Who doesn’t like fragrances in their product, whether it’s to help you relax or to impress your date. But, what ingredients impart that wonderful scent? Could it be harmful to you in the long run?

Round 1. Ding Ding Ding! Essential Oils vs. Fragrance Oils

Essential oils are natural, volatile, aromatic compounds secreted by structures in a plant, like the seeds, roots, stems, leaves, and flowers. You can think of essential oils as the plant’s defense mechanism against parasites and animals. It makes sense then that many are antiseptic, antifungal, antiviral, and antibacterial. It’s some powerful stuff! One drop goes a long way.

Made up of many complex parts, essential oils carry specific therapeutic qualities. That’s why they’re so widely used in the aromatherapy industry. The composition of an essential oil varies depending on the country of origin, the weather, the season, the year, and the method of distillation, resulting in a lot of variability. Essential oils also tend to be more expensive. Sandalwood costs about $350 for 3 fluid ounces!

bottles of essential oils

Fragrance oils, on the other hand, are synthetically made by a chemist and thus, do not exhibit any natural healing properties. Any aroma can be concocted with fragrance oils, whereas essential oils are limited because they come from existing plants. Since they’re created in a lab, fragrance oils are consistent from batch to batch and are stable, longer-lasting compounds. And yes, they’re much cheaper to make.

Many fragrance oils contain phthalates though, which are endocrine disruptors. The endocrine system is responsible for secreting hormones, so that means phthalates could cause misregulation of our organs. Many early studies are showing the wide-ranging negative impact phthalates could have on our health. These include asthma, breast cancer, obesity, diabetes, neurodevelopmental issues, and male fertility issues. Most likely, you won’t see the word “phthalate” on an ingredient list though. It’s hiding behind the word “fragrance” or “parfum.”

What do essential oils and fragrance oils have in common?

They are both used to add scents to products like perfumes, soaps, and body lotions. More importantly, they both could be on the Proposition 65 list. Prop 65, a California law passed by voters in 1986, regulates substances having a 1 in 100,000 chance of causing cancer over a 70 year period, birth defects, or reproductive harm. One of the requirements prohibits businesses from knowingly exposing consumers to the listed substances without a clear and reasonable warning. We already know many fragrance oils are harmful due to phthalates, but (double whammy) they could also be on Prop 65 due to estragole, safrole, and methyleugenol.

prop 65 warning label for fragrances

Essential oils seemed to beat out fragrance oils in many aspects, so why are they too landing on the Prop 65 list? The answer is beta-myrcene and pulegone, which are naturally occurring compounds found in the essential oils of plants. They are part of the oil itself and not an addition or contamination of the oil. Beta-myrcene joined the list in March 2015 and pulegone in April 2014, so this is a relatively recent occurrence.

How did beta-myrcene and pulegone end up on the Prop 65 list?

In 2010, the National Toxicology Program (NTP), an authoritative institution that identifies cancer-causing chemicals, published a report on beta-myrcene. They concluded that beta-myrcene caused increased incidences of kidney cancer in male rats and liver cancer in male mice. Opponents argued that the rats and mice used in the study inherently have a high degree of susceptibility to kidney and liver cancer, respectively. Also, the tumors in the rats were species and sex-specific. Therefore, they’re not reliable indicators of carcinogenicity and should not be extrapolated to humans without further study.

Similarly with pulegone, the International Agency for Research on Cancer found “sufficient evidence” of carcinogenicity in lab animals and classified it as possibly carcinogenic to humans. Many associations argued that there wasn’t sufficient evidence (only limited evidence) since the tumors were found in one species in one experiment. The 1986 criteria for “sufficient evidence” required malignant tumors to be found in multiple species or multiple experiments, preferably with different routes of administration. Ultimately, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), the lead agency for Prop 65 implementation, determined that beta-myrcene and pulegone met the criteria for listing under Prop 65.

These are just a handful of the essential oils I know of that are on the Prop 65 list:

anise star, basil, bergamot, blood orange, cardamom, cedar leaf, chamomile, clary sage, clementine, coffee, eucalyptus, fennel (sweet and bitter), fir needle, frankincense, geranium, ginger root, grapefruit (pink and white), hyssop, juniper berry, lavandin, lavender, lemon, lemongrass, lime, mandarin, nutmeg, orange (sweet and bitter), oregano, penny royal, peppermint, rosemary, rose geranium, sage, spearmint, tangerine, tea tree, thyme, ylang ylang

The majority of these essential oils are on Prop 65 due to beta-myrcene and pulegone, but other offenders include caffeic acid, estragole, and safrole. As you can see, this list pretty much encompasses the most popular scents out there. Now for the nitpicky part. Because beta-myrcene and pulegone are natural constituents of essential oils, it does not constitute an exposure to the chemical for purposes of Prop 65.

essential oils from plants

Therefore, companies that make consumer products containing these essential oils are not required to have a Prop 65 warning label. I will tell you that essential oils usually make up only 2-3% of the product’s ingredients by weight. If you don’t want to sweat it, that’s totally understandable. In fact, essential oils impart many health benefits. But, if you don’t like the idea of frequently using an ingredient on Prop 65, hopefully this will help you make more informed decisions.

Ready for some shocking news?

Ok, maybe it might not blow your mind, but it blew my mind. A USDA organic product could contain an ingredient (i.e. an organic essential oil) that is on the Prop 65 list. Huh?! I guess I always associated organic with “safe” or at least “safer.” Let me give you an example. Awhile ago, I purchased a USDA organic body lotion. Under the ingredients was “organic fragrance,” which made me a little skeptical. Most likely, they used organic essential oils on the Prop 65 list, but didn’t disclose it. “Organic fragrance” sounds great and most consumers wouldn’t think anything of it. For full transparency, I would rather have them list the actual ingredient they used to create the fragrance.

So, what’s the take away message for fragrances?

Avoid products with ingredients listed as fragrance/perfume/parfum/aroma (too ambiguous). Keep in mind natural and organic ingredients can still fall under Prop 65.

perfume bottle releasing toxic fragrances

Why can companies get away with vague terms like fragrance and not list out each ingredient? The FDA cannot force a company to tell trade secrets. Essentially, the fragrance industry worldwide self-regulates itself through the International Fragrance Association (IFRA).

What choices do consumers have?

It seems to me we have 4 choices. I listed them from worst to best.

1. A product with lots of harmful chemicals and synthetic fragrance oils with phthalates (very easy to find)
2. A product with lots of harmful chemicals and fragrance free (eh..I’ll pass)
3. A product that is close to all natural and has essential oils on the Prop 65 list (the majority of “natural” products on the market right now)
4. A product that has safe ingredients AND no oils on the Prop 65 list or is fragrance free (not many on the market)

Store shelves full of personal care products

In a utopia, store shelves would only carry choice #4 products. We’d be able to throw products into our shopping carts willy-nilly. Wouldn’t that be nice? Until then, I hope this post has enlightened you about the chemicals used to create a scent. The next time you read an ingredient list, hopefully you’ll be able to decipher the good, the bad, and the stank. Eau!

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