New Report Highlights Toxic Chemicals in Consumer Products

BCPP Report Examines Chemicals in Personal Care and Cleaning Products, Particularly Those Used for Fragrance 

Right to Know

Breast Cancer Prevention Partners and Campaign for Safe Cosmetics

A new report by the Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (BCPP) details findings from product testing they performed on beauty, personal care and cleaning products, with an emphasis on products often marketed to vulnerable populations, such as children and women of color. The report focuses on the identification of chemicals used for fragrance in these products because, currently, chemicals used for fragrance do not have to be disclosed. The simple term “fragrance” on your shampoo or lotion label could represent several (if not many unknown, and potentially harmful, chemicals.

Although BCPP was only able to test a small fraction of the market (32 products), BCPP’s main findings raise concern and confirm the need for transparency of ingredients in products used in our homes. Almost 100 of the over 300 fragrance chemicals identified were linked to adverse health effects. Of the products tested by BCPP, the product that contained the most fragrance chemicals linked to health concerns was Just for Me Shampoo, a shampoo aimed at children of color, with popular perfumes following closely behind.

And it’s not just fragrance ingredients. BCPP found a total of 24 chemicals of concern, 14 of which were fragrance chemicals, in Just for Me Shampoo—including four carcinogens, 19 hormone disruptors, six developmental toxicants and three chemicals that can trigger, or worsen, respiratory problems, like asthma.

Due to a loophole, fragrance ingredients are not required to be disclosed in personal care products or cleaning products; and until recently, there were no requirements for disclosure of ingredients in cosmetics used in professional setting or in cleaning products in general. This year California became the first state in the U.S. to extend retail cosmetic ingredient disclosure requirements to products used by salon workers. And last year, with the passage of the NRDC co-sponsored Cleaning Products Right to Know Act of 2017 n California, manufacturers of cleaning products will have to disclose the majority of the ingredients in their products on labels and online. The Act’s disclosure requirements include fragrance ingredients, the first and only product category with fragrance disclosure requirements.

The BCPP report confirms the importance of California’s ground-breaking legislation, and the need for expanded transparency and ingredient disclosure for all consumer product categories. The “right-to-know” what is in the products we use and what is being released into our environment is essential to protecting public health and the environment. 

The lack of fragrance ingredient disclosure, in combination with a largely unregulated fragrance industry, leaves consumers, health agencies and advocates in the dark about what chemicals people are being exposed to. The research and testing that has been done suggests that many of the chemicals used in fragrance are associated with health hazards such as reproductive and developmental harm, hormone disruption, cancer, neurotoxicity, and respiratory and skin irritation and sensitization.

BCPP Product Testing Report

To shed some light on the “fragrance” black box, BCPP tested 25 personal care and 7 cleaning products and compared chemicals identified to the International Fragrance Association ingredient transparency list. BCPP then used the Chemical Hazards Data Commons developed by the Healthy Building Network to determine which identified chemicals were linked to adverse effects such as cancer, asthma, reproductive harm, hormone disruption and aquatic toxicity.

BCPP concluded that more than a quarter of the 338 fragrance ingredients they identified were linked to adverse health effects; and of the total chemicals linked to adverse health effects in each product, a high percentage of them were fragrance chemicals. And it’s not just fragrance ingredients; cosmetics and cleaning products also contain other chemicals that can be really harmful as well. 

Examples of chemicals of concern found in tested products include: 

  • Toluene – used as a solvent in industry and in consumer products such as paint thinners and nail polish; linked to endocrine disruption, reproductive and developmental harm, neurotoxicity, and skin irritation
  • Parabens – antimicrobials used in food, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics; associated with hormone disruption, cancer, and reproductive harm
  • Phthalates – used to in fragrances and to soften plastics; associated with neurotoxicity, reproductive harm, hormone disruption and obesity
  • Benzophenones – prevent damage from light to scents and colors in fragrances and personal care products; linked to cancer and hormone disruption

While this report does not quantify the concentration of each chemical, the presence of unlabeled chemicals linked to such a broad array of health effects should raise concerns for consumers and the public health community, especially given how often an average person is exposed to personal care and cleaning products in their daily lives. For example, a NGO-led survey found that the average woman uses 12 personal care products a day.

The Most Vulnerable

Some populations are more sensitive and/or vulnerable to the effects of toxic chemicals that are often found in personal care and cleaning products. Children and adolescents are still developing and are especially vulnerable to the effects of hormone disruptors and developmental toxicants. Additionally, research suggests that when pregnant women are exposed to environmental toxicants, even at extremely low levels, fetal development can be disrupted. Advertising that promotes mainstream beauty norms may influence and increase the use by women of color of products such as skin lighteners and hair straighteners, many of which contain chemicals of concern. Finally, workers such as custodians, cleaners and cosmetologist are disproportionally exposed to these products and any toxic ingredients they contain. 

While BCPP’s testing represents a limited sample, it is worth noting that many of the products BCPP tested are often marketed to and used by vulnerable populations.

Conclusion

This report illustrates the need for full ingredient disclosure in all consumer products, because:

  • Consumers need this information to make safer, more informed purchases for themselves and their families;
  • Workers need this information take the necessary steps to protect themselves from unsafe chemical exposures in the workplace;
  • Regulators need this information to effectively regulate consumer products to better protect public health and the environment; and
  • Companies could also benefit from lower reputational risk.

About the Authors

Anna Reade

Staff Scientist, Healthy People & Thriving Communities program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.