Skip to main content


Fragrance chemicals in personal care products: why the stink?


A group of researchers from the University of California, Davis, examined how people in the US perceive personal care products that contain fragrances as a case study of an emerging environmental issue.

Adding fragrance chemicals to soaps, shampoos and lotions has become widespread in the past decade. Any one personal care product may contain hundreds of fragrance chemicals, some with documented environmental and health impacts, yet fragrance chemicals remain unregulated in the US. Thus, fragrances in personal care products fit the definition of an emerging environmental issue because they may have a significant but unrecognized impact on human and/or ecosystem health in the 21st century. Further, their use includes positive feedback in human activity that worsens the environmental impact, with a lack of policy that addresses the issue.

As part of their training, graduate students in the Responding to Rapid Environmental Change (REACH) IGERT at UC Davis, funded by the National Science Foundation, conducted a yearlong research project on how people in the U.S. perceive these products. Using fragranced personal care products as a case study, they examined consumer behaviors, how people obtain and perceive information, and factors that predict support for policy instruments to regulate use of fragrance chemicals in personal care products.

The students used an internet survey that resulted in 1400 complete responses drawn from across the US. The demographics of survey respondents was similar to US demographics across all categories (gender, race, ethnicity, income, education level).

The students found that, relative to survey respondents, purchasers of organic products were more likely to be younger, have a higher income and education level, and be black or Asian/Pacific Islander. Similarly, purchasers of unscented products were more likely to be older, male, have fewer children, and a higher formal education level, with purchasers of scented products likely to be younger, with less formal education.

Respondents expressed moderate concern about environmental issues but, on average, fragrances in personal care products ranked last among eleven environmental issues, including air pollution (1st), biodiversity loss (5th), and global climate change (8th).

Twenty-five percent of all respondents reported seeking information about fragrances in personal care products, with 68% reporting that they read product labels. Only 23% of respondents knew that the government does not require that all fragrance chemicals be listed on personal care products. However, approximately 80% of respondents supported government regulation of labeling for ingredients in personal care products.

The 22% of respondents who knew someone whose health was impacted by fragrances in personal care products were more likely to buy organic and unscented products, read ingredient labels, seek information, and be concerned about fragrance chemicals.

In general, respondents were more concerned about health issues compared to environmental issues. Respondents who use organic and unscented products generally were more concerned about health and the environment, and supported government intervention. Respondents who seek information and read labels were more likely to use organic and unscented products; however, current regulations prevent full transparency of ingredients.

The REACH IGERT researchers concluded that consumers need accessible information that details both health and environmental consequences. They recommended drafting policy regulations on both chemical products used and labeling in personal care products, and economic tools that provided incentives for industry transparency in ingredient use.

Address Goals

The UC Davis REACH IGERT researchers have disseminated their work to both academic and public audiences, and worked diligently to involve agencies and the personal care products industry in a discussion about fragranced personal care products as an emerging environmental issue.

The students described their research results in the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center public lecture series, which provides a forum for community members to hear from scientific experts in topics pertinent to the region. Over 50 members of the public attended, with several others who told outreach director Heather Segale that they were interested but unable to attend because of multiple chemical sensitivity. The lecture was videotaped and is available for public viewing on UCTV.

In a separate interview with Capital Public Radio host David Watts Barton, researcher Meredith Niles said, “We wanted to understand…what drives people’s behavior….People are really interested in knowing what’s in personal care products, but we have a government policy that prevents this from happening. We’re looking at the policy implications of the research and we’re working collaboratively to communicate outside academia about our research. Our work supports improved disclosure of products, not only because the public has a right to know but because people who have that information choose products that are better for the environment.”

The UC Davis REACH IGERT researchers subsequently presented their results in a workshop open to the public and academic researchers, with specific invitations to representatives from government agencies, the personal care product industry, and non-profit organizations. However, in spite of repeated overtures to specific individuals from both regulatory agencies and the private sector, only one agency representative and no personnel from industry were willing to attend the workshop.

The students currently are preparing several manuscripts that describe their research process and results. Further, their proposal for an organized paper session on emerging environmental issues was accepted for inclusion in the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America, with a slate of speakers to address a variety of such issues.