Photo: Secret ingredients stink

This 1955 poster for deodorant claims that it allows your skin to breathe, but today the fragrance in consumer products are leaving many of us breathless. (Credit: Roadsidepictures via Flickr)

How do you feel about using "secret" ingredients on your body or in your home? We're all doing it.

There are undisclosed chemicals in the products we put on our bodies daily — deodorant and shampoo — and the products we use in our homes — dryer sheets and air fresheners. They're used to make things smell good, or mask unpleasant odors (like B.O.). And some of them may actually be hazardous to our health, and the planet's.

What's our right-to-know when it comes to the scented products we buy? (Keep reading if you think you're exempt from this secret because you don't wear perfume or cologne.)

No law in Canada (or the U.S.) requires manufacturers to disclose all ingredients in consumer products. Cosmetics manufacturers get away with using the catch-all terms fragrance or "parfum", code words for over 3,000 chemicals, most of which haven't been tested for toxicity. They could be lurking in your trusty deodorant, baby lotion or dish soap — and you wouldn't even know it. Manufacturers get away with calling their concoctions "trade secrets".

That stinks.

Our Docs Talk guest columnist Dr. Anne Steinemann analyzed 25 best-selling fragranced products to find out what's really in them. The results were surprising. Nearly half of the products she studied emitted one or more carcinogenic "hazardous air pollutants" (1,4-dioxane, acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, and methylene chloride), which have no safe exposure level, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Many of these unlisted ingredients can cause serious health problems, especially for people with lung diseases such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Being near a scented product can make some people sick.

Fragrance is in nearly everything! When we asked Canadians to read the labels on your personal care products and look for a dirty dozen harmful ingredients, parfum was the one most commonly found — in 56 per cent of the products entered. And 62 per cent of the 6,200 people who took our survey were already carefully reading ingredient lists.

Right now there's no way of knowing what's in a product that includes parfum or fragrance. Help us close this ingredient labelling loophole. We have the right to know about all ingredients contained in our cosmetics. Tell our Health Minister you're tired of secrets when it concerns your health.

How do you avoid parfum or fragrance in the cosmetics or household products you use?

Lindsay Coulter, Queen of Green

February 16, 2011

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Aug 09, 2013
10:59 AM

How do I avoid toxic chemicals? I don’t use them! I use alternative products that aren’t poisonous. It’s a travesty manufacturers are allowed to legally poison people and get away with it, but consumers need to educate them with their purchase power. Unfortunately, most of the population is clueless and would rather wear their scented soaps and perfumes and wash their clothes with toxic chemicals. No law against stupidity, but there should be…

Mar 28, 2011
7:22 PM

I would love to be able to print off copies of these articles on scented products, but for some reason (not computer savy here!), I am unable to get them to print. I suffer from allergies, asthma and chronic bronchitis. Scented products bring on attacks that can last from days to weeks. So this is an issue very important to me. (my Mother also has the same problem). I tried in January to have my workplace implement a scent free policy at the urging of an emergency room Doctor I had seen, as well as the lung Association. The Lung Ass. even wrote a letter to help me with my employer, to facilitate understanding of the issue. Instead of doing so, my position at work was terminated. I suppose it was easier to have me go than to have staff refrain from scents.

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