A new study commissioned by an advocacy group has found that of 17 popular perfumes tested at random, all contained ingredients that weren't listed on the label, including substances the group says may cause allergic reactions in some people and other substances the group says pose potential health risks.
"You really don't know what you're getting," said Jane Houlihan, chief author of the study, which was commissioned by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a consortium of environmental and women's health groups.
The products tested included scents from Chanel and Calvin Klein, promoted by celebrities like Christy Turlington, Keira Knightly and Britney Spears, and the average number of unlisted ingredients contained by the fragrances was 14. The CSC says the study's results show the weakness of federal regulations, which do not currently require perfume-makers to list all ingredients on perfume labels.
"Almost any chemical can be put in any fragrance," said Houlihan, who is vice president for research at the Environmental Working Group, one of the primary partners in the CSC. "It is a self-regulated industry."
Representatives of the perfume makers note that they are in full compliance with the law, since the Food and Drug Administration does not require companies to disclose all ingredients in perfume on labels. Dr. John Bailey, chief scientist at the Personal Care Products Council, a Washington-based trade association for perfume manufacturers, criticized the scientific merits of the study.
"There is every reason to have confidence in the safety of the product that consumers have used for dozens of years," said Dr. Bailey. "From a scientific perspective, the information that is presented simply does not support the assertions they are making.
The CSC's analysis of the results of the perfume tests, which were conducted by an independent California lab, show that all 17 perfumes contained sensitizing chemicals that the CSC said may lead to allergic reactions like wheezing and headaches in some people. The study also found that all of the perfumes contained at least one of several chemicals that some studies have suggested may be linked to hormone disruption, including, in some cases, diethyl phthalate (DEP), a common perfume solvent.
The analysis found DEP in 12 of 17 products tested, including Halle, J. Lo Glow, Britney Spears Curious, and Hannah Montana Secret Celebrity. The levels ranged from 30 parts per million to 32,000 ppm in Calvin Klein's Eternity for Women.
Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Rochester recently reported that heightened levels of phthalate in the blood may be associated with abnormal development of reproductive organs in baby boys. Phthalates are a group of chemicals that have been linked by researchers to endocrine disruption in animals.
Jane Houlihan of the CSC argues that phthalates like DEP in perfume add to the overall levels in the body, and any reduction of exposure is a good thing, given the Harvard and Rochester studies.
Houlihan acknowledges that there is no research that has determined what levels in a perfume might translate to measurable heath risks. According to the CSC study, "Scientists are still trying to understand the human health implication of lifelong cumulative exposure to mixtures of hormonally active chemicals."
The FDA's web site, meanwhile, says that people are exposed to phthalates from a variety of products and that "it's not clear what effect, if any, phthalates have on health." The FDA says that at the present time it "does not have compelling evidence that phthalates, as used in cosmetics, pose a safety risk," but says that it "continues to monitor consumers' potential exposure to phthalates through the use of cosmetic products."
Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency put eight phthalates on a "chemicals of concern list," pointing to human studies showing possible links with health problems and tests indicating effects on the reproductive systems of male lab animals. High doses of some phthalates have been shown to change hormone levels and cause birth defects in rodents. DEP, however, was not one of the eight phthalates placed on the list by the EPA.
Dr. Bailey of the Personal Care Products Council said in a statement that the assertions in the CSC report that some fragrance ingredients could be hormone disruptors are based on incomplete assessments of available scientific data about potential hormone affects and do not take into account actual exposure in cosmetic products: "[The amounts of the substances] measured [in this report] are tens of thousands of times less than what would be expected to cause effects in humans. The weight of evidence in hormone disruption science today does not support the conclusions presented in this report."
But a doctor interviewed by ABC News insisted consumers should pay attention to this study, which he said is part of a growing body of science that indicates that exposure to hormone disruptors like DEP may have negative consequences.
"In this country we assume chemicals are safe, people buy them and keep their fingers crossed," said Dr. Phil Landrigan, a pediatrician who is Chair of Preventative Medicine at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York. Landrigan, who has recently conducted studies on DEP, has evaluated Environmental Working Group reports in the past, although he has no financial relationship with the group.
Landrigan noted that the European Union has stricter controls governing the use of chemicals in perfumes and therefore international perfume manufacturers often create two products, one with fewer chemicals for Europe, and one for the United States. "That's just sick to me," he said.
Landrigan said he recommends to pregnant women to minimize exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals found in fragrances. "They shouldn't buy perfume unless it is phthalate free."
An analysis of the study results by the EWG also found that a majority of the unlabeled ingredients found in the perfumes have no published safety assessments.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D.-Ill.) is drafting a bill that would require pre-testing of the products used in perfumes and would prohibit the use of any products linked to cancer or birth defects. The bill would also close what the CSC had described as a loophole, and require companies to fully disclose the chemical ingredients in perfumes.
"Consumers have no way of protecting themselves from what we know to be hazardous chemicals in cosmetics," said Schakowsky.
Perfume manufacturers Elizabeth Arden, Victoria's Secret, Chanel and Boom! LLC, makers of many of the fragrances mentioned in the study, did not respond by press time to a request for comment.
Coty Inc., the company that manufactures Calvin Klein Eternity, Halle, and J. Lo Glow, said that all of Coty Inc.'s products are safe, and meet all regulatory and legal requirements in all countries in which they are sold. "As a recognized leader in global beauty, Coty is proud of our safety record and we are committed to maintaining the highest possible safety standards," according to a statement given to ABC News.
Leila Taha contributed reporting to this article.