An Invisible Chemical Cocktail
From toxins, to animal ingredients to environmental concerns, we unravel the hidden stench surrounding the fragrance industry
From unknown ingredients to the shady world of animal testing and even potential tax avoidance the perfume industry is often shrouded in secrecy.
In this guide we try and shine a light on some of the darker corners of the sector so that consumers can buy perfumes that are less harmful to animals, the environment and our health.
Perfume companies have the legal right to keep ingredients secret so it's often impossible for consumers to know exactly what chemicals are included in many fragrances, despite some being problematic.
On the perfume or aftershave bottle these secret ingredients are listed as simply ‘fragrance’ in the USA or ‘Perfume’ or ‘Parfum’ in the UK and Europe. Generally the chemicals used are produced from coal tar, petroleum and other solvents. The chemicals include parabens, phthalates and synthetic musks, the risks from which are outlined below.
On the rankings table
Therefore in this guide we rated companies on their toxics policies. Specifically we looked for a policy that referenced the use of parabens and phthalates in the company’s products.
Both these two ingredients are prevalent in cosmetics, despite evidence that they can have a negative impact on human health and the wider environment.
Another chemical, Diethyl phthalate is a solvent used to bind together different chemicals within cosmetics and fragrances. It can disrupt hormone production in humans and have a negative impact on organ function. There are current gaps in the research into further impacts on human health.
Parabens, a family of preservatives widely used in cosmetics, can mimic oestrogen and act as potential hormone (endocrine) system disruptors.
We therefore expect any company operating in this sector to have a policy that covers at least these two chemicals, either eliminating their use or laying out a roadmap for phasing them out over a specified period of time.
Of the companies on the table, only L’Occitane and Neal’s Yard are free from parabens and phthalates. All the other companies featured either stated outright that they used one or more of these chemicals, or they had no policy on their use. Consequently, they score a negative mark in the Pollution and Toxics category on the table.
Health Risks and Perfume
Scientists have increasingly linked the chemical cocktails, that are the fragrance or parfum elements of perfume, to all manner of health issues.
Some studies cite ingredients as potential triggers for asthma, allergies and migraines. Some chemicals have been found to accumulate in the body, while some are suspected of being hormone disruptors.
For example two synthetic musks, galaxolide and tonalide, can bind to, and stimulate, human oestrogen receptors.
Campaigners cite a 1999 study that looked at this issue. Researchers concluded that “these compounds have very weak estrogenic potency, too weak to induce estrogenic effects in wildlife species or humans at the current levels of exposure.” However the cumulative nature of the chemicals means that as they build up in the environment, they potentially pose a risk.
A second well cited study which tested two different synthetic musks (xylene and ketone) found that “these substances do, in fact, demonstrate estrogenic activity” which it linked to the growth of cancer cells.
Perfume and Pollution
Studies have also revealed that fragrances are “volatile compounds, which add to both indoor and outdoor air pollution.” For example, synthetic musk compounds are allegedly “persistent in the environment and contaminate waterways and aquatic wildlife.”
According to reports, they are often not filtered out by water treatment and end up in waterways. They accumulate in aquatic wildlife and contaminate the food chain.
One study from 2005 found that dolphins collected from the coastal waters around Florida contained measurable concentrations of the synthetic musk HHCB [galaxolide].
Synthetic musk compounds are now restricted in the EU, but are still prevalent throughout the rest of the world.
A major problem is that there are gaps in knowledge as scientists struggle to investigate how all the chemicals contained within fragrances react together (and with outside elements) because precise chemical compositions are unknown.
What is known is that few substances are banned outright from fragrances either in the US or EU, and they could therefore contain any number of potentially toxic chemicals. It is thought that the number of ingredients in some fragrances runs into the low hundreds.
It is possible to make a fragrance out of natural plant oils, but manufacturers rarely do so due to costs. Those which do, such as Neal’s Yard, usually have their products marked as organic.
L’Oréal, Avon, Procter & Gamble and L’Occitane all sell products containing microbeads, which lead to plastic particle water pollution. The Marine Conservation Society and Fauna & Flora International are running a campaign against the use of microbeads, called ‘Scrub it out!’
Animal Welfare and Cosmetics
All the companies except our Best Buys receive our worst mark for animal testing. None of them have a clear policy of not using ingredients tested on animals after a fixed cut off date, and many of them also import their products into China. Chinese law requires all non-domestically made cosmetic products to be tested on animals.
There are a couple of traditional animal perfume ingredients that – while they may sound disgusting – don’t harm their animal sources. Ambergris is found floating in the sea. Hyraceum is the dried excrement of the hyrax, an African guinea pig-like animal, and is gathered from the wild by hand.
Others, however, are less benign. Musk, castoreum and civet have generally been obtained by killing the respective animals, although civet can also be acquired from civet cats kept in captivity, where their glands are regularly scraped.
While everyone agrees that, mostly, these ingredients have been replaced by synthetics, it is impossible to be sure what most individual perfumes contain, because scent companies are granted the legal right to keep their ingredients lists as trade secrets, and as perfume formulas are not protected by intellectual property rights, most choose to do so to prevent copying.
Real musk is definitely not used any more, as it has been banned in the EU since 1999 due to the musk deer becoming seriously endangered. With regard to the others, the main thing that it’s possible to be sure of is that, as they are extremely expensive, they won’t be in any cheap perfumes.
Tax Avoidance and the Cosmetic Industry
Nearly all the companies received our worst score for likely use of tax avoidance strategies. The only exceptions were Dolma, Neal’s Yard, Lush, L’Oréal and Puig. It appears that there is not much of a culture of paying your way amongst perfume and aftershave manufacturers.
Many perfumes and aftershaves are made under license. For example 'David Beckham' is produced by a cosmetics company. We have not included fashion houses or celebrities in our rating system. Instead, the table below lists the main licensed brands and their manufacturers.
L’Oréal is the world’s largest cosmetics company, registered in Paris. It is part owned by Nestlé and part owned by Liliane Bettencourt, the daughter of the company’s founder and the 10th richest person on earth.
The Bettencourts have been at the centre of a media soap opera scandal over the past few years, which began with Liliane’s daughter accusing her senile mother’s associates of using untoward means to try to get their hands on her fortune. It then widened to include allegations of tax avoidance and illegal political donations to conservative politicians. The investigation is ongoing. The affair has also brought up L’Oréal’s historical roots in French pro-Nazi groups.
L’Oréal is involved in quite a bit of right wing political lobbying. In 2012 Jean-Paul Agon, the head of the company, was widely publicised speaking out vitriolically against François Hollande’s plan to introduce a 75% tax rate on earnings over €1m3 (its own CEO is currently paid €2,200,000 plus bonuses.) The company is also a member of several free trade lobby groups. In 2014 it spent $80,000 lobbying US politicians.
On most environmental issues L’Oréal does quite well. It has a large set of environmental targets and good policies on palm oil. It is, however, one of the top holders of nanotechnology patents in the USA.
Animal rights charity Naturewatch is calling for a boycott of L’Oréal-owned The Body Shop because L’Oréal continues to profit from animal testing outside Europe.
Chanel is another French company. It did uniformly badly in our ratings as it doesn’t seem to have any environmental or social policies to speak of. Rather bizarrely, it also owns an old-school British gun company, Holland and Holland, which specialises in high class long-barrelled shotguns used for shooting grouse.
Coty is yet another huge cosmetics company that was founded in France, although it is now head quartered in the US. Coty makes stacks of perfume and aftershave brands, including most of the celebrity ones. It is owned by an investment company called JAB holdings, which also owns part of Jacobs Douwe Egberts.
We couldn’t find much by way of environmental or social policies in any of Coty’s public reports. It is also heavily involved in nanotechnology. Its president was paid nearly $2 million in 2014.
Lush is a privately owned company which used to supply The Body Shop in the 1980s. Its products are all vegetarian, many vegan, and it is a financial supporter of a number of social and environmental campaigns.
Find out more about the Lush Prize which celebrates animal cruelty-free scientific research.
Dolma is a tiny Lancashire-based family business, started by a vegan chemist called Jim Payne, which makes exclusively vegan perfumes and aftershaves.
Neal’s Yard Remedies is a company based in Dorset, which has its main shop in Covent Garden. Its products are all vegetarian and many are vegan. It avoids the use of any chemicals which have potentially toxic effects on people or the environment, such as parabens or phthalates. It says “we make our products with the maximum organic, natural and wild ingredients, and carefully select other functional ingredients… with a view to safety, efficacy and biodegradability…We fully disclose our ingredient information”.
On this basis Neal’s Yard is a Best Buy for perfume, although some readers may be concerned that it also sells and promotes homoeopathic remedies.