Why can't labeling be straightforward? It's such a common question and one that really should have a simple solution: If a company uses artificial scents, it can't market its product as "fragrance-free". If it were that easy, we all could shop for soaps, shampoos, and lotions without worrying about putting toxins on (and in) our bodies.
Ah, if only the world was so uncomplicated. But as we know, it isn't.
We as consumers place a lot of faith in regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, but FDA guidelines are tricky... and easily circumvented by less-than-ethical manufacturers. In the end, cosmetic companies can get away with omitting dangerous synthetic compounds from their ingredient labels.
Essential Oils vs Synthetic Fragrances
Synthetic fragrances are frequently derived from petroleum products, and some have prompted academic and consumer safety organizations to sound the alarm. One of the most egregious offenders is a class of chemicals generally referred to as phthalates.
Phthalates are a class of compound added to plastics to introduce flexibility and put in cosmetics as carriers for fragrances. Several phthalates have been listed as endocrine disruptors and attention has focused on their potential cumulative effects on reproductive health. — Anthony King, Chemistry World, published by The Royal Society for Chemistry (Great Britain)
Studies in the United States, Australia, Taiwan, and the U.K. have found airborne and applied products containing phthalates to be a risk to male and female reproductive systems and other internal organs. The European Union has gone so far as to ban some phthalates found in fragrances.
A recent Australian study indicated that household and cosmetic fragrances often contain FDA-approved compounds that can, through reactions with ozone and other environmental molecules, generate or convert to hazardous chemicals. As a result, the consumer is effectively breathing in or applying to their skin formaldehyde and other carcinogens.
The Essential Alternative
Essential oils are concentrated botanical solutions mixed with vegetable-based carriers. Essential oils contain the plant's characteristic fragrance, as well as the natural and beneficial chemical compounds responsible for the therapeutic effects for which they're used.
Not all essential oils are the same, of course; this is one reason why the FDA can't regulate them. This might not be a bad thing. Inconsistency among plant crops due to farming practices, climate, weather, and soil quality is a major roadblock to regulatory standardization. And to produce that kind of consistency from crop to crop would require massive amounts of agricultural chemicals to maintain soil fertility and reduce pests and diseases in large-scale, mono-crop cultivation. True organic farming is difficult and very expensive to manage on the scale required to meet the demand that would justify the approval process.
This is why I take my job so seriously. I only source my essential oils from small-scale, organic farmers I know and trust. They don't use petroleum-based pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, and they themselves are hands-on from seed to harvest to bottling. Their essential oil concentrations are more than adequate for my own high standards.
Thanks to my relationship with "my" farmers, I can confidently offer sustainable products that only contain the plants' safe and natural chemicals.
Legal Labeling Loopholes
Do your lotions, shampoos, soaps, and moisturizers contain "hidden" toxins? You might be shocked to learn that the ingredients label on that bottle of wonderfully-scented shampoo in your shower doesn't disclose the information you really need to know.
It's important to be self-reliant when determining what's good for your health and that of your family, and label-checking just isn't enough. At the risk of sounding cynical, I want to point out how much influence large corporations have over regulatory agencies and the policymakers who set safety standards we trust to keep us healthy and safe.
Even some products labeled "unscented" may contain fragrance ingredients. This is because the manufacturer may add just enough fragrance to mask the unpleasant smell of other ingredients, without giving the product a noticeable scent. — U.S. Food & Drug Administration
When the FDA says "may", they're not saying it like, "We suspect they may be acting unethically". They're saying, "cosmetic companies are allowed to use deceptive marketing practices."
And the FDA isn't necessarily to blame. The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act is the legislation that made product labeling a requirement, yet it comes with a very contradictory loophole: Cosmetic, food, and beverage companies can't be legally compelled to disclose information that would give away their "trade secrets". According to information provided by the FDA, "fragrance and flavor formulas are complex mixtures of many different natural and synthetic chemical ingredients, and they are the kinds of cosmetic components that are most likely to be "'secrets.'"
It gets worse: Ingredients in fragrances don't need to be broken down and identified at all, whether or not they're declared proprietary. A cosmetic company can outsource a fragrance and legally promote the final product as "phthalate-free." And since the FDA doesn't consider phthalates as a hazard when they're used in cosmetic products—in spite of mounting scientific evidence to the contrary—the only reason these companies are hiding their ingredients is to fool people like you and me.
What Better Motivation to Start Becky's Tallow Treasures?
Let me guess: Right now, you're looking at all your personal care products, scented candles, detergents, and cleaning products, thinking you might as well set your whole house on fire and start over. I don't blame you. Once I became aware of just how unaware I was about the chemicals I used every day, I felt overwhelmed and upset, too.
But then I did something about it and started my own line of personal care products, tossing out the best "natural recipes" in favor of a process in which all my ingredients are sustainably-sourced, organic, and GMO-free... from grass-fed tallows to "from-scratch" bases. I never use artificial fragrances or coloring, and I only use food-grade lye—a practice many soap crafters find to be quite a big deal given that most use over-the-counter, heavy-metal-laden industrial lye.
I don't want to drink water that has fluoride, chlorine, and other "mystery stuff" in it, and I don't want it in my products, either. I use distilled water to make sure my natural ingredients interact the way they're intended.
Best of all, I list ALL the ingredients on my products, and I'm happy to discuss them with you if you ever wish to reach out. Trust me, it's empowering to demand honesty and transparency from the companies you entrust with your health and beauty.