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Last week Unilever announced it will disclose detailed information about the fragrances in all of its personal-care brands, a move that has been greeted by watchdog groups as a landmark victory for consumer safety. Ken Cook, president and cofounder of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which has performed independent lab testing on the health effects of fragrance chemicals, calls the news a “game-changer for transparency in the personal-care product market.”

For decades, consumers have been blocked from learning which chemicals are in fragrances scenting their shampoo, soap, and other consumer products — even though allergies and sensitivities to fragrance affect up to 11 percent of the population.

Regulatory law treats fragrance as proprietary information, so companies need not reveal it. This practice originated with perfumers of yore who feared their formulas would be copied by competitors, and it has persisted into the present thanks to loopholes designed to protect companies’ “signature” scents. If fragrances simply contained naturally derived scents like civet and musk, it wouldn’t be a health issue, but today’s synthetic scents contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals that can contribute to fertility issues, birth defects, neurotoxicity, and more.

Unilever’s “transparency initiative” will make a list of every ingredient in a product that exceeds a percentage of 0.01 percent, or 100 parts per million, and will be available on the company website and through “Smartlabel” technology, with scannable bar codes on packaging. The company plans to label fragrance allergens across its full range of personal products in the United States in accordance with the more rigorous European Union standards.

Because Unilever owns such a significant percentage of the personal-care market, this change is expected to have industrywide impact.

“Unilever has broken open the black box of fragrance chemicals and raised the bar for transparency across the entire personal-care-product industry — and beyond,” says EWG’s Cook.

Cook anticipates the company’s disclosure will put necessary pressure on other manufacturers, making it difficult for them to continue to conceal their fragrance ingredients from the public.

For more on the hazards of synthetic fragrance, see “The Problem with Perfume.”


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