Regular MNN readers already know to avoid products with “fragrance” on the ingredient list, since that innocuous-sounding word often serves as a mask for all sorts of questionable chemicals. The perfume and beauty product industry has long hidden chemicals like phthalates — linked to birth defects, asthma, early puberty and decreased sperm counts — under the “fragrance” label, claiming industry secrets.

Now, in an about-face of sorts, the industry group International Fragrance Association’s suddenly published a long list of ingredients that go into many consumer products. Anyone can go on the association’s site to peruse the list — though with complicated-sounding items like “2-Hepten-4-one, 5-methyl-, (E)-” and “4-Methyl-8-methylenetricyclo[3.3.1.(3,7)]decan-2-yl acetate,” the average perfume wearer will be hard-pressed to figure out how safe or dangerous the ingredients are.

While the move towards transparency should be commended, the list brings up some troubling concerns. For one, the sheer number of ingredients that are allowed to hide behind the word fragrance — 3,163 by nonprofit Environmental Working Group’s count — is appalling. Not all of those ingredients are dangerous, but many are. According to EWG:

1 in 20 earned a “high” hazard score (7-10 of 10), and a full 1 in 6 rated at least a “moderate” hazard score (3-10 of 10). 26 of them scored a 10, the highest score.
Of most concern are phthalates, octoxynols and nonoxynols, and musk ambrette. According to EWG, musk ambrette is toxic to the brain, testes, and skin, is banned in the European Union, and has been fingered by the IFRA as a chemical that shouldn’t be used in products applied to the skin — though it is still used in some fragrances, by IFRA’s own admission.

How can you avoid these scary chemicals? Avoid products with “fragrance” in the ingredients. While the average drugstore is still chock full of products with fragrance, greener personal care product options have greatly expanded. If you’re looking for a better-for-you perfume, Strange Invisible Perfumes and Honore des Pres are two of a growing number of eco-minded perfume companies making green scents.

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