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CBI Claims Side-Step Your Right to Know

CBI Means Companies Continue to Hide Fragrance Ingredients

Director of Programs and Policy, Jamie McConnell
Jamie McConnell
Deputy Director

The California Cleaning Product Right to Know Act passed in 2017 and became the first law in the nation to require disclosure of ingredients in household and institutional cleaning products online and on the product label. Prior to this law being passed companies were legally allowed to keep ingredients in cleaning products a secret, even if those ingredients were linked to cancer, infertility, birth defects, allergies, or other health impacts. 

Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE), along with our partners Environmental Working Group, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, and Natural Resources Defense Council, and others worked diligently to get the law passed in California, knowing that because of the state’s large economy, any law passed in the state becomes a de facto national standard. 

Disclosure for cleaning products has been an issue WVE has been working on since 2007 when we released our report Household Hazards and realized that cleaning product companies were not disclosing ingredients besides what may be required on a safety data sheet — making it very hard to assess what kind of exposure risks may be associated with chemicals used in these products. So, in 2007 we started pushing for more disclosure, recognizing the more we know about what’s in them, the better we can advocate for safer products. 

The Fight for Fragrance Disclosure

When we talked to cleaning product companies one of the main sticking points when it came to disclosure was ingredients used in fragrance. Fragrance is used as a powerful marketing tool, meant to instill brand loyalty for your favorite scent. Yet fragrance can contain dozens of chemicals to make a scent smell like a tropical breeze or a citrus field, and companies were adamantly maintaining that all those ingredients should be a trade secret. We disagree, pointing to the incredible advances in reverse engineering, which easily enables a competitor to find out what ingredients are used in signature scents. And, really, people using these products have a fundamental right to know what ingredients they were being exposed to. 

Which is why we were elated when the California Cleaning Product Right to Know Act passed. FINALLY we were going to break the black box around fragrance secrecy and give people the right to know what’s in fragrance. Of course, we didn’t get all we wanted out of the law. We and our partners negotiated the language, which meant we made some compromises around fragrance/product ingredients, particularly around confidential business information (CBI) for an ingredient or fragrance composition. 

In the law, fragrance is defined as an intentionally-added ingredient and includes disclosure of essential oils. The law states:

  • Any intentionally added substance or complex mixture of aroma chemicals, natural essential oils, and other functional ingredient or ingredients for which the sole purpose is to impart an odor or scent, or to counteract an odor.
  • “Intentionally added ingredient” means a chemical that a manufacturer has intentionally added to a designated product and that has a functional or technical effect in the designated product, including, but not limited to, the components of intentionally added fragrance ingredients and colorants and intentional breakdown products of an added chemical that also have a functional or technical effect in the designated product.

For fragrance ingredients, the law only requires disclosure when they are present in the product at a concentration above 100 ppm.

However, CBI can be claimed for ingredients if they meet the following criteria:

  • The ingredient or combination of ingredients has been approved by the EPA for inclusion in the Toxic Substances Control Act’s confidential inventory.
  • A manufacturer or a supplier claims the ingredient or combination of ingredients as a trade secret under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act.

There is an important exception to the CBI language. The law also does not allow companies to claim trade secrets/CBI for ingredients that appear on an authoritative list no matter what level the ingredient is present in the product. The authoritative lists are lists the government has created that identify chemicals as harmful, and are specifically identified in the law. So any fragrance ingredient present in the product, that appears on an authoritative list, must still be disclosed even if it is present at a concentration less than 100ppm.

Hiding Behind CBI

The question now is, what kind of disclosure are we seeing for fragrance ingredients as a result of the Cleaning Product Right to Know Act? The answer is mixed. While we are certainly seeing more fragrance ingredients disclosed (see our recent report Beyond the Label which highlights some of the toxic ingredients we are finding in fragrance as a result of disclosure) there are still a lot of companies that are choosing to disclose only the bare minimum, and hiding the rest of the ingredients, presumably as confidential business information, or not disclosing any fragrance ingredients at all.  

For example:

Simple Green is mostly just listing “fragrance” in products and not disclosing any of the ingredients in the fragrance. 

Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard’s brand, Hello Bello, lists “natural fragrance” but doesn’t list what’s actually in the fragrance. 

And yet another celebrity brand started by Kris Jenner and Crissy Teigen, Safely, just lists “fragrance.” 

ECOS also lists “natural fragrance” for most products, although they do disclose allergens. (Note: ECOS has told us they are proactively working with their supplier to increase public-facing transparency of ingredients used in their fragrance compositions). 

Pretty much all of Clorox’s cleaning products disclose only the fragrance ingredients found on authoritative lists, and the rest of the fragrance ingredients are withheld. 

Other examples include Weiman Cleaning Products, Simply Done Ultra Laundry Detergent, Our Family Mountain Fresh Laundry Detergent, and institutional cleaners like Spartan Chemical and Fulton Distributing. 

It is unlikely that all the fragrance ingredients in the products noted above are below 100ppm. Instead, it appears companies or their suppliers are taking the easy route and claiming CBI for the entire fragrance composition, rather than figuring out what individual fragrance ingredients may deserve CBI protection.  

Stronger Protections Needed for Public Health

It also points to weaknesses in the law in that it still allows companies and suppliers to make broad CBI claims and withhold ingredient information from the public. It’s a common practice for suppliers to withhold the ingredients used in the fragrance composition as CBI from the companies that are purchasing the fragrance to use in their products. What is likely happening is manufacturers are relying on their fragrance suppliers for information needed to comply, and are clearly getting the bare minimum in ingredient information. Part of the intention of the law was to increase transparency throughout the supply chain and give companies, especially smaller ones, more leverage to demand that information from suppliers. So far it doesn’t seem to be always working out that way. 

This makes it clear that any federal legislation considered needs to address the continued secrecy around fragrance ingredients. This could be remedied by:

  • Requiring disclosure of fragrance ingredients under 100 ppm
  • Not allowing CBI for entire fragrance compositions, only for individual ingredients
  • Requiring justification for claiming CBI to be made available for review by the public

Passing the Cleaning Product Right to Know Act in California wasn’t the end to our work on increasing disclosure of ingredients in fragrance. The law has been incredibly helpful in moving ingredient disclosure forward, but its implementation also reveals just how intractable suppliers are being to hold fragrance compositions/ingredients as CBI. This must be considered if any action is taken on the federal level to introduce legislation.

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