When you think about the $80 billion beauty industry, it’s easy to think that an industry that large would have basic transparency requirements for consumers, especially given these products are used on our skin daily.
The truth is that there are some great labeling requirements for personal care products and there are also some major gaps, leaving room for policy gaps like the notorious “fragrance loophole”.
No major law on cosmetic safety has been passed since 1938, when the Food, Drug & Cosmetics Act was originally signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The emphasis on “major” is intentional for a few reasons.
First, there have been updates and minor tweaks to the cosmetics section of this 80+ year law, but most of the updates haven’t been focused on ingredient safety. Second, the one major step forward for consumers happened in the late 1960s, called the Fair Packaging & Labeling Act.
Labeling Requirements Under the Fair Packaging & Labeling Act
This legislation has some basic consumer transparency elements that helped propel the beauty industry forward, but there are also some major loopholes that have yet to be closed.
Beauty Labeling Requirements Under the Fair Labeling Act
- Ingredients must be listed on a label for beauty and personal care products if they are to be sold in a retail environment (see loopholes below).
- Ingredients must be listed by weight, so anything that appears at the top of the ingredient list is used in larger volumes than those at the end of the ingredient list. This is why you often find fragrances and preservatives listed at the end of the ingredient list.
- Fragrance ingredients do not need to be listed for consumers on labels or company websites.
- “Parfum” or “fragrance” can be listed on the ingredient label, rather than the full list of ingredients used to make up that scent.
- Ingredients do not need to be listed on professional salon products (see below on some progress!) or products solely sold online.
The “Fragrance Loophole”
The fragrance loophole has been a sore spot for consumer safety advocates like myself for decades and here’s why: there are over 3,000 different chemicals used to make our beauty products smell nice. Now just because a fragrance or product uses a lot of ingredients, doesn’t mean that it’s automatically unsafe. And having undisclosed ingredients also doesn’t mean it’s unsafe, but how is a consumer able to tell what she’s putting on her body if companies aren’t willing to share?
And perhaps the bigger question is, what do you have to hide?
The answer lies in the desire to protect the intellectual property of fragrance developers and perfumers, not to dupe or intentionally hide things from consumers. Sure there are probably some companies who like this loophole to be able to use undesirable ingredients, but the core reason for this loophole is around protecting the time put in by perfumers. I respect the need to protect the artistry in developing these fragrance formulas, yet there is clearly a way for all ingredients to be shared with consumers while protecting the artistry of the fragrance developer.
Think of it like a star baker, you can know the ingredients they are using to make their award winning cake, but you can’t know how much of each ingredient and their special process for making it.
Simply put, there is a way to protect the intellectual property of fragrance makers while still showing consumers every ingredient used to make a fragrance.
Getting to the solution of this however isn’t as easy as it looks. Often times the manufacturer of the beauty product doesn’t have access to the full list of ingredients in the fragrances. Let that sink in for a moment.
When they purchase the scent from the perfumer (called “fragrance houses”), the company often does not have any visibility into the formula for that scent themselves. And finding fragrance houses that are willing to share the ingredients—even in 2021—is a Herculean feat. There are just a few fragrance houses that are willing to share this information, and even then it is a laborious process.
So what’s the solution if it’s not as easy as manufacturers demanding the information? Consumer pressure has been mounting, but we haven’t seen much movement from fragrance houses, which leaves the last and most powerful option. Regulation.
New Law Takes Meaningful Step to Close Fragrance Loophole
I was honored to help pass a law in the state of California that helps bring us one step closer to closing the fragrance loophole. Despite being a California piece of legislation, it has national (and international) impacts due to the nature of the legislation. In short, this law helps increase transparency for the whole industry and all consumers, not just those in California. Let me explain.
The California Fragrance and Flavor Ingredient Right to Know Act, more commonly known as the Safer Fragrances Law, requires companies to disclose to the state of California if their fragrances contain harmful ingredients. These ingredients deemed hazardous have already been identified on lists of banned ingredients by governments (called “authoritative lists”). In practice this will mean that if a company is using a fragrance blend that contains certain phthalates for example, they will need to disclose that to the state of California, who will then make it public.
It’s an important first step to start to give consumers access to this important information, but perhaps more powerful, to force the hand of fragrance houses.
Increased transparency for consumers also means increased transparency for brands who are trying to do the right thing and make clean formulas.
Professional Salon & Online Only Products Lack Ingredient Lists, Change Coming Soon
Salon professionals are one of the most exposed populations to toxic hair dyes, fragrances, nail polish and treatments. And yet under federal law, those professional products do not need to have ingredient lists included. The California legislature passed a bill call the Safer Salon Bill in 2019, and it will require ingredient disclosures for salon products starting July 2021.
While this is a California piece of legislation, it opens up transparency for everyone working and getting treatments in salons across the United States. While the California bill is a great step forward, federal law must also require this transparency for professional products as well as products who are sold only online.
Are “Natural Fragrances” Safe?
Natural fragrances, essential oils and even synthetic fragrances can be safe. The biggest issue is around disclosure. If you see a brand that seems to be doing all the right things but has the term “natural fragrance” on their label, I would encourage you to do two things.
Reach out to that company and ask them if they can share the ingredients used in that fragrance blend (chances are they won’t be able to share this with you due to NDAs they sign with the supplier), but asking will show the company their clients demand transparency. Second, you can ask or read their website to see if they ban phthalates and any allergens used in fragrances, which are the biggest offenders. If the answer is yes, chances are it’s a safe bet.
As you can see I’m less of a stickler for “natural fragrance”, while it’s annoying, there are a few brands I use who don’t fully disclose their formulas. Rest assured I push them frequently to disclose knowing they will eventually get this critical information from their suppliers and share it with us.
At the end of the day the 1967 Fair Labelling Act was a big step forward for consumer transparency and the beauty industry. But it’s clear some more work needs to be done to give consumers the critical information they need. Join me in calling on Congress to close the federal fragrance loophole once and for all.