Unilever's Game-Changing Decision to Reveal Fragrance Ingredients

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Public Domain. Dove

Listing of specific ingredients under the mysterious "fragrance" catch-all has never been required by the government; Unilever's voluntary move to list them is a big deal.

We talk about fragrance a lot around here. And not just fragrance as in perfume, but as the chaotic mix of chemicals responsible for giving everyday products their olfactory pizzaz. Almost always it's not actual lavender (or rose or almond or a whole fresh meadow) scenting your soap, but a mix of synthetic chemicals linked to allergies and other health effects.

For ages, the FDA has allowed the word “fragrance” on soap, shampoo, skincare and other personal care product labels to cover all of the various chemicals included – companies have said this was proprietary information. As consumer watchdog group EWG notes, "For the most part, personal care product companies and fragrance manufacturers have resisted calls for disclosure, and “fragrance” has remained a black box for hundreds of chemicals in thousands of everyday products."

But now industry giant Unilever has decided to buck the trend in announcing a new initiative to provide detailed information on fragrance ingredients for all products in its multibillion-dollar portfolio of personal care brands, including Dove, Noxzema, Lever 2000 and NEXXUS.

It is an unprecedented leap toward transparency for a major company and a landmark win for consumers’ right to know, says EWG President and Co-Founder Ken Cook.

“Unilever’s action is a game-changer for transparency in the personal care product market, and we expect other major companies to follow suit,” Cook adds.

A statement from Unilever notes that the initiative includes:

Fragrance ingredient disclosure. This year Unilever will start to voluntarily disclose online the fragrance ingredients included in individual products (down to 0.01% of the product formulation) along with details of the scent the fragrance ingredients bring to the product. Unilever aims to complete this by 2018.

A What’s in our Products section on Unilever websites. The new section provides people with access to information beyond the label, such as Unilever’s approach to developing safe products, explanations of ingredient types and answers to common questions. Individual product information, which will be updated to include the fragrance ingredients, is also provided so that people can look up ingredients and understand their function on the product.

Enhanced fragrance allergen information. In Europe, Unilever products are already labelled with fragrance allergens in line with regulations. In addition, our new voluntary online search tool will be launched to support people with allergies to find suitable products for them. In the US, Unilever will voluntarily expand its labelling of fragrance allergens on pack to cover the full Unilever personal care portfolio.

“We are committed to ensuring people have the information they need to choose the right product for them. So that is exactly what we are doing, going the extra mile beyond what is already on the label. We strongly believe that providing this transparency will help build further trust in Unilever and our brands,” says Unilever’s Chief Research and Development Officer, David Blanchard.

“This is an enormous win for consumers’ right to know,” says Cook.

“With this impressive display of leadership, Unilever has broken open the black box of fragrance chemicals and raised the bar for transparency across the entire personal care products industry – and beyond,” he says. “It may not happen overnight, but Unilever’s watershed actions will place enormous pressure on the rest of the market to respond and make it very difficult for other companies to continue to shield their fragrance ingredients from consumers.”

Many TreeHugger readers will still choose to use all-natural products or homemade remedies, but the ability to actually see what's in a product and be able to make an informed choice is the kind of transparency we need to see more of.