to disclose the ingredients of their fragrances to the public, and also allows them to refuse to disclose the same to the FDA.

So, what is a trade secret?  There are a few definitions.  One scholar opines “[a] trade secret may consist of any formula, pattern, device or compilation of information which is used in one’s business, and which gives him an opportunity to obtain an advantage over competitors who do not know or use it.” (Gervin, D.) Because the trade secret law offers such far reaching protection, the term “fragrance” goes undefined, remains hidden, and is consequently… unlabeled.

According to intellectual property attorney Delia Gervin, “[C]oumarin, formerly the active ingredient in rat poison, is a known carcinogen that is used in perfumes. Methylene chloride is another chemical that is a known carcinogen that was banned altogether by the FDA in 1988, and yet this chemical has still been discovered in some perfumes since the time it was banned. Other non-synthetic substances present in perfumes and colognes that are known to be hazardous to human health are formaldehyde (a probable carcinogen) and phthalates, which have been known to cause damage to the liver, kidneys, and reproductive system.”  Id. Emphasis added.

These ingredients may also be included in unscented or fragrance-free products.  As noted in one article, “[t]he label ‘fragrance-free’ implies that a cosmetic product has no detectable odor, but it may contain fragrance used to mask a bad-smelling raw material.”  Id.

I think I might take smelling of raw material over dousing myself in coumarin.

Modern day life is one of convenience.  The vast majority of us don’t grow our own vegetables, raise our own livestock, or make our own soap. A little research on DIY bath products might be worth a google. As for what is in your current, store bought bath products, I think the score is pretty evident here:

Cosmetics industry: 1. Consuming public: 0.


Gervin, Delia. “You Can Stand Under My Umbrella: Weighing Trade Secret Protection Against The Need For Greater Transparency In Perfume And Fragranced Product Labeling” Journal of Intellectual Property Law Spring (2008).

In addition to being a girly-girl who loves cosmetics, Ms. Asselin is also an attorney. She
specializes in business disputes, employment law and toxic torts. You may visit her website at: Note: This is not an advertisement. The information contained in this blog post does not constitute legal advice and only contains general information on the law.

6 thoughts on “Do You Know What is in Your Beauty Products? Part 1: Fragrance

  1. I never think much about fragrance. I try to use more natural products for things I consume in large quantities (mainly any variety of soap), but it’s hard to be a conscious consumer with so many careless companies around.

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