Petition questions perfume safety
UPdate Summer 2002

The Environmental Health Network (EHN) of California wants the perfume "Eternity" by Calvin Klein to carry a label "Warning - the safety of this product has not been tested."  The EHN is petitioning the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require the labeling. Their petition claims that many of the substances in Eternity have known adverse effects on health. So far, over 1,200 people have written to the FDA to support the petition.

The Cancer Prevention Coalition has also endorsed the petition. Why Eternity? "Eternity was one of the perfumes most frequently cited as problematic by our members," says Amy Marsh, past president of EHN. Letters to the FDA document that even second hand contact with Eternity results in health effects for some people including breathing difficulties, dizziness, seizures, migraines, concentration problems, and memory loss. The EHN initiated the petition in response to the lack of safety regulation of scented products. "Most consumers are not aware that the fragrance industry does not routinely test for neurological, respiratory, or long
term effects of perfume ingredients," says Marsh. The EHN commissioned gas chromatography studies of Eternity by two different laboratories on two different unopened samples. The analyses indicated that Eternity contains 41 chemicals. Two are listed as respiratory sensitizers. At least five have the potential for central nervous system effects. At least two are suspected carcinogens. One may provoke fetal effects. Virtually all the ingredients are general irritants.

Manufacturers Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) information on some of the ingredients includes these warnings: irritating to eyes, respiratory system and skin, may cause sensitization by inhalation and skin contact, readily absorbed through skin, do not breathe vapor, harmful by inhalation and avoid contact with skin. For some ingredients, the only information available is the phrase "the chemical, physical, and toxicological properties have not been thoroughly investigated." According to the
National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, 884 toxic substances used in the fragrance industry are capable of causing breathing difficulty, allergic reactions and multiple chemical sensitivities.

In the US, the FDA cannot regulate cosmetics until they are on the market. They can't require companies to safety test their products before they are marketed. FDA standards for cosmetics state only that each ingredient used in a cosmetic, and each finished product, should be tested for safety before marketing.  If not, the product should bear the "Warning" label. The FDA can only remove a cosmetic product from the market after proving in court that the product may cause injury to users, is improperly labeled, or otherwise violates the law.

Dr. Michael Segal, Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School, is one of the petition's supporters.  "Perfumes and perfume products are a well demonstrated cause of asthma," he states. "For the asthma sufferer, this matter is as serious as exposure to other asthma triggers such as smoke." Another supporter is Irene Wilkenfeld of the organization Safe Schools. "Just as cigarettes carry warning labels, consumers have a clear-cut right to be forewarned about the carcinogenic, neurotoxic, and teratogenic chemicals, the respiratory irritants and the sensitizing agents that comprise fragrance formulations," she comments. "As far as perfumes are concerned, what goes on the skin goes through the skin," states biochemist Richard Conrad. When the lipophilic solvents in perfumes are applied to the surface of the skin (or inhaled) they are absorbed into the bloodstream and carried into the brain, liver and kidneys, and stored in fatty tissues throughout the body. Conrad believes that it is only logical that perfumes be subjected to the same rigorous
testing and safety requirements that the FDA already applies to skin patch drug delivery systems.

Many ingredients presently used in scents were originally approved by the fragrance and flavour industry for use as flavourings in foods.  They were approved for eating in very low doses and on that basis went on the  industry's Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS) list.  As scent ingredients, they are used in much higher concentrations.  They are made to be inhaled or absorbed through skin contact.  Yet the safety of these usages or doses has never been tested.

Scent safety is also a subject in the US House of Representatives. Three members of the House have put forward the Safe Notification and Information for Fragrances (SNIFF) bill. It calls for "fragrances containing known toxic substances or allergens to be labeled accordingly." In Canada there are no safety standards for perfumes or perfume ingredients according to Connie Denman of Health Canada's Product Safety Bureau.


Information on the petition and how to contact the FDA can be found at or The FDA is still
accepting comments.  The docket number, 99P-1340, should be included on any