|October 16, 2014|
The secret chemicals in perfume are about to be unbottled
|SC Johnson will be the first large company to disclose all fragrance ingredients in products. Could this be the end of trade-secret protection for the fragrance industry?|
The term "fragrance" has, for decades, hidden all manner of ingredients: somewhere between 10 to 50 chemicals, in most products, which don't have to be disclosed on labels because they are considered trade secrets under the US Fair Packaging and Labeling Act.
Some of those ingredients might not remain secrets for much longer. Consumer packaged goods company SC Johnson last week became the first multinational to announce its intention to disclose all fragrance ingredients in its products. The news comes after other companies -- most recently Clorox -- have announced steps to disclose fragrance allergens in their products. But this represents the first attempt to disclose all fragrance ingredients on a product-by-product basis.
It's a big deal, not just because consumers want to know what chemicals they're putting in and around their bodies, but also because many of the chemicals that make up fragrances happen to be allergens. In a 2009 study, Anne M Steinemann, an internationally recognized expert on pollutant exposures and related health effects, found that 30.5% of the US population reported skin irritation or headaches (and in some cases both) when exposed to scented products.
SC Johnson plans to begin its disclosure project with its air-care products -- which include air-freshener sprays, candles, oils and gels -- in North American markets. It will list the fragrance ingredients for these products on its website and also make them available via a toll-free number starting in the spring.
The company will then expand the disclosure across all product lines and geographic areas, disclosing all fragrance ingredients used at a concentration of 0.09% or higher. In categories where products include less fragrance, SC Johnson will disclose either the top 10 fragrance ingredients or -- in the case of fewer than 10 -- all of them.
This isn't the first move towards transparency for SC Johnson: the company began disclosing product ingredients in 2009, with the launch of its voluntary ingredient disclosure site. CEO Fisk Johnson is making a big push for total ingredient disclosure as a way to "regain the trust of consumers", as he put it in a recent speech to the American Oil Chemists' Society. Ingredient disclosure is a big part of regaining consumer trust, he said, adding that fragrance ingredients are the last frontier in transparency. As he told the Guardian in an email:
If you want to earn trust and credibility, I believe you have to lay it all out for the scrutiny of the world, rather than keeping it secret. People fear the worst in the absence of information.
The consumer products industry -- and SC Johnson -- has been getting a fair amount of pressure from nonprofit Womens' Voices for the Earth as well. In addition to gathering 50,000 consumer signatures on a petition asking the company to disclose its fragrance ingredients, the nonprofit also produced a spoof of an SC Johnson ad touting its position as a family company that values an honest relationship with its consumers.
Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of Not Just a Pretty Face, called the news "an important first step" that she hopes other companies will also take.
"Various groups have been pushing SC Johnson for a long time, but I think it's a really big deal that they're doing this," she said. "They're the first big company to disclose all fragrance ingredients."
Clearing the air
Part of the reason that companies have been slow to disclose fragrance ingredients is that, for the most part, they neither create nor own the fragrances used in their products. SC Johnson had to bring their fragrance suppliers to the table not only to get the information needed to disclose all ingredients, but also to get them on board with the disclosure plan. According to the International Fragrance Association (IFRA), this is something fragrance suppliers are increasingly willing to do, despite wishing to keep trade-secret protection in place.
"The fragrance industry is keenly aware of the principle of the consumers' right to know," said Stephen Weller, director of communications for IFRA. The group is working with a broad range of stakeholders to try to address this issue while simultaneously preserving trade-secret protection, he added. "Within this context different companies, and indeed countries or regions, have different approaches to providing both meaningful consumer information and the protection of intellectual property," Weller said.
Companies that are disclosing fragrance ingredients maintain that they have already weeded out any potentially bad chemicals from their products. Still, Malkan said she expects that this new level of transparency will eventually lead to improvements in product formulations.
"When we at the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics tested products back in 2010, we found a number of allergens and hormone-disrupting chemicals in fragrance," she said. "Many of those chemicals are still being used, but as more information is readily available, consumers will take a closer look and NGOs will push for improvements."
She hopes to eventually see fragrance ingredients disclosed right on product labels, as fragrance allergens already are in Europe. "I understand that of course it's difficult to add 50 chemicals to a label, but there are ways ... or they could reduce the chemical load of their products and find ways to include fragrance without adding so many chemicals."