By Maija Witte
The Unilever family is made up of some of the most popular and recognizable brands in the world. With brands like Caress, Axe, Degree, Suave, St. Ives and Dove, Unilever products are often considered to be safe, trustworthy and great for the whole family. Over the years, Unilever has developed ambitious social marketing campaigns to address women’s body confidence issues, to help millions gain access to toilets, and to help cultivate more sustainable farming of vegetables and teas. However, despite their efforts to promote sustainable practices that strengthen women’s self-esteem, farmers and the planet, Unilever’s concern for sustainability is sorely lacking in one key area: fragrance ingredient disclosure.
What’s the big deal with fragrance?
Although it’s just one little word on an ingredient label, fragrance can contain dozens to more than 100 chemicals—including known carcinogens, hormone-disruptors, environmental toxicants and other chemicals of concern. In fact, fragrance allergies affect two to 11 percent of the general population.[i],[ii] This translates into tens of millions of people who are globally affected by fragrance, and studies suggest that this chemical sensitivity is on the rise.
Due to a gaping hole in federal law, companies like Unilever are not required to list the secret, and often toxic, ingredients that give a product its scent. Cosmetic companies argue the hidden ingredients in “Fragrance” should be protected as trade secrets, as it is a signature of their products. However fragrances like most other chemical concoctions, can be reverse engineered and reproduced. Despite arguments to the contrary made by the fragrance industry, these “proprietary ingredients” end up being not-so-secret after all.
Putting a Human Face on Unilever’s Lack of Fragrance Disclosure
In 2016, supporters of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics sent thousands of letters to Unilever after learning about Brandon Silk, a young man with a life-threatening allergy to Axe body sprays. Brandon was not able to live a normal life, missing out on the joys of his youth including going to high school, prom, and other important life milestones because of his severe allergy to the popular body spray. Despite pleas by Brandon and his mother to find out what the ingredients of Axe fragrance were so Brandon could avoid the ingredient and move on, Unilever refused to disclose this vital information.
Without fragrance ingredient disclosure, it is impossible for consumers, like Brandon, to avoid problematic ingredients, or for researchers and regulators to understand the full universe of ingredients used to formulate cosmetic products to make products safer and healthier for consumers across the globe.
Is anyone disclosing fragrance?
Even though it’s not legally required, hundreds of beauty and personal care companies are disclosing fragrance ingredients on their product labels anyway – because it’s the right thing to do. Unilever could rise as a leader for the rest of the $71 billion cosmetics industry by fully disclosing the fragrance ingredients in its products and the safety data associated with those ingredients.
What can I do?
We created a petition here to urge Unilever to stand up for public health and consumer right-to-know by fully disclosing hidden fragrance ingredients on its product labels. Please lend your voice to this important issue by signing our petition today. We have a right to know what is going into our products, onto our bodies, and how it might be affecting us.
[i]  Schnuch, A., Lessmann, H., Geier, J., Frosch, P.J., and Uter, W. (2004) Contact allergy to fragrances: Frequencies of sensitization from 1996 to 2002. Results of the IVDK. Contact Dermatitis. Vol. 50. pp. 65-76. 2004. & Schafer, T., Bohler, E., Ruhdorfer, S., Weigl, L., Wessner, D., Filipiak, B., Wichmann, H.E., and Ring, J. (2001) Epidemiology of contact allergy in adults. Allergy. Vol. 56. pp: 19992- 1996.