Although they may contain smells that imitate a mountain breeze or spring flowers, many personal care and household products contain chemicals with negative health effects, ranging from skin and throat irritation to carcinogenicity.
U.S. product manufacturers are not required to list all ingredients on product packaging because they are considered trade secrets, so it is difficult for consumers to make informed purchasing decisions. For example, the term “fragrance” on the label can refer to a combination of several hundred chemicals, including some that are hazardous.
In a move driven by consumer demand and potential liability, and not regulatory policy, companies are voluntarily taking actions to disclose and sometimes limit the chemicals used in fragrances.
Procter & Gamble, a multinational manufacturer of family, personal care and household products, has taken steps toward greater transparency of the ingredients in its products by making public a list on its website of more than 140 chemicals it rejects in product fragrances. In 2012, Procter & Gamble also disclosed a list of ingredients in its fragrance palette.
Some of the chemicals the manufacturer excludes are linked to endocrine disruption, reproductive toxicity and even cancer. These chemicals, however, continue to be used by other companies in products on the market.
"I’m very encouraged and impressed by the Procter & Gamble announcement and optimistic that before long fragrance ingredients will be fully transparent in the global market," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), in a press release. "The trend toward full transparency — in food, personal care, cleaning products and many other categories -- is not just undeniable; it’s accelerating and irreversible."
The EWG "uses the power of information to protect public health and the environment." As an organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment, it works towards greater transparency, research and education to drive consumer choice and civic action.
Such organizations can help educate the public about the importance of greater product transparency, especially when adequate governmental regulations are lacking. This in turn fuels consumer demand for safer products. The recent transparency initiatives by Procter & Gamble illustrate that consumer demand is shaping corporate actions.
SC Johnson has taken similar steps toward greater transparency by creating its WhatsInsideSCJohnson.com ingredient website. It has also revealed 100 percent of its fragrance ingredients to the component level for the new Glade Fresh Citrus Blossoms Collection. SC Johnson's decision is monumental because it's the first time a major company has agreed to fully disclose the composition of product fragrances.
In addition to consumer demand, companies can be held liable for the health impacts of their products. Johnson & Johnson was recently ordered to pay $72 million in damages to a woman's family whose death from ovarian cancer was linked to her use of talc-based Baby Powder and Shower to Shower over several decades. The company also faces several hundred other lawsuits related to its failure to warn customers about the cancer risk of its talc-based products.
The U.S. government has primarily taken a passive “innocent until proven guilty” approach to the use of chemicals in household products and commerce in general. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has required testing on only a handful of the chemicals used in commerce today under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Only if a chemical is shown to present “unreasonable risk to human health or the environment” does the EPA actually regulate it.
It seems market forces, not government regulation, are shaping corporate action, with the recent transparency moves by Procter & Gamble and SC Johnson as prime examples. Brand value is seriously eroded when consumers fear bringing these products into their homes. Taking voluntary actions to protect human health seems like the best way to respond to emerging concerns over product safety.
Image credit: Flickr/Aqua Mechanical
Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.