For someone new to the realities of our chemical culture, negotiating the labyrinthine aisles of misleading labels can be a nightmare. Although "Fragrance Free," "Unscented," "Natural," and "Perfume and Dye Free" seem to denote products devoid of toxic scents and chemicals, these labels are deceptive. This creates confusion for well-meaning people who are trying to eliminate chemicals for their own protection or to keep from making chemically sensitive friends sick.

Throw out the notion that labels -- or even where you buy your products -- will guide you toward healthy decisions. The Environmental Working Group has methodically studied the clinical data of body care product ingredients, and compiled "best and worst" lists for each type of product. The most toxic product list contains healthy-sounding items such as Oilatum Unscented Cleansing Bar, Kiss My Face Shower Gel & Foaming Bath for Cold & Flu, Herbal Clear 24 Hour Natural Sport Deodorant, Jason Natural Cosmetics Tea Tree Deodorant Stick, Dove Face Care Essential Nutrients Cream Cleanser, and Vaseline Intensive Care Lotion: Aloe & Naturals. Some of these products, despite having the highest health risks, are routinely sold in health food stores.

"Unscented" is a misnomer -- it does not mean "without chemical fragrances." If an item is labeled "Unscented," it may contain a masking fragrance (which is a chemical fragrance designed to "block" the smells of other chemicals in the product) and additional toxic chemicals. The materials safety data safety (MSDS) for Right Guard Sport Unscented Aerosol Antiperspirant & Deodorant, for example, notes that this product contains aluminum, fragrance, propane, butane, and other chemical substances. Clairol 3 in 1 Condition Unscented Aerosol Extra Hold Hairspray also contains fragrance and propane, along with resins and solvents. In fact, if you look up the products containing "fragrance" on the MSDS listings, you will find conventional "unscented" products (as well as items such as Desitin "hypoallergenic" Diaper Rash Ointment) listed amongst the obviously scented ones. Manufacturers must list "fragrance" on the label of fragrance-containing items, but they are not required to list (or reveal) the individual chemical components of the fragrance. A 1991 study by the EPA of 31 fragrance products found toxic chemicals such as acetone, benzaldehyde, benzyl acetate, ethanol ethyl acetate, linalool, methylene chloride, and a-terpineal in the fragrances tested. Every single sample also contained toluene, which is neurotoxic, carcinogenic, and considered a hazardous waste. Body care products without fragrance added are not necessarily nontoxic. Cover Girl Smoothers Pressed Powder, for example, contains a Urea-formaldehyde resin -- something you definitely don't want on your face and you definitely don't want to wear around a chemically sensitive friend.

"Natural" is a hit-or-miss term when it comes to body care products. Plenty of so-called natural items sold at health food stores contain toxic synthetic fragrance (which is listed as "fragrance" on the label). Some products may say they have a "natural fragrance," which often means they are scented with essential oils, but might also mean they contain a mixture of essential oils and synthetic fragrance. Essential oils are, in theory, not toxic, as they are derived from plants, but they can contain solvent and pesticide residue, and they are generally unsafe to use around chemically sensitive people, who may react to both the strong smells and the extraction solvents. Essential oils may also trigger seizure activity. Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) is theorized to produce limbic "kindling," or a hyperexcitability of brain structures that creates a heightened and continuous susceptibility to seizure activity in the brain, and essential oils -- like chemical neurotoxicants -- can provoke a seizure response. Epilepsy.com reports that common oils of eucalyptus, fennel, hyssop, pennyroyal, rosemary, sage, and wormwood contain strong doses of seizure-inducing compounds. Some individuals have experienced tonic-clonic seizures for the first time after using such oils. This might explain why people with MCS have adverse reactions to them. In products found in conventional stores, "natural" typically means essential oils were mixed in with the synthetic chemicals.

"Fragrance Free" is a good term that usually means what it says, but it doesn't always mean "free of questionable chemicals." It typically denotes products that are safe for the chemically sensitive, but there are large exceptions, particularly amongst conventional brands. The second ingredient in Vaseline Intensive Care Advanced Healing Fragrance-Free Lotion, for example, is White Petrolatum, a petroleum by-product, and this lotion scores a 9.2 out of 10 on the toxicity scale of the Environmental Working Group -- making it one of the most toxic body care products in their database. In general, products labeled "Fragrance Free" are the safest you can buy, but the best bet is to buy these products from a natural food store or a mail order organization that caters to the chemically sensitive (see: Buying Fragrance Free Products). The label "Perfume Free" should not be confused with "Fragrance Free."

"Perfume and Dye Free" is a term primarily used for laundry detergents that are marketed to those with sensitive skin, such as infants. Most of these detergents have "Free" in the label (such as Tide Free), and claim to be "free of perfumes and dyes." Actually, they probably contain masking fragrances, so they are not "free" of perfume at all. They also may contain Florescent Whitening Agents ("FWAs") and Ultraviolet Brightener Dyes, which are essentially dyes. In other words, "free of perfume and dyes" means "containing masking perfumes and deceptively named dyes." Make sense? If you buy your "Perfume and Dye Free" detergent at a health food store, chances are it means what it says. If you buy it at your local conventional supermarket, it could mean the opposite of what it says. Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of product labeling.


For data sheets on the products you are using, please consult the Environmental Working Group's "Searchable Product Guide."


By Peggy Munson. This article may be reprinted and distributed freely.

The Ever-Unstable World of Labels