- - Wednesday, January 14, 2015

What’s coming to America? It could be European-style regulations on perfumes. And colognes. And other fragrances.

Perfume is a $6.1 billion industry in the U.S. and $29 billion worldwide. Add to that the billions more spent to create other fragrances used in soaps, lotions, deodorants, detergents and other household products.

But Europe is banning several key ingredients, especially oak moss, a natural growth which is part of Chanel No. 5. European Union regulators say the moss can cause dermatitis in between 1 percent to 3 percent of users. Skin rash isn’t fatal, but EU bureaucrats have dictated that oak moss must die. It is Tabu — unless perfumers somehow can extract the atronol and chloroatranol chemicals from the moss. (Hint: This is not home chemistry.)

The EU edicts become effective this year, including 12 items that supposedly are at the heart of 90 percent of all best-selling perfumes. But Knowing for sure is Impossible, because makers have an Obsession about keeping their ingredients secret. Changing classic formulas is a nightmare. Nobody wants to suffer as Coca-Cola did in 1985 when it tampered with its secret formula and created the biggest marketing disaster of all time — New Coke.

Also on the EU list are linalool, a plant ingredient used for lavender, and citral, found in lemon and tangerine oils. L’Oreal is concerned that the EU is banning a man-made substance used in their perfumes, called lyral.

Several companies are taking voluntary steps to avoid U.S. adoption of the EU standards. They fear that the Food and Drug Administration (which regulates cosmetics) and the Environmental Protection Agency (which regulates all types of chemicals) will get in on the action. The EPA already publishes a “Fragrance Ingredient List,” which it says tracks substances that can be used to mask pesticide odors without having to get special EPA approval.

Groups like the Environmental Defense Fund are pushing for full disclosure of all ingredients of scented products. That might work for household cleaners, where fragrances are an afterthought. But for makers of perfume, the scent is everything.

Getting ahead of the regulators, Target stores have announced a Sustainable Product Standard, with incentives for suppliers who publicly disclose the ingredients in cleaning and personal care products. Wal-Mart created a Sustainable Chemistry Policy that actually requires its suppliers to disclose those ingredients online. Clorox gets out front with its Preferred Ingredient Calculator. S.C. Johnson & Son has created a website (WhatsInsideSCJohnson.com/) to list the contents of its products, which include Glade, Windex, Raid and Pledge.

Those disclosures might keep the environmental movement satisfied for now, but it doesn’t solve things for the perfume industry. The International Fragrance Association has adopted self-regulation standards in self-defense as well as to promote responsibility. IFRA uses a panel of experts and researchers to evaluate each of the 186 substances that have been called into question.

But trying to stay ahead of regulators and aggressive environmental groups is unpredictable, especially when lawyers elevate matters under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Several years ago, a federal jury in Detroit returned a $10.6 million verdict against a radio station that didn’t stop a worker from wearing Tresor perfume. The plaintiff, a co-worker at the station, said the aroma triggered her allergic reactions and prevented her from hosting her radio show. A skeptical judge reduced the verdict, but it has spawned copycat lawsuits.

Genuine allergic reactions do exist, but regulators can overreact, too. When the European Union can recite nothing worse than skin rash for at most 3 percent of users, how does that justify forcing perfume makers to reinvent their scents? Those are the wearers, not their neighbors. People allergic to milk, eggs, shellfish or other foods rightly avoid personal consumption but they don’t try to have products containing those removed from the marketplace.

Reports say 85 percent of American women wear perfume, and 36 percent wear it daily. Federal regulators had better be mighty careful before they mess with those ladies.

Ernest Istook is in recovery from serving 14 years as a Republican congressman from Oklahoma. Sign up for his free email newsletter here

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