Olaplex, infertility & what it really tells us about choosing beauty products

Unpacking the truth about lilial & the EU Scientific Committee for Consumer Safety…

After watching a broad spectrum of reporting (and TikTok videos) on the topic of infertility and Olaplex, I felt that I had to weigh in. Maybe you’ve seen the articles, TikToks and Instagram stories about Olaplex and infertility, with influencers throwing away costly product and swearing off it. 

What is the drama? What is the science? And should YOU be worried? 

Very simply, Olaplex No. 3, the at-home hair repair ‘miracle’ product, has been flagged for containing butylphenyl methylpropional – more commonly known as lilial in it. It was also present in their No. 1 & No. 2 products. Was? More on that in a moment.

First, let me explain what lilial is. It’s role in cosmetics and beauty products is as a sweet smelling fragrance – many describe it as “Lily of the Valley” in terms of smell. You would probably be surprised how many products contain it. For example, a simple search for butylphenyl methylpropional on Sephora’s offerings returns 143 results – but this is just the products that disclose this component within their ingredient list. Fragrance or parfum components in cosmetics, and other beauty products, are often considered to be trade secrets – by both the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the FDA in the US, which means that unless explicity requested, companies do not have to disclose the components of their fragrances on the label – they can simply label “fragrance” “parfum” or similar. 

“Fragrance and flavor formulas are complex mixtures of many different natural and synthetic chemical ingredients, and they are the kinds of cosmetic components that are most likely to be “trade secrets.””

FDA, Fragrance in Cosmetics, 2022

So why is the EU Scientific Comittee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) concerned? 

Back in 2019, the committee made a recommendation that lilial (by all its different names) be phased out of cosmetic and personal care products – due to its concerns about the potential for reprotoxic effects. 

Essentially, at certain concentrations, lilial was demonstrated to have negative effects on both the male and female reproductive systems – particularly on eggs and sperm – and also to have impacts on development during pregnancy. It also stated that the safety data around gene mutation and chromosomal damage was not conclusive. 

However, here are some things to remember: the safety data is based on:

  1. Animal studies *trigger warning*
  2. Using 15 beauty products containing lilial and still only getting 1/80th of the safety limit in a day

By comparison: the amount contained in a perfume is 70 times higher than in a hair product – and it is aerosolized, increasing your absorption through your lungs.

“On individual product basis, Butylphenyl methylpropional (p-BMHCA) (CAS 80-54-6) with alpha-tocopherol at 200 ppm, can be considered safe when used as fragrance ingredient in different cosmetic leave-on and rinse-off type products. However, considering the first-tier deterministic aggregate exposure, arising from the use of different product types together, Butylphenyl methylpropional at the proposed concentrations cannot be considered as safe.”

EU Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety, OPINION ON
the safety of Butylphenyl methylpropional (p-BMHCA) in cosmetic products
– Submission II –
, 2019.

So while there was the potential for toxic effects on reproduction – the decision of the committee was primarily put in place to prevent potential harm – there has been no documented cases of lilal causing human infertility. But this approach to phasing out ingredients with potential adverse effects is a positive step – because it is encouraging companies to be proactive in removing them from their manufacturing. 

The reason these findings are being focussed on now is because in the EU and Northern Ireland there was a 1 March deadline to remove this component from all personal care products – although they can continue to be used in household cleaners, detergents and laundry powders.

Wait, so why did you say WAS present?

The good news is that this finding MAY be the start of a cascade of change in the cosmetic industry. As I already mentioned, lilial is not the only product that has potential reprotoxic effects – a unknown number of them do. 

Olaplex has proactively removed this component from their products since the start of 2022 – ahead of the 1 March regulatory guideline – and has done it not just in the EU and Northern Ireland – but globally – even though there was no requirement for them to do so. Before you throw out your Olaplex product, or change hairdressers, just check the back of the ingredient list to determine whether this is the updated formulation excluding lilial. And the amounts that were contained in the original formulation were not at a level that was likely to cause harm to your fertility or unborn child – infertility is not likely to have been directly caused by Olaplex.

Another positive note about Olaplex is that while they did have products contained lilial – they have always excluded a variety of other significant endocrine disrupting chemicals including phthalates, parabens, formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing chemicals. So compared to many other products on the market, they have made mindful steps in their manufacturing to move away from many harmful chemicals that are common in the beauty industry. 

One of the biggest places that endocrine disrupting chemicals hide in the beauty industry is in the fragrance component – because they do not have to disclose these components under trade secret protections. So how can you avoid them? 

  1. By making a switch to a fragrance free product  or one with a  natural fragrance component (make sure they disclose their whole ingredient list for this).
  2. Request an ingredient disclosure for the fragrance component if you have a product you can’t live without – you can then research the components on the Environmental Working Group’s SkinDeep list.
  3. Lobby your favourite companies to make a change: for your health, our childrens’ health and the health of the environment. If they won’t – walk away with your dollars.

You don’t have to do this all at once, and you don’t have to do it at all! But if you want ONE place to start: you are better off switching or ditching your spray perfume, these are more likely to have impacts than your hair care products. 

We can contribute to change – by switching to products that do not include artificial fragrances, by mindfully supporting brands that are making manufacturing changes and by lobbying our favourite companies to make the transition to a hormone-healthy formulation and away from chemicals that are making negative impacts on our health and the health of future generations. 

Don’t cancel Olaplex: they are getting so many things right.

Say it with me: it’s all about informed choices.

You can read the full opinion from the EU Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety here *trigger warning* extensive reference to animal testing in this document

You can view Olaplex’s explanation and Q&A on lilial and the changes they’ve made here

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