In the TV series, The X Files, Dana Skully says to Fox Mulder: “I have identified the effect. I am still looking for the cause.”1 When something happens (an effect) it can often be a mystery to determine why it happened (the cause). For many effects, there can be more than one cause. One cause and effect relationship many people are unaware of is how fragranced consumer products can trigger health problems—including migraine headaches and asthma attacks—in a significant percentage of the population.2 If products containing fragrance are proven to cause harm to others, then consumers have a moral responsibility not to use these products in public.
Countless home cleaning and personal care products have fragrance added to them. These products include perfumes, colognes, aftershaves, laundry detergents, fabric softeners, air fresheners, deodorants, and soaps.3 In 2010, the Environmental Working Group did laboratory tests and found that “the average fragrance product tested contained 14 secret chemicals.”4 Fragrance companies do not have to list the chemicals on the product label due to trade secret protections.5 The combined ingredients are identified as “fragrance” or “parfum.”6 According to the International Fragrance Association, there are 3,999 different ingredients (both natural and synthetic) used in making fragrance.7
Fragranced consumer products can harm a person’s health. A 2016 Australian study of more than 1,000 people found that 33 per cent of respondents reported health problems after exposure to such products.8 Negative effects included “migraine headaches, asthma attacks, contact dermatitis, respiratory difficulties, and mucosal symptoms.”9 Nearly eight per cent of respondents had lost work days in the past year because they were exposed to fragrance.10 Exactly why fragrance can trigger health problems is not fully understood by scientists, but the effects are real.
If an individual uses a fragranced consumer product at work (or in other public places), other people may be negatively impacted. Even though it is legal to use these products in public, just because something is legal does not make it moral. It is a universal moral principle that no one should intentionally harm an innocent person.11 If this principle is true, then it is morally wrong to use fragranced products in public because doing so will cause other people pain and suffering.
A lot of suffering in this world is unavoidable; however, the pain and suffering caused by fragrance is 100 per cent preventable. Instead of buying products with fragrance, consumers can buy brands that are labelled fragrance-free. (Fragrance-free means the product has no added fragrance, while unscented means it contains a fragrance that masks the odor caused by other chemical ingredients.12) Fragrance-free products are often higher in price, but the more people who buy them, the more corporations (and small businesses) will produce them, and the more alternatives there will be for consumers.
- The X Files, “Teliko.” Directed by Jim Charleston. Written by Howard Gordon. Fox, October 18, 1996. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0751214/
- Anne Steinemann, “Health and societal effects from exposure to fragranced consumer products.” Preventative Medicine Reports Vol 5 (2017): 45, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5122698/
- “Fragrances in Cosmetics,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, December 29, 2015, https://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ProductsIngredients/Ingredients/ucm388821.htm
- Heather Sarantis et al., “Not So Sexy: The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrance,” Environmental Working Group, May 2, 2010, 3, https://www.ewg.org/research/not-so-sexy
- “Cosmetic Labelling Guide,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, accessed October 31, 2017, 23, https://www.fda.gov/downloads/Cosmetics/Labeling/UCM391202.pdf
- Clare Pain, “Something in the air: From scented candles to cleaning products, our lives have become fragranced like never before. What’s the effect on our health.” New Scientist 234 No. 3129 (2017): 34-37.
- “Ingredients,” International Fragrance Association, http://www.ifraorg.org/en-us/ingredients#.WCDfWRIrJmB
- Steinemann, “Health and societal effects,” 45.
- Steinemann, “Health and societal effects,” 46.
- Nigel Warburton, “The Harm Principle: How to live your life the way you want to,” BBC Radio 4, 2:00, posted November 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9IM3ZKNMCk
- Jessica Chia, “The Truth About ‘Fragrance-Free’ Products,” Prevention, January 23, 2014, https://www.prevention.com/beauty/skin-care/truth-about-fragrance-free-products