Photo: Companies won't disclose parfum ingredients

Companies should be required to disclose “secret ingredients” in body products – lack of information on fragrance chemicals stinks! (Credit: Val Pearl via Flickr)

I try to keep my home fragrance-free: no air fresheners; personal care products without the Dirty Dozen; and fragrance-free kitty litter.

It's not easy. The most recent culprit was a neon blue deodorant stick smelling of "ocean surf" listing "parfum" as an ingredient.

Parfum is industry code for as many as 3,000 chemicals used to make products smell "nice". But we call it a giant loophole in Health Canada's Cosmetic Regulations that allows all those chemicals to be generically listed as "parfum" in our soaps, shampoos and deodorant. And the worst part is, many of those fragrance chemicals are associated with health and environmental hazards.

Shouldn't we have a right to know about all of the ingredients in products we put on our bodies on a daily basis?

More than 60 of you wrote to manufacturers asking what's inside "parfum". I did too, in fact I asked Proctor & Gamble, "Does ocean surf scented deodorant contain phthalates?"

P&G said "the phthalate family is similar to mushrooms; just like mushrooms, some phthalates are safe and some types are unsafe." Umm, did they say mushrooms?

P&G Beauty & Grooming revealed to me they use two members of the phthalate family:

  1. Diethyl phthalate (DEP)
  2. Dimethyl phthalate (DMP)

Both are present in their products at trace levels, usually as a component of the fragrance. Phthalates are a concern because they're a group of chemicals suspected of interfering with the way our hormones function (endocrine disruption).

But P&G was unusual in telling me about the phthalates they use. Through our survey we heard from over 40 different companies and not one revealed a complete list of ingredients.

If companies responded at all, most claimed they couldn't tell us what chemical were in their fragrance because they were "trade secrets". And two companies offered to discuss the list of ingredients, but only with the customer's family doctor!

We've summarized the responses in Failing the Sniff Test. Read quotes from manufacturers and find out how companies — from Aveda to Revlon — measure-up when it comes to disclosing the fragrance chemicals in the products you buy.

Canadian consumers shouldn't need a doctor's note to find out what fragrance chemicals are in their deodorant, especially when some are associated with serious health and environmental problems.

Here's what you can do:

Where have you found unnecessary fragrance in your products?

Lindsay Coulter, Queen of Green

June 13, 2011

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Post a comment


Jun 25, 2016
5:39 PM

@Veronique… try this guide for your safer products. The EWG that Erika mentioned is also a great resource.

Jun 25, 2016
5:36 PM

@ScottM I can certainly see your point. I would highly recommend that you make certain that your packaging points people to your website where you are able to further explain the contents of your product. Thank you for making a safer product. I will say that MCS folk are often quite savvy and dig for information like that.

If you product only safe products, your name will get out there as a safe place to buy. MCS folk just can’t afford to take the chance that “parfum” refers to natural ingredients in a casual purchase. It’s our health that’s on the line. That’s why we have to do research so make sure yours is readily available for viewing. I wish there was a better way but our health is first, product choice comes a distant second.

Aug 28, 2011
6:54 PM

I would like to suggest a book I am reading at present for people to useaas a guide. The name of the book which I saw first at Rocky Mountain Soap store in a local mall. is "There's Lead in Your Lipstick" by Gillian Deacon. I will use this and the dirty dozen list I printed from the David Suzuki website as my guidance sources for shopping.. i have been using enviornmental, not tested on animal, products for a number of years now. And now for windows I use hot water, squeegee and dry with the e cloth. Very clean windows. So I guess I am ready for the next step to go further in cleaning up any toxic chemicals from my household. I hope all the companies can go forward and switch to no harmful chemicals. Quite a challenge but they will have to get really creative. Loving the idea of cleaner and cleaner enviornment for us and future generations.

Aug 15, 2011
10:55 AM

Veronique, the Foundation can’t itself promote products, but check out the Skin Deep cosmetics database which ranks products. It’s quite comprehensive.

Aug 15, 2011
8:39 AM

Although I think the shopper’s guide to avoid the dirty dozen is good, I would love to see a list of products that were found safe (or safer I guess). As consumers, we should try to reward products that do a better job by promoting them. I haven’t found such a list here, maybe we should start one.

Jul 10, 2011
3:11 PM

Parfum is not in and of itself a bad ingredient. Let’s educate ourselves first people. A lot of decent and natural companies are forced to use the INCI ‘parfum’ on ingredient lists by Health Canada when packaging is too small to list all the natural botanical ingredients related to scent.

Please don’t tar us all with the same brush.

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